Working in Church Music in India
Randall Giles’s responses to questions put by Philip Carr, a British documentary film maker, in an E-mail interview
In 2003 the British documentary film maker Philip Carr came to India at the request of the Episcopal Church´s Department of Anglican and Global Relations, to do a video piece on Randall Giles´s work in Madras (now called Chennai) as part of Windows on Mission´, a 12 part series of videos on missionaries working through the Episcopal Church in various capacities and in various parts of the world. That series has just been released by the Department of Anglican and Global relations, and is available by contacting the Office of Mission Personnel at the Episcopal Church Center.
In his preparations for the making of that piece, Philip Carr wrote asking Randall Giles various questions about what he does in his work. In the three years since, Randall´s work has developed in various ways, but the answers to his questions are still valid for the work he does with the churches in India, in particular the Church of South India. For the AAM Journal, he has updated a few of his answers here in view of further work and events since that time.
Philip Carr: What is your aim/mission in the community?
Randall Giles: I came here out of an initial interest in helping to improve the quality of music & the other arts and liturgy already being done in the Church of South India, and to help establish research in this field in the seminaries. The quality of Western music education has not been good for many years, while the tradition of classical Indian musical training has always been reserved for the upper castes, mainly Brahmin people, and even now, the best teachers of the Indian classical tradition will not take Christian students. As to Western church music, The deeply traditional attitudes to this expression in the churches here, especially the city and towns, are fixed in a time frame of about 1870 to 1910 Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodist worship patterns (though the Church of South India was formed in 1947 from these bodies and the Reformed Church, worship patterns remain quite distinct in the congregations from these backgrounds despite a common prayer book, and still people refer to their former affiliations as identifying marks of their different communities within the CSI). Many have rejected the notion that their own (Indian) traditions are worth doing in church, indeed some even still think of them as sinful because they derive from Hindu prototypes, forms and theoretical musical constructs such as the Raga/Tala (Mode/Rhythmic structure) system, all of which have specific traditional associations with Hindu deities and myths. Even Indian musical instruments are avoided in many places for the same reasons (these days they are most often replaced, even in some of the poorest of village churches, by of electronic keyboards & percussion pads). So Indian music in many places takes the form of music heard in the popular cinema, and the more traditional forms are often done only reluctantly in churches and then enforced by presbyters who have some grounding in recent currents in theology. Music wars´ happen in the churches here, too. But the terms of engagement are drawn rather differently from those in the west.
Also, the indigenous traditions that are alive and well, folk traditions, are restricted to politically aware Dalit (untouchable) villages and to Theological seminaries where the focus is on Dalit theology, an Indian approach to Liberation theology, and seems not to spread easily outside these areas. Caste and economic classtwo different issues which are not identical, but have a difficult and symbiotic relationshipare largely responsible for this segregation. Even in many more remote villages, actual folk style is resisted in favour of a nineteenth century raga-based semi classical hymn tradition called in Tamil Kirtanai´. People in towns and cities resist the idea of anyone encouraging villagers in doing folk based music (which is otherwise the staple means of musical and dramatic expression and communication in villages and in the fields, etc.), because they see Christianity as a means to bring these people up´ economically and socially from their agricultural roots and present existence. Agricultural and any other hand laboureven the astonishingly beautiful arts and crafts practiced here by highly skilled artisans, are seen as beneath the dignity of an upper caste/upper class Christian. The idea that all legitimate labour is honourable is not genuinely embraced here among that highly influential sector, despite protestations to the contrary. So, music is very narrowly practised (and being a skill like that of an artisan, is in almost all cases unpaid, but instead seen as something someone even highly skilled in it should offer it freely, as with any proper hobby, ‘unto the Lord´).
