When, on November 1, 2023, Kerala Piravi Day, Padma Shri Dr. Leela Omchery breathed her last on the way to a hospital in New Delhi, it saddened a musician in distant Dallas in the US, known as Paadum Pathiri, the singing priest. His fame rests primarily on the fact that he is the only Christian priest with a Ph.D. in Carnatic music, considered a Balikera Mala, an impossible task for a Christian, given the intertwining of music and Hinduism.
A priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), popularly known as Saint Chavara Achen’s congregation, Dr. Paul Poovathingal has innumerable stories to narrate about the kindness, affection, and care Leela Amma showered upon him when he went to New Delhi to learn Carnatic music at Delhi University in the nineties.
He was at that time in Chennai after doing his studies at Christ College in Bengaluru. He was blessed with a melodious voice, deep and accommodative enough to assimilate all the seven foundational notes or sounds of Carnatic music. He felt that his vocation was music, the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.
He wanted to pursue music studies at Madras University, but without any scholastic rooting in the subject, except his inborn talents, he knew that getting admission there was as difficult as swimming across the Palk Strait. Yet, his desire to penetrate the walls that separated him from Carnatic music remained unchallenged.
Fr. Poovathingal’s superiors, who trusted in his abilities and dedication to the study of music, did nothing but encourage him to pursue his dreams. They could have asked him to go to a parish and minister to the parishioners anywhere in Kerala or where the CMI was present, like Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh or Sagar in Madhya Pradesh.
Just when he did not know what to do, Sister Mini came from Delhi. She told him that instead of trying to study Carnatic music in its citadel in Chennai, it would be easier for him to get admission to Delhi University, which offered a two-year course titled Sangeet Shiromani.
It was news to the priest that Delhi University had a Department of Music, and Carnatic music was also taught there. She told him about a fellow Malayali, Leela Omchery, who was on the faculty there. Of course, he had heard about Leela Omchery’s brother Kamukara Purushothaman, whose song "Aatma Vidyalayame" is known to every blue-blooded Malayali.
It was October, and it was already late for admission. He managed to get Leela Omchery’s telephone number and summoned up all the courage necessary to call her. He expressed his desire to learn Carnatic music. She told him in crystal clear Malayalam that he should immediately reach Delhi and submit his application.
In fact, she was overjoyed that a Catholic priest wanted to study Carnatic music. The next thing that he did was to book a ticket on the Grand Trunk Express and reach Delhi. He stayed at the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) building near the Catholic Cathedral Church.
Except for some certificates he won in music competitions, he had no special qualifications in the subject to flaunt. However, his desire to learn music was beyond words.
Unknown to Dr. Poovathingal, there were only 10 seats, out of which some were reserved. The competition was indeed tough. His only hope of getting admission lay in Leela Amma’s promise to do the needful.
She gave him advice that when he appeared for the interview, he should be attired in the priestly dress. He did not know why she said so. When his name was called, he stepped into the interview room. Lo and behold, Leela Omchery stood up as he entered the room. Prof Debu Chowdhury, who was the head of the department, and others on the interview board also stood up.
They wondered why she stood up as he was there in his capacity as an admission-seeker. Leela Omchery explained to the interviewers that it was a custom in Kerala to give respect to the priest, irrespective of his religion. Once a person becomes a priest, even his mother calls him Father.
Many of them were not convinced that he was a serious student. They thought that there were better claimants for the seat, but Leela Omchery used all her persuasive skills, and finally, they caved in. Soon, he won the confidence of his teachers because, unlike many others, he devoted full attention to learning from scratch.
It was a recognition of his sincerity and dedication that he was appointed student editor of the magazine the Department of Music used to bring out. He found that Carnatic music was not getting its due in the department. For instance, the walls of the department were adorned with pictures of some of the greats of Hindustani music like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
There was none to represent Carnatic music. When Fr. Poovathingal brought this to the notice of Leela Omchery, she encouraged him to do the needful. The next time when he went to Chennai, he brought pictures of the three great Carnatic musicians — Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastri, also called the Trimurtis. They found their place on the walls of the department.
No, it was not because of his extracurricular activities that Fr Poovathingal became the darling of the department. Among his teachers were violinist T.N.Krishnan, T. R. Subramaniam, Leela Omchery, Guruvayoor T. V. Manikandan, Vasanthi Rao, Radha Venkitachalam and Deepti Bhalla Omchery. When the results came, he got first class first rank. He joined the two-year MA in Music, which also he passed with similar distinction.
The Chancellor of Delhi University is the President of India. Yet, he seldom attended the convocation ceremony. He made an exception in the year Fr. Poovathingal was awarded MA in Music. Alas, he was in Chennai, getting ready to do his Ph.D. Nobody told him about the convocation ceremony and the fact that President Shankar Dayal Sharma would present the degrees.
