Sunday, 20 April 2014

Echoes Of Hymns Past

The name "Saravana Bhavan" came up in conversation today. This is of course a famous chain of restaurants that originated in Tamil Nadu and now claims to be the largest chain of vegetarian restaurants in the world.

The name set off a curious chain (if you will) of thoughts in my head. I remembered hearing a religious song long ago with the words "Saravana Bhavana" in it. My own parents didn't play much religious music in the house, but when I used to visit my grandmother in Madurai (which was once or twice every year), I would get to experience a different kind of lifestyle and culture. I remember my aunt playing the song "(S)kanda Sashti Kavacham" (or "Kandar Sashti Kavasam"), a song in praise of Lord Muruga (also known as Karthikeya or Subramaniam).

Since everything is on YouTube nowadays, I was quickly able to track down the song. Hearing it with adult ears gave me a different sense altogether. As a well-designed piece of music, it has few parallels. The tune is catchy, being quite melodious and repetitive, with some variation to keep it from becoming too monotonous. It employs alliteration and onomatopoeia. I guess the devout would also find the lyrics very moving.

Speaking of lyrics, I could only understand about half the words, since I have never formally learned Tamil (the formal and colloquially spoken forms of the language are very different). I found a clip on YouTube with lyrics, and I realised with dismay that not only was my vocabulary inadequate, my ability to read the script was so far below par that I could barely keep pace with the song. If I had to sing karaoke, I would fail miserably. I guess that's what comes from growing up in another linguistic state from your own. I can read Kannada faster than I can read Tamil, and I can read Hindi far faster than either Kannada or Tamil. Hindi was my second language at school, and Kannada my third, and of course, I never learnt Tamil formally at all. Not surprisingly, my skills in these languages follow that order. I taught myself Tamil in my late teens and early twenties when studying at IIT Madras. On my weekend city bus trips to visit my local relatives in Madras (now Chennai), I would look out of the window at the shop signs (which were in both Roman and Tamil scripts) and try to decipher the Tamil words. Gradually, I got better, to the point where I can now read and understand cartoons in Tamil. (My ambition is to improve to the point where I can read Kalki's classics in the original - Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sapatham and Parthiban Kanavu.)

[It's related to my belief that if Indians studied the history of the Pallavas and Cholas more and that of the Mughals less, they would have greater cultural self-confidence because of the emphasis on victories and successful power projection far afield rather than of defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. And no, I'm neither jingoistic nor one of those Hindutva types, just someone impatient with the attitudes of servility and diffidence that have sapped the Indian character.]

Anyway, here is "Kanda Sashti Kavacham". I enjoyed it, and I hope you do too.

Kanda Sashti Kavacham - The odd references to cat's hair (11:08) and suchlike are added curiosities

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