Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman

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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…

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The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

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Painting by E. Ramki, “A Carnatic Music Concert” (2008)

A performance of Carnatic music is referred to as a kutcheri (also spelled kacheri, kacceri). The word “kutcheri”, however, does not simply mean “concert”; rather, it refers to a particular concert format which was developed in the early 20th century and was designed to present Carnatic music in a specific manner.

Carnatic music accords primacy to the voice, and indeed the kutcheri was designed as a vocal concert. The vocalist has full control over the kutcheri; they decide what compositions and ragas to perform, where to improvise, and how the concert generally flows. The vocalist usually receives melodic accompaniment from a violinist, and rhythmic support from a mridangam and sometimes ghatam player, with the drone of the tambura constantly in the background.

The kutcheri, which was pioneered by the vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), follows a rather rigid format intended to highlight a variety of different ragas and types of Carnatic compositions. In my annotations for each track, I try to give an explanation of each composition, and the role it plays in the kutcheri.

Recently, the kutcheri format has been critiqued extensively by the vocalist T.M. Krishna, and I strongly agree with Krishna’s critique. I do believe that, if we view Carnatic compositions as truly artistic creations, and not merely as just religious songs, then the kutcheri does a disservice to the music. For example, some compositions (like varnams and padams) are simply deemed unfit for extensive improvisation.

In addition, the kutcheri includes items called “fillers” and “tukkadas” which are meant to be “lighter” and less melodically complex, thus giving the audience some “relief” from “heavier”, more complex ragas and compositions. Krishna argues, “Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home.”

However, like it or not, the kutcheri is the format in which Carnatic music is presented today. So, for those listeners who may never have been to a kutcheri before, here’s my attempt to recreate that experience.

One last note: this playlist is much shorter than an actual kutcheri. A real kutcheri would likely contain more compositions, and more extensive improvisation on some of the parts. For example, in this playlist, the ragam-tanam-pallavi is only about 20 minutes long, whereas in a live kutcheri it may be closer to an hour.

Hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think. History of the kutcheri and more of T.M. Krishna’s critique after the break.

The playlist

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Muslims in Indian classical music today

 As a supplicant before a deity, I am immensely attracted to Bhairav [Shiva]. And, as a lover, I am obsessed with Bhairavi [Parvati, Shiva’s consort]… The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav. I wish I, a devout Moslem, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi. How many different facets of her persona I have experienced!

— Ustad Vilayat Khan, a famous 20th-century sitar player, talking about the ragas Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are named after Hindu deities


Indian classical music is generally viewed in terms of two distinct traditions: Hindustani music, which developed in the northern area of the Indian subcontinent, and Carnatic music, which took shape in the south. In both traditions, abstract improvisation is given great importance, but “at another level [Indian classical music] was (and in south India, remains) linked in various ways to Hinduism, with its [devotional] song texts, quasi-religious Sanskrit theoretical treatises, and its traditional associations with Hindu cosmology, mythology, and epistemology” (Manuel 121).

However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Muslim rule in north India began to alter the character of Hindustani music: its performance, “like its patronage, came to be dominated by Muslims—specifically, hereditary professionals,” and although Hindustani music retained its devotional song texts, it “came to be regarded less as a form of prayer and devotion than as one of the secular ‘fine arts’” (Manuel 122, 124).

I am a student of Carnatic violin, and throughout my childhood, I associated Carnatic music with devotional compositions and performances held in Hindu temples. Hindustani music, on the other hand, conjured up ideas of Persian and Afghan music and instruments, of the magnificent Mughal courts, and of a unique fusion of Islamic and Hindu musical traditions. Yet all but one of the Hindustani musicians I have seen in concerts have been Hindus. Many of these musicians, such as Pandit Jasraj, performed Hindu devotional songs alongside abstract improvisational music. Even the Muslim musicians I read and hear about seem to describe their music in an explicitly Hindu manner, making little reference to their personal faith:

He interlocked the notes of the Raga Yaman and when he came to the fourth note … he said, “See, this is the psychic form of Raga Yaman. In this form Saraswati Mata [goddess of knowledge and arts] is … bedecking herself in all her glory. She has put on her beautiful saree and jewellery, she combs her hair and adorns it with flowers. Finally, she puts kohl in her eyes and that is the [fourth note] in Yaman.”

