Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman

Source: A great article in Tablet Magazine about Prof. Shulman’s new book, Tamil: A Biography

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to interview David Shulman, a scholar whose work and impact is hard to describe in just a paragraph. He is arguably the world expert on south Indian languages, literature, and history, in addition to being a poet, literary critic, and activist. Fluent in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi, his scholarship and knowledge is exhaustive.

I’ve written about Shulman’s work on this blog in the past; namely, his translations of songs that used to be performed by courtesans (devadasis) in South India. His latest book, Tamil: A Biography, published in 2016, focuses on the cultural history and development of the Tamil language. He is also a founding member of Ta’ayush, “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” in Palestine and Israel.

An Iowa native, Shulman is currently the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but each spring he comes to the University of Chicago as a visiting professor, which is where I had a chance to talk with him. Although I was a complete stranger, he graciously agreed to my request for a short interview, and invited me over to his apartment by Lake Michigan. We had a fascinating conversation on Carnatic music, culture, history, and language in South India and beyond. Enjoy!

You began your studies in Hebrew and Arabic, and then shifted your focus to South India. Could you talk a little bit about that?

The thing I most liked in my B.A. years was Persian. I was doing Arabic, and Islamic history, and Islamic studies, and African studies, and things like that. But in my second year, after a year of Arabic, I started Persian, and that was what I truly loved. I wasn’t that serious a student in general, but [laughs] the one thing I cared about, really, was Persian.

I went to Iran and wandered around there for a summer with my brother, and that time I could also speak a little Persian. But I was drunk on Persian poetry—that was the main thing. I went on a pilgrimage to the graves of Hafez and Saadi in Shiraz, and we were in Isfahan, the great Caspian Sea… Actually, from Persian, I drifted eastward into India, through a series of accidents. But it had a lot to do with Persian.

I also loved Persian music right away. They have a raga-like system, what they call the dastgah. There’s associated scales, there are melodic phrases, like in any Indian raga. They don’t have so many—you know there are hundreds and hundreds of ragas. In any case, I loved the music. They often sing delightful verses from Hafez, Saadi, Rumi…

So, I guess this is a good transition to Carnatic music. In the West, Carnatic [south Indian classical] music isn’t as popular as Hindustani [north Indian classical] music. How did you get into Carnatic music, and what do you find appealing about it?

Actually, it has a lot to do with my wife, Eileen. We were living in Madras [now Chennai]—this was a really long time ago, 1975 to 1976. We were living in a place in south Madras, in Mandavelipakkam, and it was during my PhD period.

A kolam/muggu/rangoli is a geometric design that is traditionally made daily by Indian women in front of the home. Source

I was exploring Tamil temples mostly in the Tanjavur area, in the Kaveri delta. But Eileen was at home in this little flat we had rented in Mandavelli. She’s very artistic, and also very, very musical. So, she started out trying to learn how to make kolams; muggulu, as they’re called in Telugu. She was wandering down the street that we lived on, and she would ask people if they would teach her how to make these muggulu.

One of the people who lived on our street was a singer. She was called S. Ramu, and she was actually a pretty well-known singer. There were two sisters, the Tiruppur [also spelled as Thirupur] sisters: she and her sister Sarada. Some years ago, Sarada had a stroke and she stopped singing. But Ramu, until she died about two years ago, kept singing and performing. She was a known performer in Madras, a highly proficient Carnatic singer. She invited Eileen in, but Eileen didn’t know any Tamil, so communication was rather rudimentary. But to make a long story short, Eileen asked if she would teach her, and Rama agreed.

A 1984 recording of Ramu and Sarada singing a Tamil devotional song dedicated to the god Murugan

So, that’s what Eileen did that year in Madras. She sat at Ramu’s feet, and she learned really, really fast. Ramu and her sister were amazed. You know, when you learn Carnatic music, there are standard exercises, and you begin with Mayamalavagowla ragam, and you practice all the different talas [rhythms] and the speeds and all that, and eventually you move on to geethams and varnams, and all this usually takes years. Eileen went through all of that stuff in about two weeks! They thought she was some goddess who had descended from the world of the gods! [laughs] They were completely amazed, and very shortly she was singing with Ramu in temples, performing. She was learning kritis by the great composers. I love the way she sings.

