Imagined Polyphonies

This was a piece I made for the Kochi Bienalle 2017 as part of CRiSAP.


I come from a community from Kerala known as the Syrian Christians. It is not altogether clear where our geographical origins are from but the religious practices originate from the Syrian rites that the Christian communities in Syria formulated in the early history of Christianity.

The legend that we grew up with was that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, St. Thomas brought Christianity to Kerala. It is a disputed story but it is one that interests me. Since then the community has gone through various bifurcations in its religious makeup with arrival of the Portuguese and the British versions of Christianity. So Syrian Christians in Kerala can be Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican or Pentecostal.

Our community therefore has a set of histories that I want to explore. The bible is still the central text to all these traditions and so I want to explore these diverse histories through a narration of the stories of Babel and Pentecost.

Babel and Pentecost

I’ve chosen the texts of Babel and Pentecost because of the presence of the multilingual in the story. Babel is the story where the people try to create this fantasy of unity building up a monolithic and awefilled entity that sees across the world. This has strong resonances today where there are groups of powerful people trying create a uniform and controlled world where they might exercise their power influence as they see fit. God however scatters these people because their first call in Genesis is to go out into the world and engage with it. Language is supposed to be a response to environment but in the story of Babel, God disturbs the language first. Opposing their monistic desire to be great and not to be scattered, God enforces a plurality on the people. This plurality causes confusion and they go their separate ways. This confusion continues as we find it difficult to come to terms with the difference of others and the difference we have with our own selves.

In Pentecost there is a reversal. This is not a reversal of plurality. The plural is preserved. Those of different languages aren’t brought together back into one language. Instead the Holy Spirit provides understanding. Difference is now acknowledged, accepted and most importantly understood.

I wanted to portray the multilayered nature of Kerala Syrian Christian identity, by reading these texts. We often try and have a tower of Babel identity. A single story that stands tall and proud and is unified. However this tower is always under threat of being scattered. There are stories and facts that don’t fit. In the scattering we either discard or ignore or marginalise what doesn’t fit with the tower.

Pentecost allows us to get back into an acceptance of difference and acknowledge that it is possible to bring conflicting sounds together.

The Sound

I recorded readings of these texts in Greek, Portuguese, English and Malayalam. For the Pentecost reading I added another voice; that of Peshitta Aramaic. Greek is there because the New Testament was originally written in Greek and Christianity is steeped in the cosmopolitan Greek culture of the 1st and 2nd century AD. Aramaic is there because it is the language of the Syrian rites and is also the closest to what we know of how Jesus himself spoke.

Do have a listen and let me know what you think. Also if I have made some error in the languages biblical texts do let me know. Thanks!

And thanks to those who read these texts!

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