“Music is the bridge between religions” – Says Dr. Fr. Paul Poovathingal CMI who has earned the name “singing priest”. Fr. Paul is a graduate in English and Psychology from Christ College, Bangalore. Though he had exposure to music at the age of 17, his seminary duties did not allow him much time to presume it. But after graduation the pull was too strong to resist and at the age of 31 he dedicated himself to the study of Carnatic music. But why was it so? It is not common for a Christian priest to take to classical Carnatic music! Says Fr. Paul, “as a priest my search was for reaching divinity; I felt that music was the best means to achieve the goal and realise divinity.” He joined the Sangita Shironmani course at the University of Delhi where he also did and continued with his Masters and won a gold medal. While in Delhi he had learnt music from a few eminent artistes like T.R. Subramaniam. Later he pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Madras under the guidance of Prof. Karaikudi Subramaniam. In Chennai he found gurus in K. J. Yesudas and more recently Vaikom Jayachandran. Dr. Fr. Paul is also the director of Chetana Sangeet Natya Academy in Thrissur, Kerala state.
The following interview was recorded for M-Pod, the Malayalam Podcast. You can listen to the whole episode (in Malayalam) from here.
Q) How did you get interested in Carnatic classical music? Was that before you joined in seminary or afterwards?
A) It happened after I joined in the seminary. I had the musical instinct since my childhood and I used to listen many songs from the radio. In those days, radio was a very important medium like we have television now. I was also a member of church choir. So in those days I used to sing devotional songs and filmy songs. But my interest in Carnatic music began after I joined in the minor seminary of C.M.I church. In the first year of seminary life a carnatic musician named Sodharan Bhaagavathar came to teach us the basic of Carnatic music. That’s how I became curious to know more about Carnatic music.
Q) It must be a time when Carnatic music was un-acceptable to the Kerala Christian community. So how was the response from your family and the church administration, when you started music classes?
A) If you look at the history, Carnatic music was there among the Kerala Christians from 18th century onwards. The protestant churches particularly, used the songs based on Carnatic ragas for their holy mass etc. For example, Mosa Valsala Saasthrikal and Vidwan Kutty Achan who lived in the 18th century were masters in Carnatic music. But at the same time the possibilities of using Carnatic music in Syro Malabar Church (a Catholic church ryte in Kerala) was very less. Because Syrian music was very influential in the church at that time and it was in the 1950 when the devotional songs were created based on the raagas, in Syro Malabar Church. It was after the 2nd Vatican Sunnahadose that the Catholic church decided to involve with the native culture and music. It was also the time when Catholic church agreed with the presence of God in other religions. As for me, I wasn’t aware of such historical or theological background of Carnatic music in the Christian society at that time. I somehow got attracted to Carnatic music.
When I went to study philosophy in Dharmaram college in Bangalore, I met Sri. V. K. Krishnamurthy Bhaagavathar and I could learn music from him for sometime. And I wanted to do B. A. in Music, but my superiors did not approve it. So I continued with my graduation in Christ college, Bangalore and parallely I went on with my music classes but I couldn’t dedicate much time for music. Then after the graduation, we had an option to choose the subject for higher studies. So I decided if I’m going to learn anything that would be Carnatic music. That is how I went to Delhi University to learn music and I completed my bachelors and masters in Music from there. Then I came to Madras University and completed my PhD. I was fortunate to learn music for 12 years constantly. I think this is a great encouragement from my church to let me learn Carnatic music for such a long time.
Q) Who all were your teachers?
A) My first guru was Sri. C. C. Chummar who is living in my native place. But the person who introduced me to Carnatic music properly was Sri. Sodharan Bhagavathar. He is a native of Thrissur disctrict, in Kerala. Then Sri. V. K. Krishnamurthy in Bangalore and when I joined in Delhi University, there were quite a number of great musicians like T. N. Krishnan, T. R. Subramanyam, Dr. Leela Omcheri and Guruvayur Manikantan. When I came to Madras University, I could learn from my professor Sri. Karaikudi Subramanyam and I could meet Sri. K. J. Yesudas and became a desciple of him. Now I’m learning music from Chandramana Narayanan Namboothiri.
Q) When you were learning music under all of these great musicians, how was the response from your teachers and classmates since you are a Christian and particularly a Priest? Did you have to face any descrimination?
A) I haven’t felt much of any descrimination. Perhaps there might be occassions such as that, but I do not care about such things. I have an aim and I want to overcome any obstacles come in my way to achieve my target. And I think my biggest enemy is my self. So to fight with it is my biggest challenge.
Q) In a comparison with the old times, these days we can see a lot of children coming to learn traditional arts and music in Kerala and their parents are also very much interested in this. But I think one of the reasons behind this love for traditional music is the music competitions in major television channels and youth festivals etc to gain fame and name. How is this trend going to affect music? Is it good or bad? How do you see it?
A) I have a poster in my room that says, “Good, Better, Best. Do not take rest, until your good is better and better is best”. It is a call for excellence, to any person. Work hard, work hard… and go into the depth. But as you just said, there is a trend among the youth to be famous and to earn money in the shortest span of time. But there is another side of it. To practice thoroughly and constantly and have in-depth knowledge of that art. I’m not sure if the parents of these children are looking into that area. According to the Indian mythology, an art form is a way to moksha. Its a path to the spirituality. It is not for the worldly achievements. But there are people who mis-interpret arts in that way. But I don’t think they can make any valuable contribution to arts this way.
Q) How important is the lyrics in Carnatic music these days? Are there any students or teachers who sing with understanding the lyrics?
A) That’s a very good question. Hindustani music is a royal or court music system. But Carnatic music is a temple based music system. It is full of bhakthi and the lyrics is really important in Carnatic music because of the narration of Gods. We know that a song becomes more enjoyable when there is less lyrics and more melody in it. Perhaps it is the reason why people like Hindustani music in the melodious base. There is a complaint about Carnatic music that it becomes a problem to get into the mood of a raga while taking care of the pronounciation and meaning of the lyrics. Most of the krithis in Carnatic music were written in languages like Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit, Tamil and a little of Malayalam. So there are only a few people who can sing with understanding all these languages. There is a saying that music is beyond the languages. When we think in that way, I am not justifying it, but I think we don’t need to worry too much about lyrics. But at the sametime, knowing the lyris would help us to sing with more expressions and emotions.
(to be continued…)