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In Conversation With Rev. Jegath Gaspar Raj

Ranjani Saigal

Rev. Jegath Gaspar Raj is a Catholic priest from India. He is the founder of Tamil Maiyam, a non-profit organization which promotes Tamil arts, Literature and Culture . It was created with a special thrust on Research, Creative productions and Publications as well as to bring the fruits of modern science to the ordinary Tamils and to create a platform for Tamils living in various parts of the world to interact, relate, learn and work together for the betterment of Tamil language and Tamil society.

The Reverend  spent the past three years in creating a very special project – Thiruvasakam in Symphony. The project is a musical CD created under the direction of Illayaraja, the famous music director. The CD is created as a crossover album  with a goal to bring the verses of the Thiruvasakam written by the great Shaivite Saint Manickavasagar to a world-wide audience.

 The Reverend has degrees in Theology, Mass Communication and Political science. As director of the Tamil Language program in Veritas Radio in Philippines, he was able to help over 4,500 tamil families affected by the civil war in Srilanka, find and unite with their loved ones.

 The New England Tamil Sangam arranged a talk by the Reverend at the home of Dr. Ramaswamy Jesuraj.  The Reverend used the opportunity to felicitate Mr. Venkat Bala, a New England resident for his unstinting help and support for the Thiruvasakam in Symphony Project. The audience was so taken with the work that over 70 copies of the CD were sold in just one evening.

 A charismatic speaker, he talked about  his work, his passion for Tamil and his thoughts on faith and spirituality.

What motivated you to found Thamizh Maiyam?

Thamizh to me is not just a medium of communication. Due to my training as a priest I have had the opportunity to learn several languages. Of all of them Greek and Thamizh touch my soul in a unique way.

I admire Thamizh culture because it has always had a great respect for the Truth. We have had saints  like “Nakkirar” who did not fear even getting burnt by the third eye of Lord Shiva and continued to adhere to the truth.  In Thamizhnadu an ordinary woman like Kannagi could make a powerful king shiver in his shoes by proclaiming the truth.

The Thamizh language to me mediates the knowledge and wisdom of the Thamizh people who have lived for nearly 2000 years.  I felt a great need to bring this beautiful language and culture to the world at large and that is why I founded Thamizh Maiyam.

Why did you put so much energy into creating Thiruvasakam in Symphony?

It was the sheer joy of the Thamizh verses presented by Manickavasagar that first drew me to the work. Later as I continued reading it I was so amazed at the spiritual nature of the work. I was drawn to becoming a priest because of the personality of Jesus – a God who embraces and participates in human life and wipes away our tears. Manickavasagar showed me the same God in Lord Shiva. He brought God close to humans. Here was Lord Shiva carrying mud on his back and enduring the whip of the master to support a poor devotee of his.

The Saint also understood that God was beyond religions. “You are known as Lord Shiva in the south and others may call you by different names” says Manickavasagar.  I feel that anyone who just listens to the verses will certainly be transformed.

I am very familiar with Carnatic music and Western Classical music. I felt the genius of Illyaraja could blend the various traditions together to create a masterpiece crossover album and perhaps then Thirvasakam may be heard the world around.

Could you describe the experience of creating this project?

I think creating it was a spiritual journey for me. I decided that we needed the support of ordinary people for this project so that it could stay away from politics and special interest groups. Thus I sought funding from individuals. I started with a mere one Lakh rupees and the project ended costing over a Crore rupees.  I worked very hard building a network, talking to people and collecting funds.

Priests are not supposed to have egos. When I presented my ideas and was turned down for funding by many I realized that I did have an ego and was very hurt. I think it was the Lord’s way of working with me.  But the Lord says in the Bible “You begin and I will complete”. I saw this in action in many ways.

We were in Hungary and needed to pay 10,000 dollars for the orchestra. We had made arrangements from India for the money  but at the last minute the money did not come. We were desperate and at that time Venkat Bala from Boston send me the money. We had never met but he trusted my word and sent me the money. This project was feasible because of people like him.

There were many who have trusted me and helped me create this masterpiece. I owe it them to make sure that the CD reaches as many people as possible.  I know that once people hear it, it will touch them deeply. I am also grateful to my Bishop, Antony  Devoto who gave me time off from my duties in the church to pursue this passion.

You are a Catholic priest. Did that create any conflict as you worked with the verses of a Shaivite saint?

Tamils have long understood that God is beyond religions. If politics does not get involved no one will have any conflict. In the verses of Manickavasagar if I replace Lord Shiva with Jesus, Allah or Jehovah it will not take away an ounce of its spirituality. These are but names. As you well know the English translations of Thiruvasakam and the Thirukural was done by two missionaries, G.U. Pope and Father Beckett, a over a hundred years ago. My Bishop encouraged the project because he really wanted to increase interfaith communication. Of course to respect another religion one must have strong roots  in one's own faith.

You worked at Radio Veritas as a Tamil Language program coordinator. In the process you helped a lot of Srilankan Tamils. Could you describe that experience to us?

As part of the Tamil language program outreach we asked people to write to us. A large number of the letters came from Sri Lankan Tamils whose families were really in deep trouble because of the war.

During war times in Sri Lanka, when a young boy turns 17 , the Tamil Tigers look at him as a potential recruit. The government looks at him as a potential trouble maker. The parents decide that the best way to keep him safe is to send him to Canada or US. They find an illegal human trafficker and give him lots of money and entrust the boy to his care. The trafficker brings him and dumps him in a country  like Nepal or Pakistan. The kid has no money, very little knowledge of the language and to survive he gets in illegal activity. This gets him into jail.

In the meantime in the war torn village a people may wake up to a bombing and they run for their lives. By reading letters on the air of the different people and their stories we were able to unite nearly 4,500 families and rescue many a young men who suffered under the hands of illegal human trafficking.

You have accomplished so many big things  at such an young age. As you proceed in your journey though life what more do you hope to accomplish?

 For me there are no big or small things. I have learnt so much from things that seem small to people.  I do hope that I learn the best values  in the world and inculcate them. I hope I can continue honest inter-religious dialogue. I hope I can bring the great Tamil literature and culture to the world stage. If I do not read Thiruvasakam it is my loss and not the loss of Manickavasagar. I hope I can give more people the opportunity to be touched by these masterpieces.

(To learn more about Thiruvasakam in Symphony or to buy the CD please visit the website www.tis-usa.org)

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