At the same time, it would be extremely unhelpful to attempt to convert upper class Christians to doing folk music in church. I am interested in honouring the tradition of Western music here insofar as I can. Where it is not possible actively to encourage folk based music, which I do see as a potentially powerful tool in breaking down barriers between communities here one day, I seek to help improve the quality of the Western musical traditions practiced here. These are wholly owned by some sectors of the Indian Church, including the use of pipe organs and the English hymn tradition. In English speaking congregations, Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised Standard´ and among more Anglo-Catholic parishes, The English Hymnal´, 1906 edition are the most prevalent hymnals (with all hymns sung at an almost impossibly slow tempo), with parish-produced supplements containing Gospel songs (Sankey and Moody´s Sacred Songs and Solos is still widely used) and worship and praise´ choruses. Tamil speaking congregations use hymnals [words only] with Tamil translations of many of these Western hymns and gospel songs, and their own praise and worship music largely influenced by American models, together with hymns from a wholly south Indian tradition stretching back two hundred years or so.
So this milieu, so different from my own, yet with common issues that resonated with me, I found fascinating, and I was finally captivated by it enough that I sought to come here to work. That opportunity came through an invitation from the Church of South India Bishop in Madras, the Rt. Rev´d V. Devasahayam and the approval of my application to become an Episcopal missionary through the Office of Mission Personnel in the department of Anglican and Global Relations of the Episcopal Church.
PC: What is the cultural, social and religious context within which you are working?
RG: The religious context in all of India is of course basically Hindu, but Christianity in Madras is a lively community and an influential one, despite the government´s recurring attempts to minimize the impact of minority religious communities through anti- conversion´ laws here and elsewhere in India aimed at keeping people (mostly untouchables) from leaving the Hindu fold. This has had significant consequences for the Christian communities here, as a force for solidarity and an actual enhancement of their identity within the larger community, though it is still sometimes dangerous openly to proclaim one´s faith, as was tragically witnessed in the burning of an Australian missionary with his two young sons in their car by a gang of Hindu extremists in Orissa a few years ago.
I am working with people in all areas of the CSI Madras Diocese and beyond it in the wider church and Christian community. Because I live in a large city, my daily experience is with mostly middle class Indian people interested in music and the other arts, but I also go to villages and suburbs (as invited) to help with programmes in churches and community musical projects. There are also students, Hindu, Moslem and Christian, who have come for individual lessons in Western music harmony and music history (I don´t teach piano or violin, for example, because there are plenty of Indian people here who are good at doing this, and a few are really fine teachers). I try to identify the most lively and interesting work going on in music here, and, under the umbrella of the diocesan Department of Liturgy and Music, try to encourage and enable those practising it in their work. So, most of my work is quite a bit behind the scenes, and therefore not very ‘photogenic´.
I work basically on my own though within the diocesan structure here. In this, I am glad that the Bishop in the CSI Madras Diocese seems to trust me! Importantly, he is willing to support the educational work the Department of Liturgy and Music does financially, and for that I am most grateful. All educational projects here have so far been funded from diocesan funds (and money I receive as my stipend from the Episcopal Church) and not from any other money from abroad. Our organ restoration projects have been funded by specific congregations and private individuals here in Madras. That speaks well of the intentions here, though the financial situation will need to change as our projects and our vision enlarge and money from the Episcopal Church Center remains at a constant level with no increase in funding since I arrived here in 2000. That level of funding will remain in place for the foreseeable future, or may decrease depending on decisions in the Office in Mission Personnel. Because other projects here get funded out of my own pocket, in the very near future I will be seeking both an increased budget from the CSI Madras Diocese, and funds from outside the diocese, both in the Indian arts community, and from abroad as I am able, to expand what we are doing.
PC: What are the main challenges that you face?
RG: Clergy indifference and lack of specific guidance have been challenging, and indifference among people who think that what they do is just fine, and don´t want any change. In some cases it´s true that things are just fine, in others, it isn´t. Also there is a feeling among some church musicians, I think, that if they came for serious study, their short comings would be found out, so they stay away. My most interested friends and well wishers are not in the musical establishment at all, but people who are writers, visual artists and people in the film industry who have become fed up with the indifference of the church itself in these issues, both in terms of music and of liturgy. These people are mostly Christians or people of other traditions who understand and sympathise with Christian ideals and admire the Christian heritage of art as they have learned of it in their education. The Christians among them by and large no longer go to church at all because of what they see as stagnation, dreary services, and lack of vision in the churches. But they long for a more genuine experience of the holy in their lives. If not many, there are a few in the churches, some clergy and some lay people, who understand well the situation in which the Indian churches find themselves, and it´s these people I both depend on for morale support, and some of whom are actually carrying out musical training programmes and other projects.