The priest could have received the certificate from the hands of the President with fellow students and teachers cheering him. It took a long time for him to reconcile himself to his loss.
It is a different matter that a few years later, the then President APJ Abdul Kalam invited him to hold a music concert at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He stayed there for three days. Attending the concert as his own special guests were Leela Omchery, her husband centenarian Prof. Omchery NN Pillai, and their daughter Deepathi Omchery, who succeeded her mother and retired as Dean from the same department.
As Fr. Poovathingal narrated his story at his office in Thrissur, listening attentively were his classmate and musician Manakala Gopalakrishnan and my wife. He joined Delhi University a year after the priest joined. Since he had already done a course in music, he was allowed to do the Shiromani course in one year.
Thus, they became classmates in the second year. As providence would have it, Gopalakrishnan had to drop his studies for a few years before he rejoined for MA (Music). By then, Dr. Poovathingal had started his Ph.D. on Christian influence on Carnatic Music. He had to travel all over the South to collect primary material in pursuit of his studies.
Dr. Poovathingal learned to his wonderment that there were many Christians who wrote kirtans in Carnatic music style. In fact, many of the songs sung in the Mar Thoma Church were composed in various Carnatic music styles. “Though notations are not given, the name of the style is mentioned underneath every song.”
For instance, "Stuthippin, Stuthippin Yesu Devane" (Praise, Praise Jesus) is a song written and composed in Anandabhairavi by Yusthus Youseph, also known as Vidwan Kutti Achan. In fact, the church’s Kristheeya Keerthanangal (Christian Hymns) are replete with such songs. “If you go deep into the subject, you will realise that over a period, Western musical influence began to overshadow the influence of Carnatic music on Christian hymns,” said Dr. Poovathingal with all the authority at his command.
His thesis would be a treasure trove for all the students of Carnatic music and Christianity. That is if the thesis is published in a book form and circulated among those interested in the subject.
Unlike most musicians who feel happy when they perform to the satisfaction of the public, Dr. Poovathingal is constantly thinking of how to use his knowledge for the benefit of humanity. The moment I told him that my wife has been struggling to improve her voice after joining the church choir, he sent me three video clippings that would help her attain perfection in the use of her voice.
He did not put an end to his studies after doing his Ph.D. He went to the US where he studied vocology at Columbia University and at the National Center for Voice and Speech, Denver, Colorado. He is a lifelong student of KJ Jesudas with whom he stays for long periods at Dallas in Texas. “I don’t talk to him. I only listen to him,” he said at one point in our conversation.
Jesudas taught him some special exercises which he would never be able to learn in any university in the world. “Jesudas is a tough teacher. Sometimes the practice lasts for five-six hours. And there are occasions when I lose concentration. Jesudas might be reading a book at that time but he would know that my mind has diverted. He will nudge me to regain my concentration. I consider myself just a student at his feet.”
I first met Dr. Poovathingal when I attended a conference of the Indo-American Press Club at Houston, Texas. There, he presented a Carnatic music concert. That is when I realised the depth of his voice. Apart from APJ Abdul Kalam, he has also sung for none other than MS Subbulakshmi, whom Nehru called the Empress of Music.
He has composed over 1000 songs, and some of them were sung by Jesudas and released under his banner Tharangini. Today, he devotes most of his time to using music for therapeutic purposes. He sent me a video in which a boy approached him with a voice defect. He was not able to speak loudly. He helped him control his voice and increase its audibility.
Recently, a girl who takes part in reality music shows approached him with her problem. He could help her change her tonal positions and align them with her muscles. “Now she is able to perform better.”
One common problem for which people approach him is Puberphonia, also called “functional falsetto.” Normally during puberty, the male voice lowers by approximately one octave, while the female voice lowers by one to three semitones. However, if this natural change does not take place, the person has functional falsetto. This condition occurs more frequently in males.
His intervention has helped many to regain their confidence. He told me about the great singer SP Balasubramaniam referring to him the peculiar case of Ganesh. He was a singer who took part in a reality show where SP was a judge. He suffered from a speech defect. He was referred to an ENT doctor at Guntur who suggested three operations costing Rs 6 lakh. SP referred him to Dr. Poovathingal who took only Rs 1000 to give him complete satisfaction.
As one who is constantly thinking of disseminating the benefits of music among a large number of people, he is now planning a Ganashram in a 10-acre compound near Thrissur. It will have a meditation centre where guests like me would be able to stay for a few days and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of music and return happy and composed.
Once it comes up, it will be a unique centre, and I am sure that nothing will be more pleasing for Leela Omchery in her heavenly abode than to know that her favourite student is bequeathing to the world an institution that will benefit tens of thousands of people. As we stood up after a sumptuous vegetarian lunch he served to take leave of him, I remembered how Leela Amma stood up for him, transforming his life forever.