Monday, May 10, 2010

A new musical route to Jesus Christ

For the first time in the Catholic church, a priest sings Christian hymns based on the ragas in Carnatic music, much to the joy of the parishioners

Photo: Fr. Joseph Thattarassery (centre) singing Carnatic bhajans

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Fr. Joseph Thattarassery was appointed as the parish priest of St. Joseph’s Church in Tripunithara, 8 kms from Kochi, in 2002, it changed his life. A mild interest in Carnatic music became a passion.

“There are 130 temples in Tripunithara,” he says. In most of the major temples, like Sree Poornathreseya and Chakkamkulangara Siva Temple, there are regular Carnatic sangeet kacheris or concerts.

“In the beginning I could not understand the meaning of the ragas,” says Fr. Joseph.

The priest had studied the basics during a one-year course at the St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Kochi. So he got himself a teacher, P.D. Sygal, and started learning the ragas for three hours a day.

“Soon, what I was struggling to learn, I could see its excellence in concerts,” he says. It was during a concert by the brilliant Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna that an inspired Fr. Joseph got the idea of starting something similar in the church. So, he took some ragas, and changed the lyrics to suit Christian themes.

When Fr. Joseph proposed the idea to the parishioners, the initial reaction was negative. In fact some people got angry. In one instance, they objected to the word ‘saranam’ in one of the hymns.

“They asked me why I was using a Hindu word,” he says. They had linked it to the Lord Ayyappa chant, ‘Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam.’ But Fr. Joseph told them that the word ‘Saranam’ is a Malayalam word and means hope. “It does not belong to any religion,” he said. “It is part of a language. I had to clear their misconceptions.”

Despite the misgivings, Fr. Joseph began a bhajan recital at 4 a.m., every Friday, with a group of singers. And slowly the parishioners were drawn in by the great power of Carnatic music.

“When you listen to the Gregorian chants (Western liturgical music), you feel the Christianness in the song,” says Fr. Joseph. “But when you listen to a Carnatic song with Christian lyrics, you get the feeling that Jesus Christ belongs to our land.”

Undoubtedly, when Fr. Joseph sings, there is a magnetism in the music and the lines:

Divyakarunyam Bhaje
(We adore you Holy Eucharist)

Paramakarunyam Bhaje
(We adore you Supreme Mercy of God)

Sree Yesu Devam Bhaje
(Jesus the redeemer we adore you)

Sree Christu Devam Bhaje
(Christ, the Holy Anointed One, we adore you)

So, did the Church object to this? “On the contrary, I received whole-hearted support,” says Fr. Joseph. The late Archbishop Daniel Acharuparambil, the leader of the Latin Catholics, had won a gold medal in Indian philosophy from the Benaras Hindu University. “So he understood what I was trying to do,” says the priest.

Interestingly, there were a lot of Brahmins who came to listen to the recital. Among them was a man called Raman. “He used to come without fail every week,” says Fr. Joseph. However, after a few months, Raman moved to Thiruvananthapuram, 200 kms away.

Nevertheless, every Thursday evening he would return to Tripunithara, stay at a hotel and attend the 4 a.m. bhajan the next day. “Raman paid the expenses of all the singers,” says Fr. Joseph. “I can never forget him.”

After five years Fr. Joseph was transferred to the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church at Ochanthuruth, in the Vypeen Islands, near Kochi. Quickly he started a 12-person choir for bhajan singing, which included three Hindus: Unnikrishnan on the mridangam, Lalu on the tabla, and Devadas on the flute.

“It has been an amazing experience for me,” says Devadas. “To play Carnatic music inside a church before dawn has brought me nearer to God. I feel an inner peace.”

Jacqueline Patrick, the vocalist, says, “You experience a deeper closeness to God when you sing a hymn, with Carnatic, rather than with Western music.”

The bhajan-singing is slowly gaining acceptance. During this year’s Maundy Thursday Mass, Fr. Joseph sang the ‘Raga Pahadi’ and it was well received. Fr. Joseph also goes back, on the first Friday of every month, to his old parish to do the 4 a.m. bhajan. And he continues an intensive training from an A-Top artist of All India Radio, N.P. Ramaswamy.

Meanwhile, the troupe is getting calls from different places in Kerala to perform. Recently, they went to an old woman’s home at the nearby town of Pallipuram to give a recital. The audience comprised 45 women, who had been abandoned by their families.

For one and a half hours the troupe sang songs in praise of God. Near the end, they launched into the Darbarai Kanada raga. This difficult raga, if sung with passion, has the potential to create a powerful emotional reaction.

“We started singing very loudly,” says Fr. Joseph. After a few minutes, all the women stood up, ranging in age from 70 to 90, and with their arms upraised, they began crying bitterly. “The old women were shedding tears of sorrow, because their children did not want them,” says Fr. Joseph. “Seeing them we also started to cry.”

But after the performance Fr. Joseph looked at the positive side. “I was glad that I could bring them some relief by singing such a beautiful raga,” he says. “Our song passed a message to these forlorn women: ‘If no human being, especially those closest to you, offers support, remember, God is always there for you.’”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


  1. do you have an audio file...would like to listen to it

  2. please let us know.Fr Joseph Thattarassery contact no.

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