Heena & the Hijab

An exploration into what constitutes adoption of cultural markers and practices in the context of the protests against O.S Arun's program to sing carnatic compositions in praise of Jesus and the left's utter inability to grasp the nuances of the issue.

Heena & the Hijab

Recently, a program called “The Musical Confluence of Jesus” was being advertised, where the Carnatic Vidwan O.S. Arun was supposed to perform Carnatic Krithis (Compositions) in praise of Jesus. This triggered protests, on and off the social media, from the fan base of Carnatic music and others. Subsequently, O.S. Arun backed out for the program citing ‘personal commitments’. This brought to light many earlier cases, where popular Carnatic musicians including O.S. Arun, Nithyashree, Aruna Sairam had performed for Christian Albums.

The Wire published an article alleging communalism and intolerance, as expected of its bias and inclinations, with some Brahmin Bashing thrown in. I had anticipated many of the allegations and arguments made by ‘The Wire’ and had addressed them in the past weeks. This commentary consolidates those perspectives.

To summarize, it is the question of ‘Heena and the Hijab’,

How much of your own identity, would you compromise to perform for an ideology, which seeks the destruction of your heritage?

The shooter Heena Sidhu refused to wear a Hijab, required by Iran, which she felt as compromising her identity and was admired for her stand. But O.S. Arun wore a crucifix, wiped off his usual Bhasma, Tilaka and performed Carnatic Krithis praising Christ. (Video). Other singers have acted in a similar manner and also performed plagiarized versions of classical krithis, where the themes and terms used to adore Rama or Shiva, have been replaced with Jesus. So we must consider what is an appropriate adoption and what is cultural appropriation, or rather in the context of Christianity,  – inculturation.

Wikipedia defines inculturation as follows:

In Christianity, inculturation is the adaptation of the way Church teachings are presented to non-Christian cultures and, in turn, the influence of those cultures on the evolution of these teachings. This is a term that is generally used by Roman Catholics, the World Council of Churches and some Protestants, other Protestants prefer to use the term “contextual theology”.

From the Hindu perspective, this is cultural appropriation, that is taking of things that are holistically and intrinsically part of the Hindu worldview, culture and using them to propagate Christianity, leading to the eventual proselytization.

Temple architecture – Dwajastambas, Gopuras,  Samskaras like Vidyarambham, Annapraasanas, wearing of saffron robes, rudrakshas, arts like Bharathanatya, literature like Sahasranama, Calling bible as Veda, church as Devalaya, Jesus as Devan etc. many aspects of Hindu dharma have been appropriated by the Christians as a part of this inculturation mission. There have been attempts to even digest the Devatas and Shastras, like presenting Prajapati’s yagna, as the metaphor for the Christ’s sacrifice or depicting the author of a Shastra like Thirukkural, ThiruValluva Naayanaar, as a disciple of Thomas.

So is such dishonest portrayal objectionable or not?

It can be seen as an attempt to Indianize Christianity and integrate. In fact, Indian Islam is often accused of not doing that and instead, of trying to Arabize itself. Indonesian Islam, which has retained its Hindu cultural indicators, is held up as an example worthy of emulation.

It is true that most Indian Christians are Hindu in their origins and hence it can be argued that, they only rejected the Devata, Shashtras, and Dharma of Hinduism and not the cultural expressions. It can also be argued that Sanskrit is a language, Carnatic a musical style, why can’t they be used to describe another subject? Another deity? I think these are valid points to consider. There is indeed nothing objectionable in using these external expressions towards another faith, another god.

But the key word here is ‘ANOTHER’.

What if these things are done by those, who don’t accept that they are just ‘ANOTHER’, but insists that they are the ‘ONLY’? Let us look at a relatable analogy. When young kids play cricket, each brings different pieces of equipment and pool it. Bats, some balls, stumps, pads etc. Everyone freely uses the equipment irrespective of who spent the money to purchase it. Each kid follows favorite teams, sports stars etc., collect equipment developed for the star, branded or signed by the star etc. All good. Then there are one or two kids, who keep claiming that others are wrong in how they play, deny the legitimacy of their favorite sports stars like Tendulkar and constantly disparage team affiliations etc. Yet these kids use such branded equipment, even as they refuse to acknowledge the ownership, association or origin of the equipment. And in the past they are known to have invaded other pitches and forced others to play by their rules, destroying the diversity of fan groups and even entire sports. Should such bullies, be trusted with the equipment of our heritage? What if the referees, umpires, and commentators i.e. Secular state, the left-liberal media etc., ignore such behaviors and insist that others give in to every demand of these perpetual ideological bullies? Would it be objectionable or not?

