Myths and Superpowers: “Metaphysical” Superheroes?

My blog post on the Critical Religion Association website on the language of “myths”, “mythology” and “religion” posted yesterday.

The Critical Religion Association

This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.

In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets…

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Fusing Music and Subverting Traditions

Amongst many themes, my PhD thesis explores the questions of how do contemporary musicians define Karnatic Music, how do they distinguish Karnatic Music from film music. This has made me think about the genre called ‘fusion music.’ ‘Fusion music’ refers (as self-explanatory words) to any two distinct (or as distinct as we understand them to be) genres are fused together to form a new genre of music. ‘Fusion’ between Karnatic Music and Western Classical Music has been quite popular for decades, now. The likes of Sitar maestro late Ravi Shankar have popularized fusion of Indian ragas (tunes) with music in the West. For decades, film musicians have been experimenting with Karnatic/Hindustani ragas. Specifically, in South India, film music composers such as Ilayaraja have popularized fusing symphonies with Karnatic ragas. Recently, I have been listening to the works of Sikkil Gurucharan and Anil Srinivasan; their recordings, especially this, has rekindled my interest in alternate ways of performing and experiencing Karnatic Music. More recently, a different kind of fusion has been made in which a Karnatic composition set to a Karnatic raga is fused with rhythms that are generally associated with ‘Western’ music, popular examples being this and this.

It is common to look at these works as ‘fusion.’ However, to call works as such shows an assertion that both genres, as whole, have been put together; in other words, both genres have not lost their identities, have come together as whole to form the new identity, the ‘fusion’ music. There is something very problematic and prejudicial with such an argument: the assumption that Karnatic Music remains the same, without changing its identity but is accommodating of other genres. Rather, I see these ‘fusion’ more as a subversion of the paradigms based on which Karnatic Music is usually performed. These musicians/composers have appropriated Karnatic Music compositions and ragas to point to how dynamic they are, that there are alternative ways of experiencing these compositions and ragas that Karnatic Music community holds as its own. I do not go into the musicological aspects of these compositions. My interest here is on how a simple addition of a rhythmic cycle, usually seen as a signifier of India film music, to alaipayuthey kanna, a Karnatic composition on Hindu deity Krishna, made this composition accessible to experience by many. Of course, one cannot underestimate the popularity of the medium; the fact that such a composition is available through films has certainly contributed to the popularity of the composition. Films, in the past, have used Karnatic Music compositions as they are traditionally performed. But performing Karnatic Music compositions outside of prescribed parameters have certainly made Karnatic Music compositions open to diverse ways of experiencing them.

More importantly, the two examples used above also point to another interesting way of subverting Karnatic Music tradition: the context within which these two compositions have been used in the films. That these two particular compositions are erotic in nature are ignored within Karnatic Music tradition; or, they are treated as divine love between the composer and the divine (in which the composer takes the place of the deity’s lover). But the two films place these two compositions between two humans, their love for each other. Thus, subversion here takes place at a more fundamental level. But here again, it points to not an ontological idea of what the compositions are really about, rather different ways art can be interpreted and experienced, for which Karnatic Music tradition leaves little room.

Performing Gender and Sexuality in Early 20th Century India

Contemporary understandings of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam (also known as Indian classical music and dance, respectively) as ‘religious’ arts that represent Hinduism and Indian culture originated within a very specific historical context: the Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s colonial city of Madras; Partha Chatterjee, discussing a similar movement in Bengal, describes this as ‘Classicization’ (Nation and Its Fragments, 1997, p73). The nationalist movement in Madras was a ‘culture-defining’ project in which music and dance were carefully re-constructed by pruning specific practices and traditions to represent the ‘pure’ inner sphere of spirituality that would displace the outer sphere of colonial politics. Such re-defining of performance arts mystified music and dance performances as ‘religious’ (read: Hindu) experiences and gendered the performances by defining femininity within the politics of nationalism. According to this emerging nationalistic patriarchy, whilst the outer/’material’ world belonged to men, the inner/’spiritual’ world ‘assigned’ to women had to be protected and nurtured. The nationalist politics created a new hyper-feminine middle-class woman defined by monogamous conjugal relationships as the Hindu way of life. This woman was defined by her sexual propriety who, through her spirituality, had to maintain the cohesion of family life whilst the man succumbed to the pressures of the material world.