This was very early for us. I was just a student. I hardly knew anything about India, but I loved the music. We used to go to the kutcheris [Carnatic concerts] all the time in Madras. Madras then, as now, is of course a great center for music. So, I was swept up into this world of Carnatic music. I still didn’t know very much about it, but over time, over the years I listened more, and we would go back to India, and sometimes Eileen would find another teacher, because we lived in different places.

We lived in Vizag [short for Visakhapatnam, a city in Andhra Pradesh] for a while. Actually, what happened was I wanted to learn a little Carnatic vocal, so I found a teacher, and I was studying. And then Eileen also wanted to study. So, we found this really wonderful teacher, who’s a well-known Carnatic musician: Pantula Rama. She’s a great singer, in the northern Andhra version of Carnatic music, which is a little different, in some ways.

How so?

There was once an independent tradition of Carnatic music that predated the great moment with Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri [three eighteenth-century composers commonly called the “Trinity of Carnatic Music”].

Maharajah’s Government College of Music and Dance in Vizianagaram, established in 1919. Source

Vizianagaram, a town in northern Andhra, north of Vizag, is an important place, and it was a really important center of music. Their tradition was, one might say, “Tyagaraja-ized” at some point, and the repertoire changed. Pupils of Tyagaraja actually went north into Andhra, as we know from several sources. I think the mode of singing also changed a little.

But that tradition is, in a certain sense, still somehow alive there. Pantula Rama studied in northern Andhra. There’s a great music college in Vizianagaram. There was a time when Vizianagaram was the most important cultural center between Calcutta and Madras, and there was a famous king, Ananda Gajapati Raju, whom everybody loved, at the turn of the twentieth century. He was a great patron of poets and musicians, and other arts.

Anyway, Eileen started studying with Rama, and I used to sit there too. With Carnatic music, there’s no way you can actually get to know the ragas or anything else without actually doing it. There’s just no other way. I never had any ambitions to perform as a Carnatic singer or anything like that, but I was really happy for the opportunity to learn a little bit.

We did perform that year in Vizag during the Tyagaraja Utsavam in January, so we sang a couple of kritis, on live TV! [laughs] We sang Giri raja suta.

Pantula Rama singing Giri raja suta, the composition Prof. Shulman and his wife performed in Vizag

So anyway, over the years, it’s become my passion, in a way. I listen to Carnatic music, I’ve started writing a little bit about Carnatic music, and it’s very close to my heart. I like Hindustani music too, and for years I studied with a dhrupad teacher in Israel, Osnat El-Kebir, but that’s a different story….

I think I came across this in an article T.M. Krishna wrote, but I’ve read about Hindustani music being very popular in Israel…?

It is! He visited us in Israel in January. It’s true: Israel has this kind of audience for classical Indian music. It is surprising, but a lot of Israelis go to India. Thousands and thousands of them go every year, often after their army service. A lot of them just pass through India, you could say. But many of them stay for long periods of time, and some of them study music, usually Hindustani music. They study flute, or tabla, or maybe vocal music, or sitar, or sarod — there’s a lot of options!

That’s why, if you bring a vocalist like that [T.M. Krishna], Hindustani or Carnatic, or a violinist… Hariprasad Chaurasia came years ago, a lot of singers have passed through… they’ll get a big audience. At the T.M. Krishna concert, he sang this amazing Shyama Shastri kriti in Todi [raga]. It’s a mind-boggling composition, Ninne namminaanu. The audience went completely wild, people were crying. It was an amazing, memorable concert.

T.M. Krishna’s rendition of Ninne namminaanu in Jerusalem

So, I know Carnatic music is a personal passion of yours, but how has it shaped your scholarly understanding of South Indian history, if at all?

