Monday, November 07, 2016

Preserving Christian Music

On a recent visit to Kochi, the New-York based Fr. Joseph Palackal talks about his mission to preserve the traditional Syro-Malabar music in Kerala through recordings and research articles

Photos: Fr. Joseph Palackal. Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram. Arnos Pathiri; The Syro-Malabar church

By Shevlin Sebastian  

At his brother’s home, in Kochi, recently, Fr. Joseph Palackal sits behind the tamburu and plays the alap in rag Asavari from the Hindustani tradition. Later he launches into the Christian epic song, ‘Puthen Pana’. His voice is soaring and melodious.

The ‘Puthen Pana’ was written by a Jesuit priest, Johann Ernst Hanxleden, from Germany, in 1721. “He was known as Arnos Pathiri,” says Fr. Joseph. “He came to Kerala as a 19-year-old, became a priest, and learnt Malayalam. The Pana is a narration of Biblical events.”

It became part of the Christian experience, because, at that time, they did not have the Bible in the local language. “It was in Syriac and only the priest knew how to read them,” says Fr. Joseph. “So, the people learned the poem by heart. My mother could narrate the entire pana in one sitting, but it would take more than two hours.”

Incidentally, Syriac is a dialect of the Aramaic language, the mother tongue of Jesus. The music came from West Asia hundreds of years ago and got mingled with the local culture.

Based at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, at Maspeth, New York, Fr. Joseph has been doing research, for years, on the rich Christian musical legacy in India, especially in the Syro-Malabar church of Kerala.

The music in Indian Christianity is multi-faceted,” he says. “So, the versions in the North-East are different from what we hear in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, which has the Portuguese influence. With the Christians in Kerala, there are two major systems: the one with the Syro Malabar Church, to which I belong, and the other with the Syrian Orthodox-Jacobite churches.”

Until the 16th century, it was songs without instruments. “But it was the Portuguese who introduced the violin, harmonium, bass drum and the bugle,” says Fr. Joseph.

But everything changed in 1962, when permission was given by the church authorities for the songs to be sung in the vernacular languages. “It was a watershed,” says Fr. Joseph. “Syriac literacy diminished, even among the priests. But the Jacobite churches retained most of the Syriac language.”

However, in the Syro Malabar church, the people resorted to film-style music. “Modern musical instruments, like the keyboard, have been added,” says Fr. Joseph. “It has lost its essence.”

So, Fr. Joseph is trying his best to preserve the memories and the melodies. Every year he comes to Kerala to meet up with people who are able to capture the melodies of the Syriac songs. “But time is running out,” he says. “Most of the stalwarts are losing their memory or passing away.”

Nevertheless, Fr. Joseph has recorded a large number of songs and put it on You Tube with notes. This is part of the Aramaic ProjectRecently, he started working on a digital Encyclopedia of the Syriac Chants of the Syro Malabar Church, as well as a Directory of Christian songs in India. The priest has also written an article on the subject in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities.

I am trying to do my bit to preserve the history,” says Fr. Joseph. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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