From Thrissur to the Music Academy and to the Rastrapathi Bhavan, the musical journey of Fr. Paul Poovathingal has covered all the continents. The singing priest is celebrating his 60th birthday this week.
The music originated in all different cultures of the world as a means of worship to the Almighty. So naturally, the role of priests in the evolution of music has been momentous, be it the Vedic purohits in India or the Christian monks in the Western world. Fr. Dr. Paul Poovathingal who is celebrating his shastipoorthi (60th birthday) on May 27 is perhaps a scion in this hierarchy of architects of an art form which is the ultimate sublimation of the creative sensibility of mankind.
Born in Thrissur, Paul was endowed with an exceptional taste for music which he could prove right from the early days of his life. Perhaps what compelled the functionaries of the congregation of CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate), which he joined, to grant permission for higher education in music was Paul’s insatiable passion for music.
After graduation from Dharmaram College in Bengaluru, he joined the music department of Delhi University. Perhaps a strong footing in classical music was laid there, groomed as he was under maestros like Prof. T N Krishnan, Prof. T R Subramaniam, Dr. Leela Omchery and Dr. Deepti Omchery Bhalla, to mention a few. Exposure to such giants and also the cultural ambiance of Delhi had enough sway on Paul’s music career later.
At Music Academy and Rashtrapati Bhavan
But what had prepared him to be a scholar and also a performer was his days in Chennai later. M Phil and later Ph.D. in Carnatic music for a Catholic priest from the University of Madras was a path-breaking event in the annals of both the Church and the University. What more, he had his debut concert at Music Academy, the mecca of Carnatic music that too before an august assembly of maestros including Dr. K J Yesudas. In Chennai, Paul had the privilege of singing at the home of M S Subbulakshmi as well.
Since then, till the pandemic struck the whole globe in March 2020, it was a hectic time for Paul to do concerts across the globe, perhaps on all continents. Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam, the former president of India sat through Paul’s concert in Rashtrapathi Bhavan and was all praise for the musical ingenuity of the Christian priest and also the way the musician had planned his concert by including compositions belonging to all religions. Moreover, he noticed how the entire team of musicians represented the three religions. “Father, you are promoting religious harmony through music”, he had commended. Try to propagate this message which these days demand so urgently, he had told.
India’s first vocologist
Back home in Thrissur, he took the reins of Chetana Institute of the Devamatha Province of CMI. Chetana College of Music and Dance and Chetana Institute of Vocology were his own creations. A distant education course of the University of Madras was introduced in the music college. Over the years many are the students who have come out of the Chetana Music College armed with a degree in vocal music from the University of Madras. While a few opted for post-graduate studies, others have been successful in landing jobs in educational institutions as music teachers.
Vocology, the science and practice of voice habilitation, maybe in a state of infancy in India but well developed and practiced abroad. Paul’s Institution in Thrissur is the first of its kind and further he is the first Vocologist in the country as well. Paul had his lessons in Vocology under Prof Jeanne Goffi of the University of Columbia and Prof Ingo R Titze, the director of the National Centre for Voice and Speech, Denver, US. Prof Titze is widely known as the Father of Vocology. Later he earned a diploma from the University of Iowa, Colorado. In 2006, Paul opened a weekly clinic in Chetana where people with varied voice problems queue up to be treated, sans any surgery or medicines, but only through vocal exercises prescribed by him.
The patients are professional voice users like singers, teachers, public speakers, preachers, thespians, lawyers, broadcasters, dubbing artists and more. And the voice disorders apart from puberphonia include those caused by vocal cord nodules, vocal cord paralysis, insufficient phonatory gap, ‘Spasmodic Dysphonia’, muscle tension Dysphonia and vocal cord cancer as well as stammering. Paul ascribes all these to unscientific voice production. That Yesudas, his Guru, and the late maestro S P Balasubramaniam used to recommend Paul’s treatment to singers is enough testimony to the healing touch of Paul.
A versatile composer
Interestingly, Paul’s treatment is a blend of both Indian and western techniques. “See how Thyagaraja has expressed so succinctly the technique of voice production in the anupallavi of his composition “Sobhillu sapta swara’ in Jaganmohini raga: ‘Nabhi hrit khanda rasana nasadhula”, he points out. Voice is the manifestation of breath and once exercises for correct breathing are practiced starting from nabhi (abdomen) through hrit (chest), khanda (throat), rasana (tongue) and nasadhula (nose), almost all problems can be remedied, he holds. Annual workshops on Vocology regularly organised in the institute are led by laryngologists, physicists and voice trainers, apart from himself.
A versatile composer, he has to his credit more than 1000 songs, 35 albums and quite a few invaluable compositions among which Arnos Padiri’s Puthen Paana has attracted encomiums from all quarters. Recently Arnos Padiri’s Ummayude Dukham was presented by him in a vocal concert with a visual interpretation of the same in Mohiniyattam. Also, while streamlining the liturgical music of Syro – Malabar Church within the contours of ragas was widely acclaimed, scoring music for Chevalier I C Chako’s Krsithu Sahsranaamam anchored on Carnatic was a giant step in Paul’s attempt for popularising classical music among the Christian community.
An awardee of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Paul’s shastipoorthi celebrations online will be a global event at 7 pm (IST) participated by celebrities belonging to all walks of life.