I am a philologist, or, you could say, a cultural historian. Something like that. So, I work on texts—most of them, I guess, poetry, in the languages of the South, at least the ones I know: Telugu and Tamil, Malayalam to some extent, and also Sanskrit.

All of these literatures are very heavily musical. Nobody recites verses in India like we do in the West. Nobody would even dream of it! You sing a verse; it has to be sung. So, music’s a built-in part of it. If you learn any one of these traditions, you’re close to music, and you have to learn some music.

In addition to that, my research has focused on what you could call late medieval or early modern south India, so that was the period of the three great Carnatic composers [the “Trinity”], and their predecessors. So, that’s the world that is interesting to me, and it’s just very natural to include the musicological side of it.

A popular depiction of the “Carnatic Trinity” of 18th-century composers, by S. Rajam. From left to right: Muthuswami Dikshitar, Tyagaraja, and Shyama Shastri. Source

I grew up hearing about Carnatic music as a very religious and ancient music, associated with temples and mythology. It wasn’t until last summer that I started looking into its history: reading T.M. Krishna’s book A Southern Music, and reading about devadasis. I was surprised to learn about how Carnatic music was so profoundly affected by colonialism and nationalism; that the kutcheri concert format only dates back to around 1920, and devadasis and nadaswaram players have been almost completely excluded from the mainstream of Carnatic music today … Given these changes, do you see Carnatic music as a very modern music, or more connected to a long history?

Oh, it has a long history. It’s interesting, because all the art forms in India underwent very radical changes in the course of the last 100-150 years. But music is the one—probably the only one—that really preserved a continuous and powerful link to the previous traditions. So, I don’t know if you’d call it modern music. It’s classical music with roots in ancient forms.

In the present mode in which we hear it today, in the concert halls, of course, it’s made a dramatic shift away from its natural settings, which were either temples or royal courts, or, later, the salon culture of the late nineteenth century. It shifted away from those sites to the modern concert hall. That also brought other changes with it.

There are certain things I don’t like about the way Carnatic music is often performed in the sabhas in Madras today. I think there’s a tendency for many of the singers to sing too fast and too loud. It’s almost always performed with a microphone, but the microphone tends to distort what I think really should be—and was originally—a very intimate music, a kind of chamber music. You wouldn’t know that if you just went to the Music Academy, because people sing really fast; they get into virtuoso pyrotechnics, and that has become a major feature. Not for all of the singers, but for a lot of them. That’s one thing you could say about the modern performance style.

But there are singers who transcend that: T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam, among others. These are people who have their own distinctive styles, and they don’t fit into what you could call the standard “Music Academy style.”

You just mentioned T.M. Krishna. I’m curious how you met him and became friends.

Sure. I didn’t know him, but I’d heard him sing in Madras, just sitting in the audience. I had a lot of CDs of his, and I knew he was a great singer. So then, when he wrote this book that you mentioned [A Southern Music], the publisher wrote to me and asked if I’d write a preface to the book. I was happy to do that, and I wrote the preface, and I had my first contact with him in the course of doing that.

I met him for the first time face-to-face about a couple years ago. I was living in Kakinada for some months, and he came up to give a kutcheri. I was waiting for him by the entrance of the concert hall, and he immediately identified me and came over to say hello. We corresponded, and so on, and became friends. And then he came to Jerusalem, last January.

T.M. Krishna has become very well-known for his push to expand Carnatic music both socially and artistically. As part of that, he’s spoken very strongly about the bhakti [devotional] aspect of Carnatic music, and he’s argued that the artistic aspect should take primacy over the religious sahitya [lyrics] of compositions. What are your thoughts on those two aspects of Carnatic music, and how they coexist?

Well, he [Krishna] knows the music inside out. I think that he thinks primarily of Carnatic music as an artistic form; that, for him, I think, is the dominant thing. But—it’s not his fault— he keeps giving people these unbelievably powerful, emotional, and even metaphysical or religious experiences, if you listen to him for an hour! [laughs] It’s a good proof of the existence of God, to hear someone like T.M. Krishna!

