The golden era of the Malayalam film industry presented us with a handful of gems. Both the cinema and the music that complimented it enjoyed a creative high during those days. Along with all the musical maestros of the era, a young Jerry Amaldev pitched in his music. An angelic interpretation of melody. Malayalis fell in love with his songs, it was different, raw and tangible. It struck a chord with the masses, so much that Jerome Thomas Veleeparambil has
today become a living legend and an unparalleled musical maestro.
But he says otherwise. “I believe that my songs are still loved and remembered today not because of the music, but because of the lyrics. I am happy that my songs were written by people who knew the language well.” He pulls a chair from next to his piano and makes himself comfortable to narrate the Christmas of his memory.
“Don’t apply what you see today in the 21st century to the 20th century, when I was young. I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s. At that time, Ernakulam was a harmless little hamlet. I remember my grandmother telling me that the Banerji Road we see today was a canal (thodu). I lived in Kaloor, which was back then full of paddy fields. We had church functions. For Christmas, the main thing was going for the midnight mass and on returning home we would savour vellappam and irachi curry. This was the big event,” he smiles as he picks out his fondest memories.
‘No Indian connect for carols’
“After a while, some of my uncles and aunts used to put some sweets in a pair of socks and hang it on the window sill. Later on, during my high school days, there was a bit of carol singing from house to house. We used to select homes, especially the Anglo Indian ones as only they used to know what carols were. Nobody knew what carols were back then. In fact, in Kerala, even today we mispronounce the word carol. So many still call it ‘Karroll’. Singing Christmas carols was very rare.”
“We did not have TV back then. All that was there was the All India Radio. This was how my Christmas was. I cannot say that my Christmas was all that romantic. It was a very simple affair. I used to celebrate it with my grandmother and my uncles. One of my uncles used to make a little crib. Back then, I also remember listening to a Western song ‘Handel: Messiah: For unto us a child is born’.”
He drums on the table with his fingers, singing the first two lines of the song. “I heard this as a child. But I am teaching the song to my band called ‘Sing India’. So maybe, in this way, my childhood has influenced me.”
Sharing wisdom about the origins of carol singing in Kerala, he says, “We know Christmas carols only from Europe. There are no Christmas carols in India. These days, even if you try to make a Christmas carol, it does not sound like one because we don't have a process of continuity about it. Early Christianity never celebrated Christmas, only the resurrection. Christmas was celebrated only after the Roman church adopted sun worship. Carol singing existed prior to Christianity and it was associated with solstice. To celebrate the sun's movements, people used to sit around in circles to sing and dance. This ancient custom was accepted into Christianity. This long history of carol singing got fixed for Christmas and it continued.”
“We sang only English carols such as ‘Silent Night’.” He sings the first line and adds, “Back in those days, the church had only Latin services. So in church we sang one Latin carol, which is this one.” He begins to sing ‘Adeste Fideles’, the Latin version of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’.
Reminiscing about his attempt at creating a Malayalam carol song, he says, “After Manjil Virinja Pookkal, when I returned to Ernakulam, a few of my friends from Cochin Arts and Communication asked me to compose a few Christmas carols. I was very happy that I was approached and came out with Christmas Geethangal. In that, I incorporated things that sound ‘Christmassy’ to me. I must make a point here that none of the authorities of the church asked me to do this, only musicians asked me to create this.” “These days, people think Christmas carol means Jingle Bells... Jingle Bells,” he laughs and adds, “That has got nothing to do with Christmas. It’s all about commerce!...