PC: What are the strongest emotional factors in your work--when do you feel most emotional in your work? - These may be triggered by the nobility of local people within poverty, or endeavours by normal people to cross cultural boundaries and how your work intersects with these emotional issues.
RG: Actually, when I am teaching I get quite emotionally involved with the subject and my students, witnessing the discoveries and epiphanies take place in the classroom. I teach both privately and as a visiting professor at three theological seminaries here, United Theological College in Bangalore, Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Madras and St Thomas Syrian Orthodox Seminary in Nagpur. At these places I do courses both in modern developments in the liturgy, and in general musicbeginning Western theory and history. But you won´t, I think, capture the experience I describe about teaching on camera!
Other highly emotional experiences which happen on a fairly regular basis involve participating in both congregational and particularly in individual private family rites and occasions (which always include song) can be most moving, in the profound awareness of the strength of bonds here, through the church and in families as they live out their Christianity.
PC: What key religious themes do you feel arise out of the effect that your work has in the community?
RG: Two things I hope are, or may one day become apparent:
The need for an awareness of the need to make music an integral part of the worship of the church and not an ancillary thing; and
The need for an awareness of the necessity for authentically Indian arts and devotion that is not specifically Hindu in practise to become, one day, the basis of Indian expression of Christianity.
PC: What events or people best demonstrate in an audio-visual manner all of the above (with a view to our capturing this on tape)?
RG: The work of Theophilus Appavoo in Madurai, a CSI Madras Diocese presbyter who is teaching there, who is heavily involved in making village folk music the medium of musical expression among Christians in the Dalit (untouchable) communities, which comprise 70% of Christians in India. I am keen that his work and his music and dance be promoted in such a form as the video you are thinking about. Zoë Sherinian, currently Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Oklahoma (e-mail: email@example.com) did her PhD on his work and even before I came to India, encouraged me to seek him out as a key personality in the development of Christian music in south India. Her work was on Appavoo and his work in folk music as a liberative transformation system´. Visiting with him has largely reproved and thus informed my own vision of what music could be like in the churches here.
[Since this interview, Theophilus Appavoo has died, and his work is carried on by disciples trained at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, which is still a lively place concerned especially with Dalit issues and Liberation Theology in the Indian context. Music, and Appavoo´s musical ideas in particular, is still seen as a strong vehicle for social change and spiritual development in the region. I had the great privilege of being able to produce, through the financial assistance of the Department of Anglican and Global Relations, the last recording of his music he was able to make. It is awaiting release as part of a new series of global Anglican song.]
Also, the diocese Department of Music and Liturgy is responsible for a training programme in twenty seven diocesan student hostels, where village children ages six through sixteen who would not otherwise get any education at all come to live while attending school, sometimes for all ten years, have regular tuition in music and occasionally in dance. That work is highly photogenic!
PC: These are some of the areas which we should concentrate on in order to make best use of our time together--also it would be great to record as much local music as possible.
RG: That is my hope. There are some other projects and on going work that I´d like to mention. There is a summer music course at which our diocese is training students in playing the (Indian) Harmonium, Indian flutes, singing of traditional Indian Christian hymnody and Tabla playing. Every year we invite pastorates to send five (usually young adult) musicians from a single congregation to come to Madras for a two week training session to enable them to form a musical team´ to work in their pastorate. Some of these pastorates have as many as thirty congregations, so this is no small matter. I invite the teachers, but do not teach these courses because they are conducted in Tamil, and my (non existent) Tamil is just not up to that! So, it´s these people, mostly musically minded presbyters, who are doing this work in music education, and who deserve all the congratulations for the successes we have had in spreading awareness of Indian indigenous music throughout the congregations in this diocese in this way. Plans, initiated by the bishop here, are now under way for a year-round programme of Tamil musical, literary and dramatic instruction in the diocese. There is a specific quite ancient oral tradition, in fact a real curriculum that is used in the passing down of Tamil culture in these three areas, which the diocese wants employ in its work. We look forward to interesting and useful progress in this endeavour, which, because it is to employ a very old system and technique of traditional education perhaps pre-dating Christianity itself, is I think unique among the churches in India.
