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Video Ref. Number : CMSI-213


A Consummate Composer and Music Director

in conversation with

Dr. Joseph J. Palackal, CMI

Video Ref. Number : CMSI-213

(Interview Recorded at Soundscape Audio Factory, Simitherimook, Ernakulam, Kerala, India. 28 July 2016)

This interview with one of the most erudite and intelligent music directors in India opens the door to the mind of a composer. The versatility of Jerry Amaldev lies in the huge number and variety of melodies that he composed for both secular songs for the movies and sacred songs for the Catholic liturgies, as well as commercial recordings of Christian devotional songs. He may be the only composer of Christin music in India who is informed by the art of the great tradition of the Gregorian chant of the Roman Catholic Church. He is also one of the very few composers who mastered the musical grammars of the Eastern (Indian) and Western art music traditions and ingeniously employ them in their melodies and orchestrations.

Amaldev is adept in creating new flavors like a master chef by combining condiments collected from disparate locations. The best example is the composition of the Hindi version of the famous Latin chant Exsultet. Amaldev appropriated the melody of this Latin chant and brilliantly transfused its sense into the Hindi version that Fr. Mathew Mulavana, his close friend and long-time collaborator, prepared. The result is another world classic of a melody that is thoroughly “Indian.” Here, the history of the Exsultet extends from the early fifth century Europe to modern twentieth century India. More than that, Amaldev’s Exsultet in Hindi is a masterpiece on its own merits. One might see in this melody, albeit at a microcosmic level, an example of the cross cultural pollination that was set in motion toward the formation of what came to be known as Hindustani music. This composition alone should give Jerry Amaldev at least a footnote in the larger history of music of the world.

Amaldev is one lucky Keralite (from the Malayalam-speaking region on the south-west coast of India), who had the opportunity to connect with such great German missionaries as Fr. George Proksch and Engelbert Zeitler, who loved and admired India and its culture deeply enough to inspire young composers, musicians and artists to interpret Christianity in Indian terms. Amaldev relays the musings of these missionaries in the following words:

See, the Hindu people do not have the pope, no cardinal, no archbishop, no bishop, no parish priest, no kapyar (sacristan), yet this religion has survived for ten thousand years without any problem. What is the secret? The secret is that the religion has gone into the hearts and minds of people through literature, music, dance, and poetry. Therefore, if you want to convey the message of Jesus to these Hindu brothers of ours, forget about preaching, forget about singing in English; translate Jesus’ thoughts into an idiom, into the literature, into music, and into the ethos, they understand best (interview on ).

Amaldev’s own thought-provoking comments on these missionaries make us wonder why, among all the nations in the world, the Germans have been more perfectly tuned to resonate with India’s cultural heritage and intrinsic spirituality (think of Goethe, Max Müller, Hermann Hesse, Hermann Gundert, and John Ernestus Hanxleden, a. k. a. Arnos Pathiri, to name a few).

Amaldev’s observations on the contributions of Catholic musicians from Goa (a Portuguese colony until 1962) to the Hindi film music industry in Mumbai come from his in-depth involvement in the industry during his years of working as music assistant to Naushad Ali (1919-2006), the legendary film music director and composer. We may not ignore the far-reaching effect of these observations in restarting an all-new conversation on the positive influence of the Portuguese missionaries to Indian film industry and Goan culture in general. Who would have thought of such a connection?

The music professor in Jerry Amaldev resurfaces in the segment on the use of Western harmonies in the orchestration of Indian film songs; this segment sounds like a chapter in a music composer’s manual that remains to be written. The treasures of musical knowledge that Amaldev accumulated over the years of his unusual trajectories in life in India and the USA are bequeathed here like a blessing from a father composer to his imaginary children composers. Of particular interest is his discussion on the history of the use of piano and the Western-style orchestration of Indian film songs and, especially, his explication of the incompatibility of the piano and tamburu tunings. The conversation leads to the most lucid explanation ever on the rationale of All India Radio’s earlier prohibition of the use of piano and harmonium in its recording studios.

Jerry Amaldev, indeed, is a national treasure. Secular agencies have honored Amaldev with several awards for his contributions as a composer of film songs. Ironically, although he has composed more melodies for the Roman Catholic and Syro Malabar Catholic liturgies, neither the Catholic hierarchy in Kerala nor the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India has acknowledged Amaldev’s contributions. The Christian Musicological Society of India is grateful to Jerry Amaldev for this substantive interview, which may serve as source material for future researchers on both sacred and secular music in India.

Joseph J. Palackal

17 February 2017

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