Art Transcends Religious Divides

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

Two thousand nineteen marks the hundredth anniversary of the passing away of a remarkable Indian whose seminal contributions to our heritage in the classical arts merit reiterating as a new set of ministers takes charge of shaping our country’s cultural destiny in the next five years.

Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar was – as his name indicates – a Christian. He was a practitioner of traditional (Siddha) medicine in Tirunelveli and became a teacher. He studied western classical music and not only established a music organisation but also published research papers on Tamil music. His book on music, Karunamrutha sagaram, a tome of 1,356 pages, remains, according to experts, “a seminal work on music till today.” He translated kritis (which are usually in Telugu or Sanskrit ) into Tamil, which must count as an extraordinarily pioneering experiment during those days. He also composed kritis on Christ in Tamil. For his contribution to Indian music, the British administration awarded him the title of Rao Bahadur.

He attended the famous All India Music Conference at Baroda in 1916 (at a time when communication links between the north and south were not as developed as they became later) and even presented his research work during the proceedings. This was the all India conference that saw the participation of several giants in the field of Hindustani music.

In all the archival records of his life and work, there was no mention of any condemnation, either religious, sectarian or artistic, from any quarter.

As I list Pandithar’s contributions to Indian music, I can recall several others who transcended the religious-regional-parochial divides, over the years, to enrich our corpus of artistic work. Jesudas, the popular vocalist , comes to mind. His Christian upbringing has not come in the way of his eagerness to sing at the Guruvayoorappan temple in Kerala, one of the holiest of holy Hindu shrines. One of his most popular CDs is on Lord Krishna (“Swagatam Krishna”). Neither he nor his admirers see any inconsistencies in his religious affiliation and his music. Sheikha Chinnamoula Saheb, the nagaswaram artiste, is another example of a non-Hindu taking to Carnatic classical music and becoming a leading player.

The signature tune that All India Radio plays at the commencement of every transmission – a violin melody – was composed by a Parsi, the father of Zubin Mehta (the famous conductor). That tune has been in use for seven decades and is recognized nationwide. The first woman to become a professional tabla player in India was also a Parsi (Aban Mistry) and was honoured by the government last year among all time achievers among women.

Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana has, at the entrance to his apartment in suburban Mumbai, an icon of Saraswati over the door, along with a verse from the Quran. His “guru-bhai” Ustad Hafeez Ahmed Khan saheb (who was my guru ) remarked once that he saw “no contradiction – for us, music is our religion – everything else comes only after that, and merges with the sangeet”. His guru, the redoubtable Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan and his teacher in turn, Ustad Enayat Hussain Khan, both composed khayals in praise of Lord Krishna. Mind you, they were all very devout Muslims (I have known Nissar Hussain Khan saheb stop in the middle of a recording because it was “time for his afternoon namaaz”; he wanted to be buried only at the holy Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi.

These artistes were unstinting in their devotion to both music and their religion. On the other hand, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sang the khayal composition “Allah Jaane Allah Jaane” in Todi raga, which became one of the favourites with him and his admirers. Neither Joshi nor Nissar Hussain Khan drew condemnation from any quarters, including religious heads. Subramanya Bharati has composed a song that begins “Allah allah allah”.

Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, the celebrated shehnai player, was as devoted to his “Kashi Viswanathji” in Benares (Varanasi) as any devout Hindu. The legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan (father-in-law of Ravi Shankar) even named his daughter Annapurna. He too was a devotee of Goddess Saraswathi (who presides over music)

Singer Gauhar Jan (a tawaif) who was the first Indian musician to be recorded for a gramophone company in 1902, composed a thumri in praise of Lord Krishna (Tore bina mohe chain nahin, Brij ke nanda lala) that is a favourite with many leading vocalists including Ustad Rashid Khan. She was supposed to be of Armenian origin but was brought up as a Muslim and was very well off. She did not have to be asked to chant “Jai Shriram”; she went lyrical voluntarily over “Lord Krishna of Gokul”.

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, one of the leading vocalists of the twentieth century, reveled in singing Hari Om Tat Sat; fans would clamour to hear that song from him.

Examples like these, abound in the chronicles of our history, especially in the performing arts. A Malaysian male dancer named Ibrahim, is making international waves as a leading performer of Bharatanatyam. He is a Muslim; another male dancer in Mumbai, Father Francis Borbosa, is likewise a Bharatanatyam performer, his Christian origins notwithstanding.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom”, has been the core cultural philosophy throughout our history, and that has made the subcontinent one of the most culturally vibrant and multi-faceted areas that has been enriched by several religious traditions (Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and even Greek).

So, shall we say, “let a thousand flowers bloom”? A rose, a carnation and a champa can co-exist, without edging each other out. Especially in the arts, “enrichment” from all sources is the essence of evolution and progress, not “editing out”. That should be our “cultural policy” in the next five years and beyond.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a vocalist with national awards in both North and South Indian music. She has been guest faculty in both styles at the postgraduate level in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

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