A response

Sep 10, 2018 · 11 min read

Much has been written about the singing of Christian Compositions by some Carnatic Musicians that it does not warrant any repetition here. In the course of these arguments, some musicians and music historians have made certain unjustifiable claims. The names of Tyagarajaswami and Sri. Muttusvami Dikshitar were dragged to corroborate their claims. Even Sri. Arunagirinatha’s name was mentioned out of context[i] for using the word ‘salaam’, which was simply a part of the borrowed vocabulary influenced by the dynamics of the society and court at that time. Excerpts from their works were cited as examples of ‘collaboration’, ‘inspiration’ and ‘borrowing’ and ‘harmony’ with the other. In addition, every other opposing view is labelled as ‘bigotry’ or ‘the views of Hindutva extremists’ who do not understand the technicalities and history of music[ii]. Further, musicians have demanded ‘evidence’ for specific instances of plagiarism that has occurred in the past or present. This response will restrict itself to examining the veracity of the following claims:

o Inspiration and Borrowing is part of ‘tradition’ o Religious intolerance is a sign of the present times. o Tyagarajaswami could have been inspired by the compositions of Kavirayar Vedanayakam and specific examples of plagiarism o Dikshitar’s use of Celtic and Irish Tunes and the appellation ‘christian’ applied to them.

Inspiration and Borrowing is part of ‘tradition

Dikshitar’s use of phrases from various stotras were cited as examples that such borrowal has always been a part of tradition[iii]. Dikshitar makes a reference to the Amnaya stotram, that every Srividya upasaka knows, in his first composition Srinathadi guruguho jayati. Similarly there are stotras of Sankaracharya that he repurposes in his SriBhargavi. The traditional interpretation considers these as homages paid to a guru parampara. This aspect is best summarized by Mahamaheshvara Abhinavaguptapada, the polymath who wrote the commentary Abhinavabharati on the Natyasastra

ऊर्ध्वोर्ध्वमारुह्य यदर्थतत्त्वं धीः पश्यति श्रान्तिमवेदयन्ती। फलं तदाद्यैः परिकल्पितानां विवेकसोपानपरम्पराणाम्॥

Translation: The ultimate cause which the mind perceives As it ascends higher and higher without tire Rests at the end of the staircase of wisdom Created by ancient seers stair by stair (Tr. Mm. Ra.Sathyanarayana)

Yet, the same Acharya in his īśvarapratyabhijñavivṛttivimarśini, places the constraint that the sastra of mlecchas (and tradition of outsiders), while seemingly valid to its believers cannot be considered as authority in our tradition. Therefore, Indic tradition itself has rules and boundary conditions of authority and acceptability. While a person from the present times is free to disagree with Abhinavaguptapāda, they simply cannot misinterpret what constitutes a tradition in Indic thought or misrepresent its adherents to suit an agenda. Thus, in the context of Indic tradition, Tyagaraja borrowing from Ramadasa or Dikshitar borrowing from Sankaracharya is not the same as an evangelist borrowing from Tyagaraja.

Religious intolerance is a sign of the present times

The facts from the pages of history stares at us contradicting contemporary misunderstanding that “things were in harmony and everyone collaborated and lived harmoniously in the past”. The cultural environment created by the Nayakas, erstwhile vassals of the Vijayanagara Kingdom sowed the seeds of a rich cultural and religious heritage in Tanjavur. This was later fostered, patronised and continued by the Marathas. Enough primary material has been written by scholars such as Dr.V.Raghavan and Dr.S.Seetha on the rich legacy in arts, sastra and every other branch of learning left by Sahaji and his successors. Sahaji ruled Tanjavur between 1684–1712. He did not trust the Christian missionaries and did not allow them entry into the Kingdom. This is recorded by Zeigenbalgh from the Danish Mission in Tranquebar who attempted to gain entry into Tanjavur. In 1708, The Jesuits enacted the scene of St.George approaching the temple of Apollo and the idols crumbling as he approached them. They acted out the play in front of a Hindu temple and substituted the Hindu Gods for the gods of pagan Rome. When the actor made the sign of the cross and saw that there was no effect on the Hindu idols, they trampled them under foot. The brahmins and others were filled with horror at this act of aggression against their faith where idols form the fundamental core of ritual. They reported this incident to the Rajah of Tanjore who then ordered a count of the christians in his kingdom and ordered them to be punished. This inturn was termed as ‘persecution’ by missionaries.[v] However, the missionaries made inroads into Tanjavur, established themselves and the region bore witness to widespread conversion.