If you’re asking “Is Carnatic music filled with content that you could call religious content?” It is; of course it is. An overwhelming number of the compositions are temple-based, or based on the gods in the temples. If it’s Tyagaraja, it’s Rama. So, that’s a kind of given.

I think one of his issues is the way in which the aesthetic aspects of compositions are subsumed in favor of bhakti. For example, you want to pronounce all the words of a composition correctly, to give it linguistic sense.

Krishna brings up the example of a composition for which the singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar would perform neraval [improvisation] on part of a line whose full meaning was something like “Rama is the destroyer of lust, anger, etc.” But, the way in which he performed neraval led to him repeating the first half of the line, which by itself meant something like “Rama is a slave of lust”. So, that became unacceptable in the concert sphere, and Iyengar was forced to perform neraval on the entire line, which had more syllables and was thus more complicated. Krishna argued that that was an aesthetic loss, and the first type of neraval was a better aesthetic choice. 

This is a kind of problem that is perhaps universal. In the West too, in opera, there’s this discussion about whether the music is primary or the story and the words are. The truth is, anyone who knows opera knows they are very deeply interwoven; they’re wedded together. The text, the words, the verbal text, the story, and the musical side of it. It’s not as if you could put aside one or the other.

And the same applies to Carnatic music; there is a text, after all. One of the things that distinguishes Carnatic music from Hindustani music is the dominance, or primacy, of the text. After all, Carnatic music is a music of compositions, unlike much of Hindustani music, in which there are compositions but the dominant thing is the exposition and improvisation of the raga.

So, these Carnatic compositions—there are some on what you could call secular topics, no doubt—but I think with Dikshitar, or Shyama Shastri, or Tyagaraja, they are usually somehow connected to that religious world. Krishna is also very meticulous about the way he pronounces the words; he pronounces them very beautifully. I think you have to see the text and the music together.

Something that I’ve been struggling with for a while is that I’m interested in all these Sanskrit texts, regional literatures, Carnatic songs. But sort of inherent in them—maybe even inseparable—is the fact that these works came out of a deeply unequal society. Like, for every beautiful Sanskrit poem, there were also texts saying Dalits and Shudras and women didn’t even have the right to hear Sanskrit. 

Even in Carnatic compositions like Tyagaraja’s Dudukugala and Telisi rama, we can clearly hear sexism and casteism in the lyrics, even though those songs may be musical masterpieces. Obviously this isn’t unique to India, but how do you reconcile this? Is there a need to even think about it in the first place?

You know, we were talking about T.M. Krishna; he’s into democratizing Carnatic music and also reaching out to the kind of people who might not ordinarily hear it. So, he sings on the beach in Madras, and everybody can come: fishermen, whoever. And that’s a huge thing in his life, I think; attempting to take the music away from the elite preserves of the Music Academy and Mylapore and make a broader base for it. I think that’s a noble enterprise.

Having said that… every society in the world has injustice. Usually there are problems with how women are treated, there are social inequalities and social injustice, and that’s part of that whole world. I wouldn’t think that Carnatic music is the arena in which these kinds of issues need to be resolved. So, I support the notion of broadening the appeal and democratizing it, and all of that is a lovely thing. But I wouldn’t focus too much on Brahmin privilege … I don’t think this is something that is intrinsic to the music at all.

Even in Sanskrit, it’s a misconception, I think, that Sanskrit is built around this notion of tremendous power and inequality. There’s an aspect of that, but I certainly wouldn’t think of that as its major feature. Sanskrit’s a language, like any language. Everything is in it. All of human life is in it!

For Indian youth who grew up in the diaspora, a lot of the way in which we understand our culture, history, religion and mythology, is through very standardized, simplified versions of these texts; often the Amar Chitra Katha comics. I grew up thinking that the Amar Chitra Katha Ramayana was the Ramayana. It wasn’t until I came to college that I learned that there are actually other retellings and variations of the Ramayana and other Hindu texts, and they come from so many different social and historical contexts.