Pakistan is hostile to India, but there are aspects that we share with the Pakistani people, common origins, and culture. Yet their driving ideology is to be distinct from India and hostile to it, that is their existential reason. We might interact with them in many fora as individuals and associations, as a nation even have diplomatic relationship with them. They have the right to exist as a nation, they can freely play cricket. However we do not like our cricket team to be defeated by Pakistan. We like even less when they play in Pakistan. But how would we feel if an idolized Indian cricketer plays “for Pakistan”, wearing Pakistani team colors? Would you like to see Tendulkar, Dhoni or Virat Kohli in the Pakistani Green?

Similarly, Christianity has an ideological hostility towards Hinduism. It does not consider the devata, the beliefs and the philosophies of Hindus as legitimate and would like to see it erased. Our scholars and artists, can engage with them, but when they ‘play’ for them, would it be objectionable or not?

[An advertisement for O.S. Arun’s “Christian” Concert]

I wonder if regional products can protect their products with GI tag — Geographic Indicators, Individuals/firms with Intellectual Property rights, Creators with Copyrights, Companies with Trademarks, why can’t cultures and religions be protected against inculturation or appropriation? And then there are the false claims. This advertisement for O.S. Arun concert claims that ‘Christian Keerthanas are many centuries old and indestructible in time’.  Though there is a continuum to Indian classical music from Sama Veda, Bharata Shastra, and Sharngadeva, as a genre, Carnatic music is considered to have formulated from Purandaradasa in the 15thcentury. The Wire refers to Abraham Pandithar (another semantic appropriation of the word Pandita) and he lived from 1859-1919. So how is it possible that Christian Keerthanas are claimed to be many centuries old? Perhaps they will go on to make the claim that Sharngadeva was a student of Simon and Purandaradasa of Peter. That is what they did with Thiruvalluvar, when they claimed him as a disciple of Thomas. Classic inculturation was at play.

It is not objectionable for artists to perform in praise of Jesus, it is only when they start compromising on their own beliefs, like removing tilaka and wearing the cross etc. that things become problematic. An actor could do that for playing the part of a devout Christian, but why would a musician compromise thus? What do we think of politicians who pander to the minority vote-banks by wearing skull caps or attending masses?

Of course, we know this is a one-way street. Christians and Muslims don’t usually compromise on their identities in such a way. It is only expected of Hindus because secularism is solely their responsibility and requires them to efface their identity, wipe the tilakas off their forehead, lest they offend the minorities.

Another example, in professional networking events in the west, often the only vegetarian food served is a salad and bread. Other attendees could look at you weirdly for refusing meat or alcohol. That’s an instance where one could compromise on one’s own identity and values, to fit in or for the sake of one’s career. But it is never considered ideal and for people like O.S. Arun to do so, in a native context is actually despicable. Unless he has converted, and if he has, then for him to sport a tilaka in his kutcheris is simply dishonest.

Dharma is nurtured only by our choices during conflicting priorities. From the days when composers like Swami Haridas and Thyagaraja refused even oblige great kings, citing that having sung for Devatas, they could not sing for Manavas (humans), the standards of integrity have indeed plummeted. Tansen was extremely talented but his integrity was compromised, for he compromised on his identity for professional fame. No surprise that he could never be what his Guru, Swami Haridas was, and it is believed that he himself acknowledged this fact.

Another aspect to this subject are people like Yesudas, Sheikh Chinna Moulana, Ustad Bismillah Khan etc., who perform for Hindu Devatas. But it is a false equivalence to compare them with what O.S Arun did, it is as false as comparing Hindu Dharma to Christianity or Islam. As earlier mentioned, unlike Christianity and Islam, which deny the ‘other’, Hindu dharma accepts the ‘other’.  So they are not comparable. The exclusive nature of Christianity and Islam means that just the act of praising Jesus or Allah implies that you are denying, or even denigrating, other gods. Even if you do not explicitly do so, you are supporting activities which further this alienation. But for that exclusivity, God is just yet another god and Christianity yet another faith. And singing of Jesus is no different from singing to Rama or Shiva.