The second incident that I would like to highlight is the recorded conversation between Vedanayakam Kavirayar (poet) and Rajah Sarabhoji. Vedanayakam Kavirayer was a student of Fr Swartz of Tanjavur and his father had converted to christianity. This account is mentioned in the biography of Vedanayakam Kavirayar by his grandson Noah Gnanadikkam and later by Dr.Devanessen. As per the poet’s own admission, this conversation lasted for more than an hour and is summarised below[vi]:

In 1829, Vedanayakam Kavirayar met Sarabhoji Maharaja after composing a song on him, establishing a cordial relationship between them. He composed a song on the theme of “Noah’s ark” and was awarded a hundred gold coins for his poetic prowess. The Raja however warned him not to take anyone along with him to his faith. The poet responded that he didn’t baptise people and that he only advised them. Vedanayakam was hurt by the king’s statement and wanted to return the money but the minister Bhava Panditar clarified that he was free to compose poems in praise of his Lord and the King’s order only pertained to the religious conversion of his subjects.

Later, when the king heard Bethlehem Kuravanji composed by Vedanayakam, he requested him to compose a Kuravanji on Brhadishvara. Vedanayakam refused saying that it would be sinful to do so. The King then asked him to sing a small song on Pillaiyar instead, which was also refused. The King negotiated further saying that he would compose a song on Jesus Christ if only the poet could compose on Pillaiyar. Vedanayakam retorted that he had no doubt that the king could compose on Jesus but that he would still not compose on Pillaiyar. The King looked at his entourage and said, “He wants us to listen to the songs of his God, but even if we compose on his God, he won’t compose on ours. How is this fair?”. Vedanayakam finally responds that even elephants were able to eat and live in the kingdom and he could be treated like one or his services dismissed. To this Sarabhoji finally said, that he could continue singing on his Jesus. After Sarabhoji’s death in 1832, his son Sivaji was openly opposed to Christian missionaries due to their conversion tactics and did not encourage them in his court.

In addition Vedanayakam Kavirayar has written explicitly anti-Hindu works such as ‘Blind faith’. This continues to be printed and distributed to this day in parts of India. His biographer Dr.Devanessen writes that Vedanayaka Kaviraryar has ridiculed idol worship in his 20th Jebamalai. The following example shows how he ridiculed Hindu deities and devotees in Hindu tradition for caste issues and for marrying women from other communities:

Vedanayakam Kavirayar’s insult to the Hindu Gods

Similarly, in the year 1891–1892 during the Kumbhabhishekam at Chidambaram, traditional scholars such as Painganadu Ganapati Sastri and Nadukkaveri Srinivasa Sastri came with an action plan to counter Christian propaganda against Hindus and to protest against conversions and were part of a conference organised for this purpose. They invited their guru Mannargudi Tyagarajamakhin or Raju Sastrigal (a great scholar/teacher of the sastras and to this day, the living sastra parampara in the Advaita or Mimamsa tradition in Tamilnadu traces their guruparampara to him) to give the inaugural talk. This event took place in Chidambaram.[vii]

The final instance is a report that appeared in the Guardian, dated 1956 which outlines the opposition to the pumping of funds from outside the country for the purpose of religious conversion and refers to a report from Madhyapradesh.[viii]

Hence, there is bound to be conflict any time a faith tries to insist on exclusivism in belief and, forces its supremacy and does not believe in mutual respect. There was however no conflict when honorable individuals such as the Mayavaram Munsiff Vedanayakam Pillai (a christian) or Mahavidvan Meenakshisundaram Pillai(a Saivite) who had mutual respect for each other interacted. Mayavaram Vedanayakam Pillai even composed a ceyyul on Subrahmanya Desikar of the Tiruvavaduthurai Adheenam who fed people during the famine that happened in the dhatu varsha. He euologised and compared Desikar to Vishnu whose timely action saved Gajendra. The presence of a few upright individuals cannot be used to draw large conclusions ignoring these conflicts caused by proselytization and religious aggression of exclusivist religions.

Tyagaraja could have been inspired by the compositions of Kavirayar Vedanayakam and specific examples of plagiarism.

According to music historian V.Sriram, The composer’s contemporary, Vedanayagam Sastriar, created songs and operas in the Carnatic style. Some of the tunes are very closely modelled on Tyagaraja’s songs. ‘Sujana Jivana’ (Harikamboji) has a parallel in ‘Parama Pavana’. At this point in time it is impossible to state who borrowed whose tune and made it his own.”[iv]

The key fact here is that in his biography, Dr.Devanessen himself mentions Tyagarajasvami and compares him to Vedanayaka Kavirayar and says the following:

“Tyagaraja was a SangitaVidvan and could offer beautiful ragas. Sastriar was a poet who could write words that could be sung. So he composed songs that could be used for the worship of Jesus and was not a Sangita Vidvan like Tyagaraja. We learn from Karnaparampara that Vedanayaka Kavirayar borrowed some ragas from Tyagaraja.”

