Ours was an accidental meeting. Since I had heard a lot about him from my wife, he was not a stranger to me. There was a time when she prayed fervently for him but I did not know how intensely she liked him. She had made a list of all the songs he had composed and sang. She had also heard them in YouTube and other social media. And, most curiously, she has not yet met him or his family, although all the details about them are as familiar to her as the lines on her palm.
He is Rev Sajan P. Thomas, a priest of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. I have little hesitation in comparing him to Thyagaraja, whose Pancharatna kritis (Five gems) alone have made him an immortal. I am sure connoisseurs of Carnatic music would laugh at me for making the comparison for the priest is no greater than a baby making his first steps in the wondrous world of music while Thyagaraja, who lived in the 18th century, was the uncrowned King of Carnatic music.
Those who know Thyagaraja know only too well that the greatest concerts that he held were when he sat alone in front of his ishta devata (personal God) and sang to please him. Music was just an instrument for him to worship Lord Ram.
Small wonder that when an attractive offer reached him to become a court singer, which would have ended his poverty, the Brahmin from Thiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur District, dismissed the offer with the contempt it deserved. What’s more, it even prompted him to compose Nidhi Chala Sukhama (Does wealth bring happiness?). That was the ultimate insult the King of Thanjavur had to suffer. “My music is for God, not for man”, the Saint is known to have asserted.
Why I brought up this episode in the life of Thyagaraja was because Sajan Achen, as I would like to call him hereafter, considers his music as nothing but an offertory to God.
Like Thyagaraja, he does not want to take any credit for his compositions. “All my compositions were inspired by God and if someone were to ask me to write a song to fit a scene, I would just not be able to compose. I have no skill at all, poetic or musical, except when He gives me the lines and the music to go with them”.
That is exactly what he says in one of his most popular songs, “Ellam ellam dhanamalle, ithounnum entethalla/ Ellam ellam thannathalle, ithonnum njan nediyathalla” (Everything, everything is a gift, nothing is mine/ Everything, everything is given, nothing is my earning). The lines are not what are called great poetic utterances like Kumaran Asan’s “ Haa pushpame!” (Oh, flower!) and Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” but they come from the heart which is what lifts up his songs from the ordinary to the divine and make them memorable.
They have the qualities ascribed to the compositions of some all-time great Christian hymn writers like Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi who wrote not with pen but with heart as when he penned, Dukhathinte paanapathram, Karthavente kayyil thannal, santhoshathodu athu vaangi, Halleluja padeedum njan (If God gives me the chalice of sorrow, I will happily receive it and sing Praise the Lord).
Such a perilous moment arrived in the life of Sajan Achen when doctors diagnosed a growth at the junction where the ear, the nose and the throat meet as cancerous about three years ago. For a singer no other area of the body could be so important. It is like the Sangam for the Hindu where the Ganga, the Jamuna and the Saraswati merge into one. I remember singer Jesudas having told me while interviewing him that he never drank cold drinks as he always preferred plain, lukewarm water.
Dark clouds hovered over him, as he began to ask God, “Why me?” The answer came to him almost instantly, “Why not you?” He knew that he was no one to question God and his duty was only to accept whatever God ordained for him. It was not just God’s counter question that brought sense to him but also a little story mentioned in a book by Fr. Bobby Jose Kattikkad, known popularly as Bobby Achen. A Capuchin, he is a well-known writer and speaker whom the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi honoured at a function in Kozhikkode recently.
There was a little illustration in the book and it was a conversation between two persons who came out of the church after attending the Holy Communion service. It was raining heavily. One of them began to curse the rain and said, “If I had an inkling of the wretched rain, I would not have come to the church. What a waste of time!” The other person responded calmly to the wild uttering: “There is no rain which has not ended. Please wait, it will soon be over”.
The Capuchin priest would not have imagined even in his wildest dreams how comforting his illustration would be to a fellow worker in God’s vineyard, who had just been diagnosed with The Emperor of All Maladies, as Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Cancer, calls the dreaded disease. The little illustration prompted him to compose a song that begins with:
Oru Mazhayum Thorathirunnittilla (No rain has not ended)
Oru Kaattum Adangathirunnittilla (No wind has not calmed)
Oru Raavum Pularathirunnittilla (No night has not turned into dawn)
Oru Novum Kurayathirunnittilla (No pain has not subsided)
When Sajan Achen wrote these lines, he would not have thought that it would go viral in the social media and people like me would love to hear him sing it again and again.
Those who have read the Great Christian Hymn Writers by Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson know only too well that some of the great Christian hymns had their origin in sorrows and personal tragedies. Like, for instance, the worshipful lyrics of "Holy, Holy, Holy"; the comforting assurance of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow"; the trusting submission of "Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and the bold declaration made by "O for a Thousand Tongues.”
