A Vile Social Media Campaign Is Communalising Carnatic Music

Despite Christian Carnatic music being an established genre, self-proclaimed 'saviours' of Hinduism are attacking singers through a social media hate campaign in Tamil Nadu.

The problem with ‘saviours of culture’ is that often they have no clue about what they want to save. Their goal is to tear up the secular fabric of a space. Ignored as they are in Tamil Nadu, slowly but quietly, radical, ‘intolerant’ (the word that riles them up) right-wing voices have been trying to create a ruckus in whatever manner they can. Latest in their series of imagined “Xtian conspiracies” in Tamil Nadu is in the world of Carnatic music. On August 6, artiste O.S. Arun was at the receiving end of a vile hate campaign on social media. He was to sing at an event titled Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham conceptualised by T. Samuel Joseph (Shyaam).

Shyaam is a well-known face in Carnatic circles. He is a friend of an entire galaxy of yesteryear musicians. He was a student of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, the Carnatic violin virtuoso composed, taught and performed Christian Carnatic music for decades. This would have been just another musical event organised by Shyaam, but it was not to be. Trouble began brewing on social media when Hindu and mostly Brahmin handles claimed Arun was working with ‘stooges of the Vatican’ to proselytise Hindus.

Anyone capable of abusing artistes on social media also has access to Google. A simple search would have thrown up several news pieces reiterating Shyaam’s connections to both film and Carnatic music. This leap in imagination and the manufactured outrage of right wingers and Tamil Brahmins snowballed and Arun cancelled the event. On his Facebook account, he posted, “Dear Friends & Rasikas, Due to personal commitments the 25th August event stands cancelled. Regards, Arun (sic).” As there was no other information, he may well have cancelled it for personal reasons and that would have been the end of discussion.

Targeted on social media

However, one simply needs to read the comments on this post to see how emboldened hate is today. One comment claimed that if the artiste was so desperate for money, “Hindus would collect funds and give it to him”, while another said, “Being a guardian of Carnatic music and a descendant of a very illustrious Bhagavatha family, you should never have agreed for this event at all.” A user wrote, “But what about those Christmas songs that you have already sung with a cross dangling from your neck? Ain’t that cheap? If you have converted, stop singing Carnatic – you can join some of those TVs run by them and let us all know!” Tellingly, one comment said, “Appreciate your understanding of our feelings and your proactive good decision,” written by “Sivanarayanan K., president, World Brahmins Welfare Association”.

One comment speculated that the Tamil Nadu head of Hindu Makkal Katchi had called Arun to tell him no Hindu musician should sing for people who are ‘converting’ others. Arun agreed with this, the comment claimed, and “he wanted the message to be spread”. Another comment threatened boycott, “You don’t seem to regret for your action and instead as a face saving coming out with a simple message. Firstly you shouldn’t have agreed for this programme. We never expected this from you. If we decide to boycott your concerts then you will be having empty halls (sic)”. And then there was, “Now I can understand how Christian missionaries can act as rapid slow poison! If they can consolidate big shots, well educated, orthodox guy like you with a cash bag, then soon India will be chanting halleyluya instead of namavalis! Yet like a phoenix bird sanathanadharma will raise up to the highest equivalent to which how it is dumped! #Kudos to all who put pressure on him to not appear for that concert! #Unity wins! (sic)”.

From the comments on Tamil Facebook pages claiming to represent Hindus, it is obvious that this is a campaign. From T.M. Krishna to Sangeetha Kalanidhi designate of the year Aruna Sairam, none were spared for being seen with Christian Carnatic singers or singing in Churches. A photo of Aruna Sairam with DMK Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi and Fr Jegath Gasper sparked much outrage among ‘rasikas’, who accused Kanimozhi of aiding the spread of Christianity in TN. I have seen Kanimozhi occupy the front row as an audience member at Carnatic concerts organised by the Tamil Isai Sangam for years. I am not sure if any of those who targeted her have ever been to a musical performance. Almost every third comment on these Facebook pages was below the belt and many in Tamil were so vile that I cannot and will not reproduce them.

Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi arrives at the Patiala House court for her alleged connection in 2G scam, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh

Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh

Carnatic musicians rue dwindling audiences, organisers are unable to fill seats even for free concerts. Young and upcoming artistes are performing for a pittance (as low as Rs 500). The less said about the fate of young nadaswaram artistes, the better. There is very little or no outrage over any of this. For a tradition that is in steady decline, this outrage is not only dangerous, but entirely hypocritical, typical of all things the ‘right’ takes offence at today.

An established music genre

The people who claim to save ‘Hindu culture’ actually know very little about the tradition of Carnatic music. Christian Carnatic music is an established musical genre, but these ‘defenders’ only seem to have woken up to it now. Abraham Pandithar (1859-1919) composed several kritis in praise of Jesus. His contribution to Tamil music and its study is widely acknowledged. Just a simple YouTube search yields hundreds of Christian Carnatic artistes including Fr Paul Poovathingal, also known as Padum Pathiri (singing father). Every year, on Christmas, during the December Music Festival, senior violinist T.N. Krishnan performs ‘Jingle Bells’ at the Music Academy for eager Carnatic listeners.

Muslims play nadaswaram in TN’s temples and are among the most respected artistes in the field today. In his beautiful documentary, Yaadhum, A Tamil Muslim’s Historical Journey in Search of His Roots and Identity, Kombai S. Anwar captures the iconic Isai Aruvi Seera Aboobacker singing Islamic hymns in ragams Kapi and Bageshri. There’s a viral video of Vittaldas Maharaj singing a song from the Islamic kutcheri format (that the iconic Nagore Hanifa popularised) to a packed hall of Hindus: ‘Iraivanidam Kaiyendungal Avan Illai Endru Solluvadhillai’ (extend your arms and ask God, he does not say no). Many Carnatic musicians share a symbiotic relationship with Christians as some of the most highly sought after instrument-makers and musicians in the field today are from the Christian faith.

Read in the context of the atmosphere prevailing in the country, this whole Hindu-Muslim-Christian squabble from the Carnatic rasika community sounds pathetic, even silly. Especially because Carnatic music is seen as the bastion of privileged Hindus. Many have stood on the sidelines and said, “This has nothing to do with me.” However, this incident is proof that no space is immune to attacks.

After the artistes, now the organisers of the event and even the sponsor – Aachi Masala – are being targeted with calls for a boycott. This is simply the beginning and bigotry has won ‘round one’. One shudders to think of the consequences of these threats on the people of various castes and religions involved in the Carnatic world. With the cancelling of one event, Christians have been othered in Carnatic music.

The very premise of this outrage is flawed and shows the so-called saviours’ avarice in passing off one aspect of Carnatic music as its entirety: that only Hindus are allowed to sing Carnatic music because it is an art form of bhakti propagated by the trinity of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. What about the countless other composers? It isn’t only words that make up a song or a concert. There are secular elements that allow music to be adapted to various faiths – a raga has no religion, nor does a tani avartanam. A handful of people cannot decide who can lay claim to the shared heritage of a land.