We will illustrate Sujana Jivana here. (albeit erroneously mentioned as Nattakurinji by Devanessen) along with Vedanayaka Kavirayar’s version. If this is not evidence of ‘plagiarism’ with the intent of cultural appropriation’ , what else is?

This was not the only case of appropriation. A side-by-side comparison of Bethlehem Kuravanji and Kurralakkuravanji is shown below.

KurralaKuravanji & Bethlehem Kuravanji

These cannot explained away simply as an imitation of style based on a simple act of admiration. According to a thesis[x] on the social and cultural impact of Protestant missions,

“In South Travancore, the Protestant Christians were obliged to read heathen song books like Kuttala Kuravanji, Gnana Kummi, Thiruppugal and Mukkudalpallu. It was usual with women when they had no work in the fields to go about singing songs called Pillai Tamil in the neighboring villages. Catechist Vedanayakam put a stop their reading these objectionable treatises and introduced among them christian books like Sastra Kummi, Jebamalai”.In addition, there are several researchers who have recorded that Kavirayar Vedanayakam borrowed the ideas of Harikatha and gave Kalakshepams on the story of Jesus. The word bhajanai was also appropriated by the church.

Dikshitar’s use of Celtic and Irish Tunes and the appellation ‘Christian’ applied to them

The 30-odd nottusvara compositions of Sri.Dikshitar have also been in the news in recent times and many assumptions are made about these:

Let me remind you that Muttusvami Dikshitar transformed ‘God save the gracious king/queen’ to ‘santatam pahimam Sangita shyamale’,where God is most definitely Christian and Dikshitar’s Sangita shyamale[sic], the Hindu goddess of the arts.[xi]

As mentioned by Siddhartha in his rejoinder, “Context is everything”[xii] , what Dikshitar heard would have been the melody played by the band. There is no evidence that Dikshitar heard or was aware of the lyrics of God save the King to say that he transformed God into Goddess. Further, the background of the British National Anthem and its history is contested as well. Percy Scholes, in the Oxford Companion to Music points out that the British Anthem is very similar to an early plainsong melody. and there are several dance tunes that resemble this as early as 1619. Others mention that a Scottish Carol was the original tune. Whatever may be the origin, this was not a case of transforming God into Goddess.

Second, there are several articles where the music that Dikshitar composed lyrics for is assumed to be “Christian” music. This again is far from truth. According to Kanniks Kannikeshvaran[xiii],

“It is to be reiterated that the original melodies hail from the folk and popular traditions of Europe and not from the Classical tradition.”

Many of these tunes were country dances, waltzes and marches and have very little to do with Christianity. In fact, the more you dig into the history of folk tunes in Europe, you are likely to go back to various pagan traditions such as the Druidic tradition of dancing in religious rituals which were later appropriated by the new priests and the peasants who kept the pagan style of music and dancing. While the history of the harp is contested in scholarly circles, it is amply clear that the Irish possessed this instrument in the Pre-Christian era. The fiddle too made its appearance in the Byzantine and evolved to what it is today in Europe. Dr.V. Raghavan’s note on “The Indian Origins of the violin” and the use of bowed instrument in India is available in the Journal of the Madras Music Academy for those interested in understanding these various routes.

Irish nun Margarette Anne Cusack remarks in “An illustrated History of Music”,

“It is however, a noticeable fact that the farther we extend our inquiries, the more forcibly we are directed to the East as the cradle of our music.”

While this statement may be a simplification, this is given to highlight that many European scholars do admit that the origins of some of the European folk music has ties with the East. Hence to evoke any “Christian” influence on Dikshitar makes little sense. There is however bound to be colonial influence when one culture invades and rules over another culture, imposing their way of life and restricting the native ways of life.

Let us stop going out of the way and making these unjustifiable and factually inaccurate claims about our own composers to showcase open-mindedness, an ideal notion of harmony, simply to appease the other. I wish to entreat every practicing Hindu ( who may or may not be a Hindutvavadin or a political supporter) that such careless statements against great saints and scholars of our culture be addressed, countered and the factual inconsistencies be pointed out.


[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] The History of Christianity in India from the Commencement of the Christian Era, Rev.James Hough, Vol.2 [vi] Tanjavur Suviseda Kaviraya Vedanayaka Sastiriyarin Surukkamana Charittiram, Rao Sahib Dr.D.W.Devanesan, The Christian Literature Society for India, 1947 [vii] Mannargudi Raju Sastrigalin Divya Charittiram, Y.Mahalinga Sastrigal, Mannargudi Periyava Trust. [viii] [ix] [x] The social and cultural impact of the protestant christian mission on the tamil country A D 1813 1912,Kingsley [xi] [xii] , Siddhartha Jagannathan, Blog post. [xiii]


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