Where words fail, music speaks. Hans Christian Andersen.
One would have thought music is a subject least prone to attracting conflict and controversy. However, in India we seem hell bent on defying the odds. Differences of opinion can arise amongst music connoisseurs on which stream - classical, popular, folk and so on is preferred. Similar contrasting views can be held on the relative merits or demerits of various musicians, but matters never get completely out of hand, resulting in crude threats and unseemly verbal brawls over social media.
Live and let live, by and large, has been the motto for all manner of music aficionados. Which is why the recent brouhaha over a handful of Carnatic musicians agreeing to sing at functions organised by the Christian faith, or participating in studio recordings praising Christian virtues, leaves most neutral observers greatly puzzled. The musicians involved in this unfortunate controversy are well established artistes who, I am sure, had no wish to create fissures where none existed. Some of them have now, sadly, beaten a hasty retreat, withdrawing into their shells. Other musicians have taken up cudgels on their behalf promising to fight the good fight till hell freezes over.
Plenty of space, both in print as well as in the cyber world, has been consumed over this needless debate, leaving an acrid taste in the mouth. A price is also being paid for our projecting mindless intolerance, imputing the most sinister motives pertaining to alleged subliminal or overt faith conversions. Speaking for myself, I do not wish to get into the gory details of accusations and counter accusations of the warring factions. I would merely like to place before the reader my views as an avid music lover, who finds this argument about religion and music both irrelevant and tasteless. For me music is music. Whether it is Carnatic, Hindustani, Western Classical or Pop/Rock/Jazz/Blues/Spirituals, Sufi/Ghazals/Qawwalis etc., it is the melody that first draws you in. Everything else comes after.
Take Carnatic music, a subject I am familiar with as a rasika. I have no shame in admitting that I have enjoyed Tyagaraja’s compositions without the faintest idea of what the Telugu lyrics actually meant. One has a vague idea that the great saint composer was a devotee of Lord Rama and that a majority of his magnificent compositions were in praise of his beloved deity. On occasion, the precise meaning of a particular song may have been explained to me but I did not find the added knowledge of understanding the words enhancing my enjoyment of the raga and the sangathis inherent in the composition.
For me, and many like me, it was more a question of whether Maru Balka in the raga Sriranjani was rendered more appealingly by the Semmangudi or the Ariyakudi paddhati. Or if anyone can improve upon the GNB school of music when it comes to rendering Ragasudha Rasa in the raga Andolika. Then there are all the improvisational aspects like alapana, neraval, swara prastharas and so on where lyrics are virtually redundant. Finally on Carnatic music, many of our greatest masters never really enunciated the lyrics clearly, nor did they find that a pre-requisite for our enjoyment of their concerts. They merely used the words as an exploratory vessel to expand the vicissitudes of the raga, taking liberal license with the way the lyrics were expanded or contracted to suit the musical idiom.
From Carnatic music to Hindi film music. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I was never a huge fan of Lata Mangeshkar’s oeuvre. However, there is one song by Lata, Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam from the film Hum Dono. The song and the rendition was so beautiful that I cannot imagine it being sung in any other tune by any other artiste. And even though Lata's enunciation of the lyrics is crystal clear, it never once crossed my mind that she was singing about a multiplicity of faiths in the same song. The issue of faith paled into insignificance against the mellifluous vocalisation. And by the way, I didn't see anyone raising objections to the various religious juxtapositions in the song. Any more than I did when Zeenat Aman’s hippie, druggy anthem, Dum Maro Dum (sung by Asha Bhosle) had the nation swaying and chanting ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’.
The late George Harrison of The Beatles released My Sweet Lord in 1970 and it went straight to the top of the BBC charts and stayed there for over six weeks. A driving, rhythmic song with brilliant guitar work by Harrison, the insistently religious lyrics straddle the Christian and Hindu faiths with the chorus repeatedly chanting Hallelujah, Hare Rama and Hare Krishna. The song was an outsize hit, selling millions of copies, not because people in the UK, USA, Europe and the rest of the world were transported by Harrison into a religious frenzy - they just loved the song and danced to it as they might have danced to The Beatles’ She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. Other iconic artistes from the west like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison have time and again introduced religious themes in their songs, but their immense, sustained popularity had more to do with their abilities as singer-songwriters than with their personal beliefs.
Bach, Beethoven, Handel and other great composers of western classical music were massively inspired by their faith in bequeathing to posterity some of their truly immortal symphonies and concertos. The enjoyment of these timeless compositions precludes the need for any religious affiliation, as repeatedly emphasised by brilliantly articulate atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
So there you have it. Forget the faith that inspired the music, whichever stream you fancy. Start listening to the music, and the lyrics will take care of themselves. If you are only obsessed with the words, why don’t you take up poetry instead?
(The author is a brand consultant with an
interest in music, cricket, humour and satire)