Up Close with Binu Joshua Thomas
By Robin Sam
RIGHT from his childhood days, Binu Joshua Thomas was exposed to so many churches, prayer groups and evangelical networks that almost every congregation in Chennai believes he is one among them. He has loyal friends who swear by him across churches – mainline, charismatic, Pentecostal or non-denominational. A member of the Marthoma Church in Chetpet, 52-year-old Binu Thomas is the director of Link Shipping South Pvt Ltd. The soft-spoken, bespectacled man, who is otherwise a picture of calm and composure, becomes quite animated when he talks about Mother Teresa and Classic Hymns.
Mother Teresa was one of the persons that impacted him the most. His house in Kolkata, where he lived and worked in the early part of his career, was in the same neighborhood as that of Mother’s. While the entire world was bowled over by her simplicity and love for the least and the lost in the society, what zapped Binu Thomas the most was Mother Teresa’s servant leadership style of working. Binu put to use the early lessons learned from her life at work with J M Baxi and later at the shipping division of Tata Tea where he was the sales head.
Another thing that Binu is equally passionate about, if not more, is traditional hymns. Right from his childhood days he was at ease with hymns and songs. At 23, the first job he landed took him to Kolkata. For the next 14 years he had become so accustomed to that city and its ethos that when he packed up and left Kolkata for Chennai in the mid nineties, he realized Madras (the city was rechristened as Chennai in 1996) ‘had suddenly become very cosmopolitan.’ He thought he had come into some ‘highly civilized city.’
His second stint in Chennai also exposed him to something that was totally new. A new trend of worship concerts was sweeping across the city. “While evidently I knew what it was to worship the Lord, what beat me was the ‘worship concerts’,” he says. “Till then, I was only used to going to concerts where the singer did most of the job and once in a while asked us to ‘Stand up’, ‘Clap your hands’, and then ‘Thanks, you may sit down now.’ What I saw in Chennai was, however, something mind-blowing. The moment, the worship leader came on stage, the crowd went into raptures of joy,” he remembers.
“I remember Operation Mobilisation had organized a concert with Bob Fitts. It was a phenomenal experience. The youths swayed to the music and sang the lyrics with complete gusto. But I remember, the next day, they were like flat tires. I asked myself what’s wrong,” he adds.
“Another time, Ron Kenoly was in town. I took my family on a 500 rupee ticket. No sooner had the concert started than those in the front row got up and started singing along with Kenoly. I didn’t know what was going on. I had come to see a concert and the guys in front of me were blocking my view. I had brought my two young sons who could not see the stage from their seats. I remember getting up my seat and urging the guys in the front row to sit down and enjoy the concert. That fell on deaf ears. After a while, we were on our feet too,” he laughs.
“I noticed the worship trend had by then got into the churches as well. The church service began with a worship session that went up to an hour or 45 minutes. At some of the worship sessions, a line from a song would be repeated up to 20 or 25 times. I thought the level of worship in the city was very high compared to what I had seen in Kolkata. Then, the Lord opened my eyes to see that most of the guys were simply aping the West. In our times too, we sang choruses and hymns and the one who led the worship repeated the choruses alright but what I saw at the worship concerts was a little too much.
Borderline worship songs
“That was also the time of the ‘WOW series of contemporary Christian music. I was a big fan of WOW. The first album was good, the second was even better but by the third album I noticed the words had started deteriorating. The lines were getting pedestrian and could be misconstrued as part of a love song featuring two human beings. It didn’t sound like worship songs any more. It had become very borderline singing. One couldn’t make out if it was being sung to the Lord or to one’s love partner on the seashore. Then, I dug deeper and found out that the lifestyles of the worship leaders were also in the borderline.
“Then I realized that hymns had a lot of meaning and we were missing out on hymns per se. Sadly, people who had accepted Jesus as their Lord from other faiths were only used to worship songs. They were completely oblivious of the treasure trove of our hymns. The worship songs were, no doubt, beautiful but some of them lacked depth. The singing of hymns in some of the mainline churches left much to be desired. However, when one went to some of the charismatic churches one realized that the power of the hymns came out forcefully. I knew we had to do something about reviving the traditional hymns and restoring them to the old days of glory. Two years passed and one day we were attending the Sunday service in Egmore Kirk and the power of good singing of traditional hymns with the right accompaniment hit me like a bolt. The organist and the choir director at The Kirk, Arul Siromoney got up during the service and said: ‘I am glad to inform you that our pipe organ has been refurbished and it is being put to use again.’ The thought that I had to do something to revive hymn singing was confirmed by the announcement. After the service, I walked up to Arul and shared my thoughts and he agreed to do his bit for the work. I spoke with other music conductors in the city and they also felt there was a need to revive hymn singing.