Again, my own work is mostly behind the scenes. For example, I am attempting, with a lot of help, a compilation of Tamil Christian hymnody from the last two centuries, with Western musical notation and English translations, doing field rerecording where possible and where no musical notation exists. This is not so much for the benefit of any congregations here, who after all have a long tradition of music learning and music making without the need of notation as we understand that term. Rather, it is to encourage people here to share their own understanding of their faith with people outside India, as sort of ‘South to North´ sharing which I believe is as necessary or more so than the traditional (for us in the Global North) ‘North to South´ way around. This does not mean that one wants to encourage people here to give away their traditional music for use in the global north (which practice has led to not a little resentment among certain peoples here and elsewhere in my travels for the church), as much as to let the global north know that independent and vital traditions that are authentically Christian exist beyond the cultural prejudices of the west. We need better to understand and appreciate others for what they are and not what we imagine or would, in our ignorance, like them to be. We are beginning to become more aware of such things more and more, but much more work in the area not even of ‘dialogue´, but instead, cross cultural understanding, complimentarity and mutual respect cannot be anything but most useful, especially in today´s world in which we are brought together more and more in so many ways both useful and unuseful, on our television screens, through the press, and in our daily living.
But as to the Western musical traditions that have taken hold and grown here, some congregations wholly own Western music as well as or in many cases much more than their indigenous traditions. There are problems with this, because these things often have to do with unhappy and unhealthy caste and social class distinctions which are rife here, even within the churches. But given the Indian situation where these are facts of life with which everyone must deal, I do not see a severe problem with promoting the best quality possible in the practise of Western music as used regularly here, as well as that of Christian music in the Indian traditions.
To that end, I have also promoted projects in some congregations which have pipe organs to get their mostly nineteenth century British-built tracker action instruments restored by engaging after quite an intensive search, a builder, Christopher Gray, of the Midland Organ Company in Burton Lazars, Leicestershire in the UK whose interest has long been in the English Colonial Organ, to come to restore their organs, and have found congregations surprisingly able to do the necessary fund raising for what is here a very costly undertaking. Five such instruments are currently being restored or have contracted to do so: two instruments are nearly complete and three more are at the beginning of this process. Other churches are waiting their turn for this service. Not all can afford it at this time, but we are looking into possibilities of outside financial help for the less well off parishes who need it. We are exploring the possibility of locally manufacturing parts etc. where possible for restoration work, as well as properly training people here in the art of organbuilding and maintenance so that in the future, there is a chance that these instruments will not get into the terrible problems that inept repair has caused.
Also in terms of fostering the Western musical tradition that has taken root here, in January of 2007, Richard Marlow of Trinity College Cambridge came to Madras to do an eight day choral workshop with the CSI´s St George´s Cathedral Choir-quite a good group that could be far better with some truly expert advice, and workshops for other choirs in the city; as well as presenting an organ recital on a newly restored 1894 Hill & Sons organ at St Mary´s Church, Fort St George, the oldest Anglican church in Asia. Dr Marlow graciously agreed to come free of charge, to do this, and it was a most successful series of events. We are working toward setting up an on-going relationship with certain of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge to bring recently graduated Organ Scholars to Chennai to do work in parish music and to teach young organists. After all, there is no sense in the expense of restoring a pipe organ if there will be no one to play it.
And lastly, there is the fact that I myself am a composer in the Western tradition of high art´ music for the church. I do not particularly seek to work in attempting any fusion of Indian and Western music in my own work as a composer, for I find that most such work tends to produce neither good Western music nor good Indian music, by the respective standards involved. Rather, I hope, by the example of remaining faithful to my own roots in terms of training and practice, and at the same time encouraging people here to remain faithful to their own roots, both as Indian musicians and as Indian Christians, that we can all come to a mutual regard for each other´s traditions as distinct and vital; and where both, under the banner of God´s mission in the world which after all knows no boundaries in art or any other aspect of life, can flourish.
Randall Giles welcomes correspondence about his work, at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.