Christian priest who excels in singing Muslim folklore
By Anjana George
Anikkadu: Don’t be surprised if you hear Muslim folklore songs reverberating from a Christian monastery in Kerala, southern India.
The singer is none other than the superior of the Mar Gregorios Syrian Orthodox Dayara at Anikkadu, Pathanamthitta — Father Severios Thomas of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
His passionate rendition of Mappilapattu (Mappila song) in his mellifluous voice is breaking religious norms and blending art and love.
“I love singing ishals of mailanjipattu as I believe they bring great delight to those around me. Each line of these songs holds ethos and triggers emotions,” Father Thomas says taking a break from singing Malabar’s famous mappila songs that capture the joy and sorrow, hope and despair of common man.
Mappila Paattu are a folklore Muslim song genre rendered to lyrics in colloquial Mappila dialect of Malayalam laced with Arabic.
Mappilas are an ethno-religious community of Muslims living in Kerala’s Malabar region. The community originated as a result of the pre and post-Islamic Arab contacts with Kerala for commerce.
Mappila songs have a distinct cultural identity. It is closely linked to the cultural practices of Kerala. The songs use words from Persian, Hindustani, and Tamil, apart from Arabic and Malayalam. They deal with themes such as religion, love, satire, and heroism, and are often sung at occasions of birth, marriage, and death. Mappila Paattu now forms an integral part of Malayalam literature.
Fr Thomas’ tryst with mappilapattu began when he was studying tenth grade in his native place Prayar, Chengannur.
“When my neighbor, Benny chettan heard me singing, he told me that my voice would be ideal for mappilappattu. He introduced me to the world of mappilapattu through audio cassettes and I soon fell in love with the intricacies of its tune, mood and rhythm. It touched my heart; the language is so simple and pure,” the bearded priest recollects.
Coming from a musical family, Fr Thomas fell in love with the genre. “I used to be part of church choir back then, and I also started singing at wedding functions and parties. Everybody started admiring my efficiency in rendering mappilapattu,” he narrates.
After two years, he got ‘the divine call’ and joined the ashram to become a priest. “I continued singing but not mappilappattu,” says Father Thomas, who has brought out three Christian devotional albums. However, his love for mappilapattu remained intact.
Things changed when his video, singing a mappilapattu during a get-together went viral in October 2017. “I became popular online. That was when my superiors realized my talent. I was appreciated and was supported by them,” he says. The humble priest didn’t have to look back since then.
In the past three months, he has conducted more than 25 stage shows in the Middle East and India. “While I performed Christian devotional songs in our church at Ras Al Khaimah, I sung mappilapattu at family meets and Malayalis’ get-togethers,” he says, with a smile.
The remuneration from the shows is given to the ashram that uses the money for charity purposes. “I am getting a lot of invitations from Malabar, especially Malappuram. I am unable to go for all as I have my responsibilities at the ashram,” he says.
The priest, who loves the fast numbers in mailanjipattu (Henna songs), says he is overwhelmed by the love and affection of the people from the Muslim community. “I have no words to express my happiness when they address me as ‘njangalude achan (our priest)’,” he says, while adding that there are a few in his community who are upset about him singing mappilapattu.
“I was delighted to see that there were no negative comments posted under my viral videos on social media, especially when I have seen many priests facing flak for dancing. However, being part of the Orthodox Suriyani community, I have certain restrictions. Sixty five percent of my community are taking it positively,” he says.
However, Fr Thomas is clear that he doesn’t want to mix art and religion. “Faith is only one aspect of mappilapattu. Though I know that it belongs to the Muslim community, I am focusing on the underlying beautiful art. They are folk songs which are rich in culture, language and emotions. Malabar has many unsung mappilapattu composers and singers like Vadakara Krishnadas who believe in the purity of the art form,” he says.
Fr Thomas along with a few artistes, including Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri, plan to promote and support such singers across the state. “I am also doing a comparative research on ancient Suriyani (Syriac songs (kalyanapattukal and mailanjipattukal of Knanaya community) and Malabar’s mappilapattukal,” he says.
(Source: The Times of India)