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True exponents of pluralism
VATSALA VEDANTAM explains how Subhan Kasim and his brother Subhan Babu, have set music above caste, colour, race and religion.
If UN advisor and author Shashi Taroor found Irfan Pathan a living testimony to “the indestructible pluralism of India,” (LA Times – April 16), I wonder what he would have said had he met Subhan Kasim, the nagaswaram player and listened to his story.
This 42-year-old Asthana Vidwan of the Sringeri Sharada Peetam and the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam is the ninth generation of nagaswaram players dedicated to classical carnatik music compositions. Kasim himself is devoted to the saint composer Thyagaraja. His ancestors were artists who played in temples and who were venerated figures during special poojas.
This astonishing family of musicians - with vidwans like Adam Sahib, who was commended for his deva gaanam and Rasavaripalem Kasim Sahib who used both hands and feet to maintain the thala while singing and Sanskrit scholars Chinna Moulana and Pedda Moulana - has maintained a 300-year-old tradition of serving in all the time-honoured temples of India through their devotional music. In fact, Kasim’s grandfather, the legendary Sheikh Chinna Moulana Sahib in the Sixties even became the Asthana Vidwan of the Ranganatha temple of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, the stronghold of Sri Vaishnavism.
“My grandfather used to say that Lord Ranganatha was calling him,” says Kasim who was just nine years, when they migrated from Andhra and settled down in the temple in Srirangam where he became a great devotee. He also remembers how the great sheikh used to teach him the nuances of kritis like Mamava Pattabhi Rama or Uyyala Ooga Vayya Sri Rama…... No wonder he was conferred the title Sangeetha Kalanidhi – a rare honour for any musician.
Kasim and his brother Subhan Babu recently performed at the Sree Seshadripuram Rama Seva Samithi in Bangalore. Dressed in conservative jari veshti and gold laced shawls, the brothers enchanted the audience with their impeccable performance on the nagaswaram, which as Kasim and Babu themselves admit is the most trying of all wind instruments as it involves tremendous breath control. But it is something they love to play on.
Playing without inhibitions in a Hindu ambience to a Hindu audience, they swept the listeners off their feet with their evocative rendering of time honoured compositions like Yelaa Nee Daya Raadhu…….?
According to the brothers, it makes no difference whether the venue is a temple, mosque or a church. What matters is the language of music. Yet, the music their ancestors have cherished and preserved is in the classical Carnatik idiom and the composer they have worshipped is none other than Thyagaraja himself. When asked whether it has been possible for them to distance themselves from the sahitya of the kritis, to concentrate only on the aspect of sangeetha, Kasim’s only reply was, “Every time I play Intha soukyamani ne jappezaala, Yentho,Yemo Yevariki dhelasuno…….. it brings tears into my eyes.”
According to him, his family has traditionally set music above caste, colour, race and religion. Their bhakthi is for the composer, the composition and the object of that devotion. As Kasim points out “We have been Rama bhakthas for 300 years”. Minutes later, he fills the same bhakthi among his audience, with his flawless rendering of “Raa Raa Ma Inti Daka Raghu Veera….….…!”
The Kanchi Kama Koti Peetam honours him and brother Babu even as the Sringeri Math invites them to lead the Navarathri procession with their dedicated music. It is a humbling experience for the brothers.
There may be many better musicians than the descendants of Chinna Moulana Sahib. But these two brothers stand out as the living symbols of open-mindedness in a society that has been constantly maligned as intolerant. And those organising such music festivals too need to be commended, for they have integrated these representatives of a minority community into their fold without reservations. Many of them commission Muslim florists to decorate their music pandals. In fact, flower sellers like Noorullah feel honoured to supply the flowers for the annual laksharchana held in this Ramaseva Samithi shrine year after year.
IT’S JUST MUSIC
Born in the village of Karawadi in the Prakasam District of Andhra Pradesh to Sheik Subhan Sahib and Bibijan, Kasim and Babu received their musical training from their illustrious maternal grandfather, Sheik Chinna Moulana Saheb. Now, Kasim and Babu have started training other students in nagaswaram. Their school in Srirangam, founded by their grandfather, is called Sharadha Nadaswaram Sangeetha Ashramam. It not only encourages poor students but even looks after indigent nagaswaram players.
Kasim becomes passionate when he speaks of his family’s contribution to the art, especially recollecting how his great grand father, Sheik Kasim Saheb and father of Sheik Chinna Moulana, specialised in pieces like “Endhuku dhayaradhuraa Sri Ramachandra”.
Kasim’s two daughters, Akeela and Aneesha, are already practioners of Carnatik vocal music while Babu’s two sons, Syed Babu and Shahjahan are also learning nagaswaram art from their father. When asked if there has been objections from any religious leaders, to his family’s tradition of playing music in temples and mutts, his response was a firm no. “Except one or two (and they do not know much about music) there was absolutely no objection” he says. “Moreover,” he adds, “there is a practice of conducting nagaswaram concerts in mosques during festivals. We have performed several times in various mosques in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Our firm belief is that music is above everything else.” India’s pluralism could not have found better exponents than these two committed musicians.