MUMBAI, (C.M. Paul) – Most choirs in Asia may have lustily sung the popular hymn ‘God Still Loves the World’, but not many may know the composer, and fewer still the circumstance under which he composed this song.
It was 1984 – George Orwell’s brave new world had begun. But in a KSRTC bus in Bangalore city Peter Gonsalves, a student of theology at KristuJyotiCollege, was on his way to an evening choir practice in preparation for his very first audio-cassette. The bus was over-crowded with simple folk returning home from work. The scent of soiled and sweaty clothes filled the air. The conductor shrieked his whistle from one stop to the next as the bus joggled and jerked through a wall of unruly traffic. All this supplemented Peter’s depressing thoughts on poverty, inequality and injustice which he had heard at a social analysis lecture that morning.
The sudden burst of childish laughter caught in a crowded bus in Bangalore in 1984 delighted Gonsalves who saw a happy baby staring at him as she lay on her mother’s lap. Tagore’s words flashed in his mind: “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man” and was born the winning title-song of his first music album that spelled hope: ‘God still loves the world.’
This December Fr. Peter Gonsalves, SDB, completes twenty-five years as a priest, while his brain-child Tej-Prasarini celebrates the year of its twentieth anniversary. To mark this double jubilee, the Tej-prasarini will release a CD containing seventy of his hymns in MP3 format on December 1. These are hymns that were hitherto spread over various publications at various moments in his life, from the time he was in school (like ‘All for You’) to his present role as professor of Communications at SalesianUniversity, Rome (like ‘A Christian’s Prayer for India’). The CD is aptly named, The Peter Gonsalves Collection – Lyrical Food for the Soul.
In an interview with him, he frankly discusses the history, purpose and vision of his unique music ministry that has always accompanied his more time-consuming responsibilities.
Tell us what made you choose song-writing as your Salesian and priestly apostolate?
Growing up with the Seekers and then the Beatles in a westernized suburb of Mumbai city, I was always attracted to the power of song-writing to get an idea home. My mother’s encouragement and the Salesian school environment fostered this talent. I even had the opportunity of having composers like Fr. Desmond Paes as my teachers. My maternal grand uncle Msgr. F. X. Vaz of Portuguese Church, Dadar, who was also a composer in his own right, encouraged my early attempts with very sound advice. Then there was ‘Sing a New Song’ of the Bombay Archdiocese, particularly Frs. J. Mercier and A. Nazareth who began to publish those of my compositions that had liturgical value. My provincials and confreres looked favourably on this novel way of spreading the Good News and supported me all the way.
Seventy songs in one CD is quite a feat! Is this just a compilation or is there anything new?
It is certainly a feat for Fr. Joaquim Fernandes and his team at Tej who have put this CD together in MP3 format. It contains compositions published from 1984 onwards and covers nearly all the songs from five CDs: God Still Love the World, Beautiful, Everyday its Christmas, Jesus is Wonderful and I Celebrate You. The novelty is that God Still Loves the World has been remixed. It was originally a two-track analogue recording orchestrated by Jerry Amaldev. The new remixed version is digital and is orchestrated by Amon Daniels.
Why is it that only few of your many songs are sung in Churches? Is this due to poor marketing strategies?
Apart from a few of my hymns, most of my songs are composed for the ‘liturgy of life’. They are meant to give greater depth to our routine everyday experiences. This choice has given me more freedom of expression in the selection of themes, music and words. I want my lyrics to speak frankly to the heart of the listener engaged in the battle of existence, struggling to make ends meet, suffering injustice, tempted by mediocrity, discouraged by failings, fighting addiction… My songs are meant to touch people wherever they are – especially if they do not appear for liturgical ceremonies like Sunday Mass.
Did you choose this life-based genre purposely? Or did it become habitual as time went by?
My studies in theology and my work as a missionary among the poorest sections of Indian society opened my eyes to the new face of God who is present in the ‘here and now’ of everyday life; closer to us than we are to ourselves, who is not indifferent to human pain and is even ready to set Himself up as a victim of injustice through the crucifixion of his Son. A God who, I repeat, still loves the world, even if we don’t believe it; who loves busily and passionately through the liberating actions of all people of peace who strive to make his Kingdom come.
Soon after my ordination, I was sent to the Marathi mission of Ahmednagar. Here I was amazed at how poor farmers of a drought-stricken terrain would find faith and solace in their bhajan-singing that could go on and on into the night. (These were the days before TV had reached them.) Their music and lyrics inspired me to develop an audio-cassette ministry so that they became catechists to their own people through their bhajans. After my transfer to Pune, I consolidated this apostolate by inviting professional Marathi radio artists, chief among them being the late Jayantkumar Tribhuvan. It was he who gave this ‘mission to spread the Light’ through music the Marathi name, ‘Tej-prasarini’.
What according to you is Tej-prasarini’s best contribution to India and the Indian Catholic Church?
Tej-prasarini, was able to make a significant contribution in the area of Media Education in the late 1990s. Communication institutions that offered teacher-training courses in ‘critical analysis of mass media for responsible citizenship’ were extremely few. Tej contributed its mite to this growing movement through the publication of the teachers’ manual, Exercises in Media Education and the implementation-based courses for teachers all over India. By the year 2000, about 40 courses had been conducted involving teachers of all faiths, based on requests that came in chiefly from school principals. On the ecclesial level, Tej-prasarini coordinated and published the first formation plan for Salesians in media and communications which was called, Shepherds for an Information Age. Ten years later, this was to become, the three-volume manual of pastoral communications for the Indian Church, entitled, Communication for Pastoral Leadership.
You’re now twenty-five years a priest. Any regrets?
Yes. Not having trusted Him enough!