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A pop compilation in the market this year features stars like Celene Dion and Cyndi Lauper Christmas special

Silent night,
virtual night

Carols resonate through the centuries with the colour and tone of the people who sing them. In our times, maybe it is the computers that will animate these songs of comfort and joy

"Oh! So these days even Hindus are into Western classical music?"

This came from the brother of a friend with whom I play the guitar. Of course he wasn't aware that music doesn't sit in pigeonholes. He wouldn't know, for example, that the Madras String Quartet, among the best in the country, is made up of practising brahmins!

Christmas carols, especially in India, are not restricted to Christians or any particular group. Carol singing has become a tradition even at the Vivekananda Ashram in Bangalore, though Vivekananda was one of the most outspoken critics of Christianity.

Carols have been adapted into various Indian languages, and new ones are proliferating. Perhaps the fusion that carols represent -- of the pagan and the Christian -- strikes the right chord in multicultural India.

Obviously the "civilisational mission" of the colonisers, while Christianising the pagans, also resulted in Christianity being paganised. While mainstream practices include door-to-door carol singing and formal church choir performances, the fertility rituals of Kerala Christians (like during the Pindi Kuthi Perumal festival) and the loud neighborhood get-togethers (with much chest beating and hysterical chanting of Hallelujah) evoke primitive practices like shamanism, and the Hindu festival of Kavadi.

Institutions like the Infant Jesus Church, a modern-day Sufi shrine in Bangalore where people of various faiths congregate, and the more cultivated but less popular Maharishi Stanley Jones Christian Ashram in North India represent a synthesis of diverse religious traditions.

Then and now

Given the cultural diversity within Christianity, it becomes difficult to fix a definition for carol singing. Even the formal aspect varies, though most carols can be said to be songs of uniform stanzas beginning with a refrain called a 'burden' or 'nowell' (derived from 'noŽl', the French word for carol), repeated after every stanza.

An earlier edition of the Oxford Music Dictionary describes the carol as "a religious seasonal song, of joyful character, in the vernacular and sung by the common people". The new edition, while describing it as a Christmas song, doesn't talk about its being in the "vernacular" or sung by "common people".

This change in the definitions is not accidental. Though in smaller Christian communities, there exist indigenously written carols in the languages of the region, carol singing, like everything in the global urban world, is getting increasingly homogenised by market-driven media.

Beautiful but neglected

Every Christmas season, new renditions of popular carols are brought out, largely in English, by famous pop and rock singers. These are bought and enjoyed worldwide. But local creative efforts find little encouragement. A friend of mine, who feasts on Bangalore's Christmas music performances, laments the lack of positive appreciation of carol singing in languages other than English, even though their presentation, he says, is "much more beautifully done".

Carols are a legacy of pre-Christian practices in Europe. They were, in the early days of Christianity, like the pagan seasonal festivities taken over and adapted into the Christian calendar.

The English carol is connected with the French 'carole', which was a dance-song extremely popular in medieval France. Over the years, the convivial nature of carol activity was subdued by the church. In the cathedral of Sens in France, the clergy were permitted to dance, provided they didn't lift up their feet!

Medieval carols functioned in a variety of ways: as courtly dance-songs, as festival songs, and popular religious songs serving a didactic purpose. There were even political carols used to mark victories and ceremonies related to the royalty, such as the Agincourt carol. The 'singing around the crib' phenomenon was initiated by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century.

Carols seem integral to Christianity. However, they have not always been so. Political changes in various Christian nations have had their impact on these songs. In England, the Puritan takeover in the 17th century led to a complete ban on carol singing, not to talk of dancing. Interestingly, it was the French Revolution that killed the carols in France.

A class affair

The revival of carols owes much to the modernisation that Europe underwent, in which industrialisation, imperialism and capitalism were significant elements. In England, the art carol of the aristocracy did not revive, and the 'Christmas' carols of today are believed to be a result of Christmas being declared a holiday for the rising working and middle-class.

For a fair understanding of the way Christmas is celebrated and the form in which carols are sung and listened to, we need to be aware of the changes sweeping the world.

God rest you merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day.

These lines of "comfort and joy" echo through the centuries, each time resonating with the colour and tone of the people who sing it. In our times, for many of us, maybe it is the computers that will animate them.

Kamaan Singh Dhami

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