India's Carnatic Singers Face Backlash For Performing Non-Hindu Songs Some fans of Carnatic singing, a type of South Indian classical music rooted in Hinduism, are angry with performers who've adapted and performed Christian songs.
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India's Carnatic Singers Face Backlash For Performing Non-Hindu Songs

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India's Carnatic Singers Face Backlash For Performing Non-Hindu Songs

India's Carnatic Singers Face Backlash For Performing Non-Hindu Songs

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to a musical controversy in South India. First, we have to explain something called Carnatic singing. It's a type of classical music rooted in Hinduism. Some fans of this are angry because some performers are using this style of music to adapt Christian songs. From Chennai, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Practically every night here, you can find free concerts like this one of traditional South Indian music, Carnatic singing.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: It's like jazz - improvisational - but most of the songs are devotional, in praise of Hindu gods.

O.S. ARUN: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: O.S. Arun has been a Carnatic singer for 35 years. He's recorded dozens of albums, performed with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr and is famous for adapting outside songs to Carnatic style.

ARUN: (Singing) Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are falling (ph), (vocalizing).

FRAYER: But this summer, when Arun advertised a concert of Christian hymns in Carnatic style, social media erupted, calling him a traitor to his Hindu faith.

ARUN: I'm a Hindu - hundred percent Hindu. And that's the beauty of Carnatic music. It is very, very easy to adapt yourself to any style, explore a different genre out of love for music, not that I want to convert into any other religion. Come on. Give me a break.

FRAYER: Arun and other Carnatic singers have long included Christian or Muslim songs in their repertoire. It was never an issue.

LAALITHYA KONDURU: It's not that they're singing about Jesus.

FRAYER: Laalithya Konduru, a doctor and amateur musician herself, wrote a magazine op-ed saying it's fine to praise Jesus - just don't use Hindu devotional music to do it.

KONDURU: They're taking something inherently Hindu and trying to strip it of its roots and say this is not Hindu. That's what people are finding offensive.

FRAYER: That offense has boiled over on Carnatic singers' Facebook and YouTube pages. They've been called disgusting cretins. Arun got threatening phone calls. And one by one, Hindu temples in the U.S. where Carnatic singers were supposed to perform this fall have said they're no longer welcome. When the secretary of Chennai's prestigious music academy wrote an article defending Arun's artistic freedom, there were calls for him to be fired. M. Ramesh, a Chennai journalist and Carnatic singing fan, says this is not about music. It's about politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India.

M. RAMESH: It's been there for a long time. And today there is a perception that the climate is now right for them to speak. There is a pro-Hindu nationalist government.

FRAYER: The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some of his followers believe India's Hindu identity is under threat.

RAMESH: The government, I think, is not doing enough to stop these voices - extremist voices.

FRAYER: Laalithya Konduru, the doctor who wrote an op-ed, says she's no extremist. She's a religious conservative defending the religious character of this music, and she doesn't want to be labeled a bigot.

KONDURU: They're suddenly, like, oh, them right-wingers. They look down upon them. Why? Freedom of expression, freedom of speech - why can't it be for the other side as well?

ARUN: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: Now O.S. Arun only dares to sing about different gods within the privacy of his own home. He switched off social media and canceled his U.S. tour. He shrugs and says maybe this is just his karma, to be caught between music and politics.

ARUN: (Vocalizing).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Chennai, India.

ARUN: (Singing) Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away (vocalizing), yesterday (vocalizing).

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