Recording: Of Attachment and Alienation

Although it is problematic to distinguish between the text and the tune of a song and in fact, on many occasions I have argued against it, I connect to a composition based on what the tune it is set to does to me. In other words, the text of the song is less important to me. Of course, that does not mean that I enjoy songs that are sexist (and there are plenty in Indian films!) etc. Rather, I enjoy a song even if the lyric does not mean anything profound. For example, this song is a parody of Tamil film songs in general; the entire song is made up of words that have no meaning in any language, which often feature in many Tamil film songs. But I find the tune deeply evocative and the male singer is the well-known Hariharan, in my opinion, a great singer, whose music I grew up with.

Which aspect of music I find evocative is very important to how I (re)engage with it. One particular type of music that I enjoyed singing was bhajans. They are significantly different from Karnatic Music compositions with regard to the structure. They are shorter, performed in a space and set-up very different to that of Karnatic Music. The parameters laid down, which I see as rigidity, to perform Karnatic Music is not present for bhajans. They serve primarily as communal prayers and singers are not expected to possess any expertise in music. Greater emphasis is placed on the personal relationship to the divine and bhajans as a tool for articulation of such personal spirituality (however that is defined). There is less focus on how listeners would evaluate the music being performed. As someone who performed a lot whilst growing up but did not particularly enjoy it, I find bhajans rather liberating and more evocative than typical Karnatic Music compositions.

I created a page on this blog called Recordings to post recordings of my singing. The following is a bhajan I learned in high school. It is on the Hindu deity Krishna. This tune has been in my mind for a while now. I find this tune very evocative- to me, it is a tune of attachment and alienation, simultaneously (even though the lyrics is not about these emotions; the bhajan extols Krishna); it is also partially inspired by an image a friend made that is currently the desktop background on my laptop. In other words, I ‘heard’ this particular bhajan when I looked at the image. I cannot reproduce the image here because I do not have the permission to do so.

As a disclaimer I should add that I did not compose or write this bhajan. I also do not wish to profit from it commercially.


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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Agency (in/and) Artistic Performance

I have ignored this blog for a few months now due to several reasons including semester getting in the way, etc. However, this particular blog post has been sitting in my draft since February as I have been hesitant to broach this subject because a) I was not ready; and b) it is about a process that is very personal. Ironically, I started this blog to do precisely that: to record the process through which I am attempting to re-engage with music, in particular and arts, in general. I must confess that this exercise is a partially arrogant one: because I learned music for more than two decades, I am almost certain that there is some creativity in me that I can tap into whilst going through this process (I say ‘almost’ because sometimes I question my assumption). If I may add a line here in defense of such arrogance, I also believe that every person possesses creativity- rather naive one might say, but it keeps my world going! My other reason is that I strongly believe that arts is necessary for us to make sense of the crazy world that we construct and live in.

In the previous blog posts and my PhD thesis, I have explored my relationship to music, specifically the tradition I was trained in, i.e., Karnatic Music. As discussed in those blog posts, I have had a complex relationship with Karnatic Music. I learned and performed it reluctantly and yet, music came to my aid at different points in my life. And in this blog post, I explored the subjectivity in experiencing any art form. There have been times when I wanted to reject music completely but was unable to do so because: one of the epiphanic moments was when I realised that, to me music is a language; and I learned it simultaneously whilst learning Tamil (my first language) and English (the medium of instruction). Therefore, to shut music out was to stop using a language that I am familiar with. Moreover, as an embodied being (as we all are), language is our primary tool in understanding the world around us. Music was an evocative (and to a certain extent, non-verbal) way of understanding my context, embodiment and identity.

I am currently following several wonderful artists on Twitter, most of whom are photographers. I know nothing about photography (except to say ‘oh, that’s a nice image’). But what interests me most about the works of these photographers is the process through which they arrive at making a particular image. The process involves not only what that particular image means to them but also how they articulate what they want to, through the image. The articulation is not always successful, of course. But, it shows both the photographer’s relationship to the image and more importantly (to me at least), the limitations of language, specifically verbal communication, that can be overcome through the image. It made me realise that all along I have been asking the wrong question pertaining to music. Instead of asking ‘what does music do to me?’ I should be asking, ‘what is music to me?’ There is subjectivity of experience involved in both. There are differences though. Whilst the former assumes that music as an ontological entity, the latter approaches music as a construction. Following that argument, the primary distinction between the two questions, is the question of agency. The latter allows for music to be constructed the way one wants and therefore, experience it the way one wants. There is room for agency here. And thus comes my ephiphanic moment described above. It is the realisation that music acts as a language to me. I relate to people through music; they do not need to be musicians or any kind of artists. It also gives me the agency to construct and re-construct music the way it suits me best. It is also one of the many reasons why I could not engage with Karnatic Music within the framework of the tradition- i.e., kutcheri format, etc. If the following up question then is, whether all sounds are music, I don’t know the answer to that nor will I attempt to answer that. My aim here is not to make any universalising statements about experience that I see as fundamentally subjective. Rather, I am pointing to my personal journey or process in understanding this subjectivity and finding the agency within it. This is a work in progress for me. I am only beginning to understand these issues. And having been raised within the strict Karnatic Music tradition, I know that these questions do not come up on a daily basis within the tradition, except to approach them as metaphysics.

I am still not entirely on a comfortable ground. But I see this as a process and for the process to keep going, to enable self-discovery, to be on an uncomfortable ground is to some extent necessary. My mentor once gave the analogy of being in a row boat on a river- we move with the water. This process is a perfect representation of that analogy.