“So, after much discussion and prayer in April, 2008 we assembled 9 choirs from Chennai and came together for a trial session. The session sounded heavenly. The top choir voices in the city were excited to sing under one roof. Between August and October of 2008 we had completed the audio/video recording of our first album under the Classic Hymns series titled ‘Ancient of Days.’
“Every conductor brought his/her strength to the table. We all sat together and unanimously decided on the hymns to be sung. For the second album, we took a different route and left it to the conductors to come up with their five songs of their selection. It moved exactly as the Lord wanted. The technical part of it, of course, had to be planned separately. I took some inputs from the conductors based on the theme of the hymn. Visualization of the shots precedes the actual video recording so everything works out fine. Right from the first album we used crane shots but because of some space restrictions inside the Kirk, the crane could only go up to a point. In the later albums we ironed out that issue and made arrangements to make the crane come directly above the people and zoom in on the singers. All the albums offered a learning experience. We had 7 cameras recording the shots from vantage positions. Care was taken to ensure long shots and close-up shots were used judiciously.
“With each album we also made sure to encourage new talents. If you look at our albums we have introduced several new people like 23C and Michael’s Children’s Home. Singing along with seniors in the business positively impacts the confidence of the newcomers. That Michael’s home had a trained choir was a revelation to us. There is a lot of talent in the city that we are not aware of. Also, we wanted to tell the rest of the world about our talent base in singing. We have good music to offer to the world.
The power of prayer
“Most of the times, we think that we need a Don Moen or a Paul Wilbur to come down here to give us a good worship experience. We spend a lot of time, money and effort in bringing down these people. There’s nothing wrong with that, as we need to have them around. We need to break the grass-is-greener on the other side mindset. The response to our albums has been terrific whether it’s from Germany, UK or US. A lot of people wrote to us saying that they had never before seen this kind of singing – the joy and the spirit of singing was infectious, they said. They asked us how we got so many talented people together. We said we didn’t know; we simply went ahead and did what we felt was right. Then we realized that prayer was the backbone of the entire endeavor. Before the start of each of the albums, we would have prayed ourselves and asked scores of people across the world to pray along with us. We have a prayer list drawn up out of every task involved in the production of the album. We send the list across to people and say ‘Just keep praying about it.’ We don’t ask people to do a one- or two-day fasting prayer. That’ll be like adding another routine to their already crammed regimen. People called us up and emailed us to say they were praying. And on the eve of the recording sessions, we again remind people to pray. Thanks to the technological advancements, even prayer requests can be made viral to reach thousands of people across the world. It’s nice when people call you up just to ask if everything went well with the recording.
‘Ancient of the Days’
“When we were recording our first album ‘Ancient of the Days’, we knew there was no way we could repeat the shoot again because of the cost factor. Cameras were placed, mikes checked and wires laid out carefully when at 1 pm one of the crew members came to me and said “Binu, I just got a call from someone in Sriperumbudur. It’s pouring out there.” With that he motioned me to look up at the sky. Dark clouds had started gathering in Egmore as well. I told him not to worry. “The clouds will go the other way,” I told him and went about my work. Within half an hour, I got calls from several people who were supposed to be singing. They were either in Mogappair, Mount Road, Anna Nagar or Ambattur and were anxious to know about the status of the recording because it was pouring at their places while at the Kirk itself the ground was dry. I told them the shooting was on and they set out braving the rains. Deep inside, I was worried. What if it rained and spoiled the church’s grand piano set out on the ground? We quickly got a tarpaulin sheet to cover the piano. Soon, more distress calls from people came. I got into my car and went on a prayer drive around Egmore and Chetpet. I prayed and told myself ‘It’s not going to rain in this area.’ While heavy downpour was reported from Perambur, Tondiarpet and Royapuram, not a drop of rain fell on the ground in Egmore.
“Each album if done systematically, from conceptualization to completion, can be wrapped up in four to five months. But you have to bear in mind that there are other factors at work too – like say a function at the church. So, you have to keep it flexible. And then there are also restrictions on outdoor shooting due to rain and other things. The shooting per se is only for two days – indoors and outdoors included. Post-production work takes up 10 to 15 days. In ‘Bandwagon’, four songs were done live – both audio and video were recorded live along with the performance. Unless you have very expensive equipment, it is impossible to get good audio quality in a live recording setup, but that’s where we want to get to, probably in the next five years. Our main purpose is not to show our technical prowess but to revive hymn singing. We were clear on that. That’s the reason behind our subtitling also – to help those who do not know the hymns to read the text and sing along.”
To know more about the Classic Hymns project, visit its website www.classichymns.in