Chennai: Even though he retired back in 2001 as a supervisor in the library of the Indian Institute of Technology here, 66-year-old N. Srinivasan is a busy man these days.
His days are spent hanging out at various temples in Velachery, his neighbourhood in the southwestern part of this city. Srinivasan isn’t looking for spiritual comforting in his post-retirement life. He has become a professional chanter. With little fanfare, but a lot of enthusiasm, Srinivasan has become part of a growing community of professional chanters of mantras, or Vedic hymns, which provide the backdrop for prayers at Hindu temples and weddings.
“It gives a sense of pride and satisfaction to perform in the temple and to be recognized,” said Srinivasan, who doesn’t get paid for singing in temples but is often given some amounts for private functions.
Priest R. Lakshmi Narasimhan with students at the institute
Chennai’s many temples are increasingly turning to the likes of Srinivasan to add the human element to the din of cymbals, drums and chants even as they try to deal with a growing shortage of priests.
Meanwhile, a plan by the state government to do away with a centuries-old caste system restricting priesthood and chanting to Brahmins has been hanging fire because of court proceedings against the move.
In a city long known for its traditions and considered by some as the most traditional of India’s big metros, Chennai is also in the throes of a socio-economic churn as auto, telecom and information technology companies set up large operations and draw large numbers of non-Tamilians.
Asked what could explain the interest in Hindu scriptures among retirees, Raman Mahadevan, a city-based social scientist, says, “The Vedic revivalism could be explained as a reaction to unleashing of modern things. It might be due to a feeling that they might lose their culture and tradition in Chennai forever.”
Tamil Nadu recently introduced a certificate programme for priests as well, under which people can enrol to learn the basics of rituals and obtain a certificate of priesthood.
Srinivasan isn’t part of the government initiative. He got his lessons from R. Lakshmi Narasimhan, a former research department employee at auto components maker Lucas-TVS Ltd. Narasimhan in turn learnt Vedic hymns from his grandfather, a Vedic scholar.
After spending 33 years at Lucas, Narasimhan took voluntary retirement and started his first centre in Velachery in 2002 after noticing that a lot of retired people seemed keen to learn Vedas and chants. He doesn’t have set fees and takes whatever his students give.
“I saw a great hunger in retired people to learn Vedas and there was no one willing to teach them,” says Narasimhan. Around 90% of his students are retired people. “It takes three times longer for old people to learn, compared with young people. Also, pronunciation is key. It requires a lot of patience to teach the elders.”
Most of his students tend to have a less reliable memory and have a lower recall than younger students.
To overcome that, Narasimhan has customized the Vedas for them, selecting only those bits that are commonly used in religious functions and those that they want to chant every day as part of their own meditation. And for those who cannot read the original transcription in Sanskrit, he has developed a Tamil version.
“We missed the bus in our youth,’’ says M. Alagarswamy, 56, a practising company secretary and cost accountant. “The class has given us an opportunity to learn.”
In the Velachery centre, where about 20 students were present, some 90% claimed that their forefathers were either Vedic scholars or have advanced knowledge of the same.
T.E. Raghava Simhan, who is the primary patron of a temple near Chennai for which he gets some of Narasimhan’s chanters, has another theory. “These are people who rebelled in their youth...took alternative employment opportunities,” he says. “After retirement, they are reviving interest in what their forefathers were doing.”
It isn’t just retirees who are learning Vedas. There is another emerging group, typically of young, unemployed people from the community with little educational qualifications, who are taking up Vedic learning. Many of them learn only the basics of what is needed to perform at marriages or other occasions.
“It is the economic compulsion that is making the youth from the community to learn Vedas,” says Simhan.
But others in this group have gone on to find more serious vocations. “There are three young unemployed people who learned from my dad and now are working as purohits (those who conduct religious functions outside the temple) and performing religious ceremonies,” says L. Ramprasad, Narasimhan’s son, who works in a local research institution. Ramprasad himself knows some basic chants and is also part of Narisimhan’s class.
Traditionally, those who wanted to master the Vedas would be sent to pathshalas at the age of seven. There they’d have to learn the basics of the Vedas for seven years to be able to chant, and enrol for an advanced course for another seven to eight years, which would help them become Vedic teachers or scholars.
But the number of those willing to go to pathshalas for such a long tenure has dwindled. Some prefer to go to modern schools, but often drop out or fail to move on to vocational courses.
Still, there is money to be made, even for the dropouts who learn the basic chanting. Many traditional Hindu households in this city perform “filial” rituals every month, which involve 10 minutes of chanting. A typical purohit has 15-20 families as clients and he visits all the houses in under three hours, earning between Rs750 and Rs1,000 in that time, says Simhan. For weddings, a purohit can command as much as Rs10,000 for the chants.