Hinduism is not based on a dogma that parts of it  – Yoga, Ayurveda, Shilpa, Natya, Sangeetha – can be separated, secularized and sold as modular furniture. It is an interconnected whole. Secularism and inculturation are agendas, which seek to loot all the body parts of the culture, but will deny the living force itself and thus destroy it.

When I experience sublime art, I wonder at the divine that inspired such beauty even when I myself am unable to be inspired by it. This I do even with carols and qawwalis. But what to say of people who take the forms and expressions of such art, but deny the inspiration behind it, with visceral hatred? G.H.Hardy did not subscribe to Ramanujam’s belief that Namagiri Devi was the inspiration for his genius. But there is no record of him coercing Ramanujam to ‘change’ his inspiration to Jesus or claiming so after Ramanujam’s death. Ramanujam tried his best not to compromise on his identity or expressions, under very difficult circumstances. And that makes him even more admirable. But then G.H.Hardy was not a Christian.

For what Islam does by conflict, Christianity achieves by corruption. There are other ways to respect other traditions, without compromising on your own. Sri. Vittaldas Maharaj rendered ‘Iravinidam Kaiyendungal..’ a song popularly rendered by Nagore Hanifa praying to Allah, in his Bhajan program. It did not jar much because, in his repertoire of bhajans for Hari and many such devatas, this was one more song. He sang it wearing all the symbols of a devout Vaishnava, then it can be seen as invoking the universal divinity across forms and names. Though Islamists might feel affronted for including Allah along with other gods but they are not famous for their aesthetic admiration, are they? That performance was not an appropriation, inculturation or digestion. He sang as a Vittal Bhaktha.

But if you wear a crucifix and participate in a program which is entirely about Jesus, though your heritage is seeing the divine in many forms and names, then you are furthering their agenda of exclusivity, letting them appropriate you and your culture for proselytizing. Hence The Wire makes a false equivalence between Vittaldas Maharaj and O.S. Arun.

Further, there is the economic argument that Carnatic music is a dwindling genre, so it is ok to dilute its essence to sell it to others. This is like saying adulterating food is okay to sell to a larger market. Will the Wire Columnist pitch that as well? Yes, Carnatic music, like any classical art form, is a niche field. It has thrived not because of market volume but because of a committed core fan base. Now it seems that folks like T.M. Krishna and O.S. Arun want to expand their base, even if it means compromising on the essential nature of the art and ignoring the Rasikas, who have fostered it for decades.

Political parties are known to adopt such market capturing strategies. The BJP, for example, has ignored its core Hindutva base for long, and chases other vote banks. Congress, after all, debased secularism into minority appeasement and pandering for decades and now half-heartedly pushes soft Hindutva through miserable attempts by the likes of Shashi Tharoor. This is similar to how commercial entities offer discounts and perks to new customers and ignore the loyalists. The calculation is that the rate of intake of new customers will be more than the loss of the old ones. So while that dynamic is inevitable, the question again is how much of your own essential identity are you willing to dilute, in return for success, before it turns out that you no longer have anything of value to offer?

The article in The Wire, while ranting against Right Wing (as though all Hindus are automatically Free market capitalists) intolerance, makes no mention of aspects like inculturation. So, when artists whose career was built by singing the compositions of great Bhakthi Saints like Thyagaraja, offer to sing for those people who abuse Rama and deny the divinity of Krishna, it is morally incumbent on the aware and alert Hindus to register their protests.

About Author: Raghu Bhaskaran

Raghunandhan (Raghu) Bhaskaran is a Bharathi and like many today, he for long, ignored his heritage and was focused towards Artha, to the exclusion of the other Purusharthas and is yet another IT consultant. But now he is increasingly a seeker of what it means to be a Hindu, a follower of Dharma in every sphere of life - personal, social, cultural and political. Towards this, he uses writing as a sadhana, to attain clarity and shares his learning with others, learns from others. He considers himself as the 'Mongoose of Mahabharatha', from the Ashwamedha Parva. Serendipity has led him to some yagna-salas, the works/company of some wonderful people - from heritage, family, friends, teachers and even on social media. He rolls around in the crumbs of their wisdom and some stick to him. And he shines in parts, from those borrowed crumbs of knowledge.

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