I also remember being so surprised when I came across your translations of devadasi songs of Annamacharya and Kshetrayya. I came from a very conservative background, and I had no idea Telugu people could even come up with these songs! So, in terms of how we learn about our heritage, how can we get more exposure to these “alternative,” lesser-known retellings and texts?

Well, specifically regarding padams, like the Kshetrayya or Annamayya padams, there is a problem there. These classical art forms went through a very radical displacement in the so-called “reform movements” in the late colonial period. Devadasis were outlawed, and there was a massive attack on the contents of these works and institutions like the devadasi performance of sadir natyam [the dance form that became Bharatanatyam]. That attack came from two quarters: there was a kind of Brahminical puritanism; and there were also the colonial values that saw the devadasis in a completely misplaced and misperceived light.

The result of all of this is that today if you go to a young girl’s arangetram [on-stage debut performance] in Madras, she’ll be performing padams, probably. These padams are erotic padams, but either she, or her father, or her teacher—somebody—will get up and say, “Well, these look as if they were about eroticism and sexuality and stuff like that, but really it’s just a way of talking about God.” They’ll always go into this apologetic, which is a savage attack on the sensibility that produced these works.

We have no problem in saying that fear of God is actually fear, but if we say that love of God is like love, love in all of its aspects—full-bodied love, erotic love—then some people take issue with that. They don’t want it. They don’t want to hear that. It’s a weird part of human life.

All of that is to say that this is a real problem, because the tradition was badly attacked. One of the very last acts of the British before they left India was to outlaw the whole institution of the devadasis and their art form. So the art form migrated to the concert stage, and there were people like Rukmini Arundale in Madras who offered this sanitized, sterilized version of padams, kuravanjis [Tamil dance-dramas], and kritis. It’s hard today to recover the mental world, the conceptual world, the sensibility which actually gave birth to these texts. But it’s not impossible. All you have to do, really, is to read them, and they speak for themselves.

So, how to do that. There are people… There’s a remarkable dancer in Hyderabad whom I met whose grandmother was a dancer, and she learned from her grandmother. She was originally doing Kuchipudi, but she eventually has taken to performing—including in places like the Music Academy in Madras—in this old style, in the style of the veshya devadasis, which was a very refined and beautiful art form. She’s trying to revive it, and she has students. It’s a struggle, and this is something that this generation could face and want to take on: some attempt to reconstruct these ways of understanding and watching a dance or music performance, and knowing those texts.

In today’s cultural climate in India, controversies like the one over A.K. Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay in Delhi University show that the right-wing, conservative factions of Indian society really are not comfortable with this cultural diversity. As things stand, what do you think is the future of these alternative texts and art forms?

The Hindu right attacked Ramanujan in a very unfair way, and yeah, these are… you know, in every generation there are these struggles for values, cultural values. Culture is usually a very precarious thing that needs to be defended.

I’m part of our Hindu and South Asian student groups on campus, so in terms of some ways we can get in touch with this alternate heritage and texts, how do we do that? What would you suggest as a starting point?

Well, you have to learn the languages and read the sources in the original, and try to read them with an open mind. It’s worth doing. Whatever mother tongue is theirs—Telugu or Tamil or Marathi or Kannada or Malayalam or Oriya or whatever—the thing to do would be to first regain some knowledge of the language. And then there’s a lot you can read. But your minds should not be swayed by conventional views that you hear in the public space. It’s very important to go back to the first sources and read them in their original language, if you possibly can. It’s a real challenge, and also a gift to be able to take that up as part of your own life.


4 thoughts on “Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman”

  1. It is amazing that David Shulman delved so deeply into South Indian culture and music/dance in particular. I recently got his latest book “Tamil” and started reading it. He is a stickler to details of pronunciation. For an American Jew who is academic it is a commendable achievement. As he talks about his wife it is amazing that she picked up such an alien musical acumen in short order too. The couple are really gifted. Kudos to them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic amazing his contributions are tremendous and he’s lived the life speaks of so authentic integral no duality of academic and non academic

    Liked by 2 people

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