Subjective Artistic Experience

For a while now, I have been pondering about re-engaging with music, and speaking with some friends about it. A brief context here would help: I began learning/singing Karnatic Music from the age of 4 (of course, at that age, whatever noise I made could not be called ‘singing’ but my mother and sister were/are singers and I would always ‘sing’ along). Music represented various things to me then: performing was cathartic; it was also an identity-marker in various contexts. Since moving abroad and a couple of years leading up to the move, I have not been singing owing to practical reasons such as relocation, etc. I, then, started my PhD on music in India (to include film and folk music- the categories are unstable but I won’t go into that issue here) and narrowed it down, in my first year of doctoral study, to Karnatic Music, a tradition that (I thought) I knew best.

Doing a PhD thesis on Karnatic Music has been a very interesting journey. I began the study thinking that I knew what Karnatic Music was, what the music, the tradition and the community meant to me. During the PhD, my pre-conceived understandings were challenged to a point were I felt that my understandings were being ‘disproved.’ It felt like some kind of existential crisis, but PhD being a kind of self-reflective exercise, does involve such experiences. (My supervisor once suggested that I blog about it whilst going through these crises, but I didn’t. Well, at least now I’m doing it…!) The crisis was due a specific reason: learning music from the age of 4 meant that I learned music as a language, alongside English and Tamil! Post-PhD, I have a completely different (and sometimes unclear) understanding of what Karnatic Music means to me. (I visualize these transformations in understanding almost like a sine curve in mathematics).

There are several arguments that need to be considered here. Firstly, of course, arguably it was my understanding that was ‘disproved’. However, my understanding, at that time at least, was what I had picked up (from the age of 4) from the community I grew up in. The cathartic, yogic, identity-marker that music was to me at that time, was a product of the social structures within which the Karnatic Music community existed. Therefore, I’d argue there that my understandings reflected the structures (by structures, I mean, the contexts within which the art was performed or experienced and the resulting social structures) put in place by and within the community. Secondly, the PhD enabled me to critically analyze the problematic structures of Karnatic Music (not a very popular argument… let the criticisms begin to pour…), patriarchy being one. Therefore, to engage with music as I used to seemed and seems problematic on multiple levels. I felt as if the PhD had rendered my language of music unstable and personally, not dependable.

Whilst attempting to understand these questions, I have a) tried singing, again; b) considered learning a musical instrument in a different tradition; c) habitually listened to music in the hope that it’ll give me an epiphany as to why I should continue singing; d) I even visited a childhood friend, a singer herself, in the hope that she would guide me to that epiphanic moment. No such moment arrived, obviously, because I am writing this blog. But these issues point to two other issues: a) the argument that any established music tradition (or art, in general) has such (may not be similar) problematic structures; b) also, isn’t interpretation of (any) art, by its very nature, subjective? Both arguments are interrelated, in that, can we, then, ignore the structures put in place that defines the art (as such) and focus on our subjective experiences of the art? Even if certain social structures (such as patriarchy) are something that we critique on a daily basis? Would such art still remain meaningful to us because we are choosing those aspects (contexts) of the art that are important to us? In other words, are we not decontexualizing the art by ignoring certain problematic issues of the social structure? On a personal level, what other art could I engage with, instead of music? Finally, what ‘art for art’s sake’ means in this context?

These questions are central to my understanding and my attempts to re-engage with Karnatic Music. I have been introduced to and following works of some artists (musicians, photographers, etc) and I constantly wonder how they negotiate these issues. Thus, to provide some clarity, I am pondering over the issues of interpretation of an art- not in the sense of whether or not the audiences would understand and interpret a particular performance or an exhibit as intended by the author/photographer/performer. Rather, my question is if the artistic experience is informed by the contexts within which it is being performed, exhibited and experienced, what is this ‘experience’ we talk about and what tools do we use to have such an experience and understanding it?

One might say, ‘why these questions? Just pick something that you would like to do!’ Therein lies the issue I am writing about. Embodiment is central to creativity and when we embody what we perform, these issues (amongst others!) come into focus and need to be negotiated. Much as we, as a society, constantly attempt to frame our lives into oversimplified narratives, there is an inherent ‘messiness’ in these issues that we negotiate constantly. Hence, what if the art is about personal salvation rather than social justice? What if it reinforces patriarchal norms or class/caste norms? Can I ignore these aspects and focus on the cathartic value it has in my life? The overarching question then is: what is the role of an(y) art in the society? How does one negotiate the subjective artistic experience, the contexts of the art and the idealized notion of art that we hold?

Perhaps I could take up painting or photography (not that I can do any of it!). A close friend gave me some art supplies recently in the hope that I would get in touch with my creative side (assuming I have not exhausted it on the PhD). It, again, made me wonder about the distinction (if there are any) between performance arts and visual arts. I notice that these are rather unstable categories. But there is a normative understanding to these categories: performance arts are, for instance, music and dance, whilst visual arts are painting, photography, etc (as if one watches a dance performance with their eyes closed! Those Karnatic musicians don’t wear expensive saris and jewellery at performances for nothing). For now, if we stay with these categories and their understandings, would artistic experience, from the perspective I have discussed above, be different between performance arts and visual arts, for the artistes and the audience?

Perhaps a page with paintings and photographs will appear on this blog as I explore these issues further.

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:]