'Kumari' Aboobacker, doyen of Islamic keerthanas in Carnatic music passes away

Singer TM Krishna and historian Kombai S Anwar fondly remember the musician.
Kumari Aboobacker
Kumari Aboobacker
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Widely considered to be the last doyen of the Tamil Islamic Keerthanas in Carnatic music tradition, singer ‘Kumari’ Aboobacker, passed away in Chennai on October 7, 2020. He was 83. ‘Kumari’ Aboobacker was famed for performing Carnatic Islamic devotional music, a tradition that he pursued till his last.

Historians and musicians say that his loss is irreplaceable, one that leaves behind a huge vacuum. Writer, filmmaker and historian Kombai S Anwar fondly remember the musician. “He belonged to that earlier generation that did not see religion in music. His loss is definitely great. I don’t see even a single person who can continue the tradition,” he says.

Singer TM Krishna agrees. “He was one of the last who knew such a huge repertoire of music. He was a wonderful musician and wonderful human being. One of the last musicians of the Carnatic Islamic devotional music tradition. It is a huge loss, I don't know if we have anyone like him in this specific genre.”

Talking about his first introduction to Aboobacker’s music, Kombai Anwar says, “It happened at a Tamil Islamic Literary Meeting about 10 years back, when I heard him sing the prayer. I was a bit taken aback when I heard Carnatic music at the congregation. I began paying close attention and figured out that the song was from Tamil Islamic Literature. It was Kasim Pulavar’s literature. That’s when I gained more understanding of the tradition."

In 2019, Aboobacker was invited to perform at Chennai Kalai Thiru Vizha (formerly Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha) and the next year, he came back on popular demand. Singer TM Krishna who was part of the organising team of the Vizha says, “He has performed twice at the Vizha, first time at Mylapore. The next year, people began demanding for him to come and that’s when he performed at Kattukuppam in Ennore.”

Aboobacker (2019)

Aboobacker was born in Kanjampuram village (Kanyakumari district) that borders Kerala and around the time he was born, the region was under the Travancore samasthanam (pre-Independence years). Aboobacker underwent 10 years of training in Carnatic music and Balai Mani Asan (Wappu Kannu) was one of his gurus. 

“His gurus were non-Muslims but today Carnatic music has been appropriated and limited to one community. There is also this 100-year-old debate on whether you call it Carnatic music or Tamil Isai. He was the last person standing who exuded that tradition,” Kombai Anwar explains.

Long considered to be a conservator of Tamil Islamic music, Aboobacker in 2014 released music CDs of the Carnatic music rendition of Umaru Pulavar’s 17th century Seera Puranam (History of the Prophet), set to ragas such as Revathy, Kaapi and Bageshri.

“There’s an interesting story that during the '80s, Aboobacker, along with Ka Mu Sherif, a Congress man turned Tamil nationalist, would travel to places upon request and perform a 10-day kadhakalabishegam on the Seera Puranam. Aboobacker would sing and Sherif would tell the stories. This would be during Miladi Nabi (Prophet’s birthday) and there’s a popular belief that when the 10-day performance concluded, it would rain,” Anwar shares. After Sherif’s demise, Aboobacker continued the tradition on his own.

Another crowd favourite is his rendition of Kasim Pulavar's songs on Nabigal Nayagam, written in a style that mirrored Arunagirinathar’s Tirupugazh that was written in praise of Hindu god Murugan.

Anwar points out, “He was not part of sabhas and it was just pure love for music and the form that kept him going. I understand that within the Muslim community there was one section that was against the music, but he was someone who really stood up saying music is beyond religion. He has also sung Christian and Hindu devotional songs, based on requests. He never saw the difference.”

Aboobacker’s music is one that will continue to echo in the hearts of many. “Luckily we have some of his performances recorded. Makkal TV began broadcasting some of his concerts and he has done All India Radio (AIR) programmes as well,” Anwar says.

TM Krishna adds, “The important thing is for us to learn his songs and perform them. We have to pay more attention to that. I have learned a few songs from his recordings but it's a wake-up call to start performing them.”

Listen to this moving performance by Aboobacker:

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