Discourses on women’s sexual propriety as a pivotal point of re-defining performance arts specifically targeted communities traditionally performing music and dance, thedevadāsisDevadāsi (literally: ‘Servant of God’) referred to diverse categories of women (and occasionally men) who learned and performed dance and music within diverse settings such as temples or royal courts, festivals and private ceremonies for their patrons. They lived in a matrilineal set-up within a patriarchal society in which they had the right to education and property and enjoyed a high societal status asnityasumangali (eternally auspicious). However, in the early 20th century discourses on ‘purifying’ performance arts focused on two aspects of their tradition: a) they were not bound by monogamous conjugal arrangements; these courtesans went through dedication rituals after which they entered concubinage of the king or became mistresses of their patrons; b) traditionally they performed (among others) compositions that were erotic poems portraying explicit sexual acts (usually between the hero and heroine of the poem/story). A focus on the devadāsi community, which had a historically significant presence in South India, as a symbol of immorality emerged due to a set of historical developments beginning in the mid-19th century. As court patronages diminished devadāsis moved to Madras and set up salon performances for the newly urbanized audiences, both native and European. The mid-19th century saw transformations in colonial representations of devadāsis from performers of arts (from a tradition outside of monogamous conjugal relationships) to ‘prostitutes’ who could perform dance and music. This description, ‘prostitutes’, was affirmed by a series of Anglo-Indian laws passed during the late 19th century modeled after Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act that targeted ‘prostitutes’ catering to British soldiers, and brought devadāsis under the laws. Judicial definitions, coupled with the influence of the Purity Campaign in 1880s Britain, triggered a politics of morality that resulted in a ‘devadāsi-reform’ movement, which saw devadāsis as moral deviants from whom sacred music and dance had to be rescued.

The early 20th century focus on nationalism and Hinduism, in addition to transforming perceptions of devadāsis, resulted in the movement that defined female sexuality in the public sphere by drawing distinctions between the divine and the erotic. Thus, not only was the divine redefined to indicate a nostalgic pure religious and Hindu past, but the erotic was also redefined as sexual impropriety. Reformers petitioned the government to abolish the devadāsi tradition; the movement was spearheaded by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was born into a devadāsi family but rejected the tradition. Her movement received support from (among others) the theosophist Annie Besant and Gandhi, who argued that music and dance were sacred but had been despoiled by devadāsis who had to be rehabilitated to become respectable middle-class women bound and defined by their monogamous conjugal relationships. Despite opposition from the devadāsi community, the Devadāsi Abolition Act was passed in 1947. Devadāsis were thus banned from performing dance and music within a salon set-up.

Whilst the vacuum in the performance space left by devadāsis was being filled by middle-class Brahmin women encouraged by nationalists and organizations such as the Madras Music Academy, these spaces were also being deified. Specifically, Rukmini Devi Arundale, a prominent theosophist and protégé of Anne Besant, employed stagecraft that reified Bharatnatyam as ‘religious dance’ by conducting a series of performances where she incorporated chants of Sanskrit verses and displayed an icon of Natarāja, an incarnation of the god Shiva in his form as a cosmic dancer, thereby representing the cosmic connection between art and the divine. She introduced sets of compositions in her performances that extolled Natarāja. While the devadāsi repertoire was removed from temple settings, Arundale adopted temple settings to her performance stage through portable temple background sets, thereby deifying the performance space. In contemporary Bharatnatyam performances, the presence of Natarāja idols and temple-setting backgrounds are ubiquitous.

For example, in this video, The image in the background is of Shiva, of whom Natarāja is an incarnation. The song is about Natarāja.

The history of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam posits a focus on (among other issues) questions of embodiment and the female body. That the female body is impure had been established in the case of devadāsis within the politics of nationalism: music and dance representing the divine, their ‘sacred’ (read: ‘Hindu’) past therefore had to remain ‘pure’. The dimension of embodiment of music and dance permitted by patriarchy represents a dichotomy between the soul and the body in which the soul is the pure inner sphere that connects the performer to the divine, whilst the body represents the material outer sphere that needs to be removed from the context. Women as custodians of this inner spiritual sphere were to learn and perform these arts, thus embodying them, but had to remove the erotic from their performances, which were seen as belonging to the sacred inner space. This solidified the understanding that ‘true religion’ was sacred and must be distinguished from the non-sacred.

[Original version of this article was published in The Critical Religion Association blog:]