Kochukunju Upadeshi’s song that I mentioned earlier was written in tragic circumstances. In short, most great Christian songs are about the private struggles and personal triumphs the hymn writers experienced — stories that give their already-meaningful songs added significance.
Once while returning to Kayamkulam from the Maramon convention, I met in the train a middle-aged person, who noticed the Maramon Convention Songs that I had with me.
“Please read song No. XY on Page No. AB”, he asked me. I happily did so. I read it in less than a minute. They were words strung together with great effort. The song had everything except poetry. “Actually, they had selected two of my songs but one was dropped at the last minute to accommodate another which was composed by a more powerful person”, he added.
I felt like telling him that he should be grateful to the church for publishing his song. Before I could summon up courage to do so, he opened his brief case and showed me the previous year’s Maramon Convention Songs book which also had one of his songs. I was spared of the trouble of reading his poem, as he had to get down from the train while I continued my journey. Thank God, I do not remember his name for I could have attracted libel.
In contrast, my relative Rev Ninan Varghese had an anecdote to share. How he and Vicar-General Very Rev Thomas Cherian (Mahesh Achen) had to use all their persuasive skills that bordered on threat to force Sajan Achen to write his first song for the Maramon Convention, held every year on the banks of the sacred Pampa since 1895. Since then his songs have been part and parcel of the convention.
In the latest version of the Maramon Songs (2016), there were two songs composed by him. One of them says,
“ Enikkayi karuthum, enne vazhi nadathum” (You care for me, You show me the way)
Enne muttum ariyunnavan (You are the one who knows me fully well)
Ente novukalum, ninavukalum (My sorrows, my thoughts)
Aazhamayi ariyunnavan (The one who knows deeply)
Natha, neeyallatharumilla (Lord, I have no one else but you)
I have made a little study of his songs. His constant refrain is that he needs nothing but God’s grace. For a believer nothing is more important than His grace which alone sees him through all his trials and tribulations.
It is now nearly three years since his disease was diagnosed and treated. He had to undergo as many as 33 sessions of radiation. Because the area where he had cancer was sensitive, it was not an easy task even for the expert doctors at the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, to operate upon. A wrong incision or a wrong stitch could finish any of his faculties. God’s grace was with him as the surgeons deftly used their instruments.
Three years later, he is more or less cured but the imponderables remain imponderables. Because of the radiations, the glands that produce saliva and tears have dried up. It is saliva that keeps the mouth and throat constantly lubricated. He has to take small sips of tea to keep his mouth moistened. Speakers and singers know how devastating it is to feel dryness in the mouth while they are in action! Neither music, nor words would come from a dry mouth.
Sajan Achen has to struggle with this condition every time he is called upon to sing on stages as far away as Kuwait or Karol Bagh or Melbourne.
Before the doctors could operate upon him, they had to remove all his dentures. The Metropolitan, Joseph Mar Thoma, might have been very harsh to my friend Alexander Philip when he was expelled from the church but he was so kind to Achen that he felicitated his journey to the US to get the best artificial dentures possible. However, anything artificial has a limited life.
As Achen realises this, he is not deterred by the discomforts. “I have got used to living without saliva, though I can eat only soft food like overcooked rice”.
But when he sang a few lines of his favourite song Oru Mazhayum Thorathirunnittilla for me, I remembered Fra Gino Alberati, a soft-spoken Capuchin who surprised me by his loud but melodious singing that reverberated in the Capuchin friary at Assisi in Italy in September last when I visited the place in the company of my friend Fr Bijoy Varghese Payappan. Their voices have a lot of similarities.
No, Sajan Achen does not have a large repertoire of songs to his credit. Just about 100. Need one have to write thousands of songs to become a good composer? Kamukara Purushothaman is still remembered for his song “ Atma Vidyalayame”, John Henry Newman for his “Lead Kindly Light” and Joseph M. Criven for his “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!”
He did not learn music in the traditional way. Whatever he learnt was as a member of the church choir. One of his best periods in life was as head of the Department of Sacred Music of the Mar Thoma Church in which capacity he choreographed some of the great Maramon songs. He is today head of Scripture Union, an ecumenical initiative and a constant presence in the musical programmes of the church.
Sajan Achen believes that he could not have overcome the crisis he faced without the support of his family. His wife, the daughter of a priest, is a smiling presence in his life and so are his children Jeevan, a copy writer who has shown talent as a singer and composer, and Nanma, an architect who loves to sing duets with her brother.
After I took leave of Achen, I saw on computer a three-hour musical programme based on his songs with singing by members of the Abu Dhabi Mar Thoma Church choir. It was titled “Nilaavu Pole” (Like Moonlight). Achen and his songs are like moonlight which is at once soothing and pleasant. May the coming year be like his songs, comforting and peaceful to everyone who hears them. I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous New Year.
The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 02nd January 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 1)#