— A biography of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a famous 20th-century Hindustani vocalist (Gilani 118)

Given the history of Hindustani music as an art form that was “secularized” in Muslim courts and further developed by Muslim musicians, why do so many contemporary Muslim performers of Hindustani music choose to publicly link their music to Hinduism?

This question can be answered by exploring the modern history of classical music in north India, beginning in the pre-colonial era, during which Hindustani music was dominated by Muslim hereditary musicians and their gharana system. This system was first challenged by intellectuals who sought to modify Hindustani music in accordance with British colonial ideas of modernity. The parallel emergence of Hindu nationalism in India posed another threat to Muslim musicians, as classical music became associated with Hindu devotional practices.

Upon the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, nation-building efforts in Pakistan renounced Hindustani music in favor of more Islamic alternatives such as qawwali, thus paving the way for Hindustani music to be explicitly linked to Hinduism in India. The world of Hindustani music has been shaped in the past century by colonialism and both Hindu and Islamic nationalism, with important consequences for how its Muslim performers present themselves today.

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Singer, saint, goddess: who was M.S. Subbulakshmi?

कौसल्यासुप्रजा राम पूर्वा संध्या प्रवर्तते
उत्तिष्ठ नरशार्दूल कर्तव्यं दैवमाह्निकम्

kausalyāsuprajā rāma pūrvā sandhyā pravartate
uttiṣṭha naraśārdūla karttavyaṃ daivamāhnikam

Oh Rama! Kausalya’s auspicious child! Twilight is approaching in the East. Oh, best of men! Wake up; the divine daily rituals have to be performed.

With this opening verse from Valmiki’s Ramayana begins the Venkateshwara Suprabhatam, a hymn composed in the 14th century that is recited every morning at the Tirupati Venkateshwara temple to wake up Lord Venkateshwara (a form of Vishnu), the presiding deity of the temple. A specific recording of this hymn, rendered by a slightly nasal but mellifluous voice, is played every morning in the homes of millions of South Indian Hindus–including that of my family.

As long as I can remember, every weekend morning I would drag myself out of bed while the voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi called out to the Lord from the CD player in our living room. By the time I would brush my teeth and come downstairs, where my dad would be making breakfast or reading the newspaper while my mom did her morning exercises, that same voice would have begun singing Bhaja Govindam, a popular Hindu devotional composition.

In this way, Subbulakshmi’s voice was a constant presence in my life. However, I didn’t know much about who she was, and I only remember hearing a few adulatory snippets about her life. The first prime minister of India called her “a queen of song”. She gave a concert at the United Nations in the 1960s, taking South Indian classical music to a level of recognition it had never previously received. “M.S. amma [mother]” was one of the greatest Carnatic vocalists of the 20th century.

I often heard people praise her as an avatar (incarnation) of Saraswati, the goddess of art, music, and knowledge.

All the while, I continued to hear her voice every weekend morning.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I started taking more of an interest in Carnatic music, the tradition I’ve been learning since fifth grade, and it wasn’t until very, very recently that I found myself wanting to learn more about the social and political history of Carnatic music and its performers, as well as its musical aspects.

M.S. Subbulakshmi’s reputation today seems to be that of a modern-day saint; a demure singer of Sanskrit hymns and devotional compositions, whose music was wholly infused with religious fervor, and whose voice continues to bestow spiritual bliss on her listeners.

In reality, however, the life of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), referred to as “M.S. amma” or simply “M.S.” by her listeners, was much more complex, dramatic, and in some ways, troubling. From her teens, she was thrust into the public eye and very quickly became a musical celebrity in South India before achieving recognition throughout the country, and was finally elevated to “near-official status as an icon of independent India” on the international stage. Yet, as Sunil Khilnani, a scholar of Indian history and culture, remarks in a BBC podcast, “what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

I highly recommend listening to the above podcast, but below are some excerpts that I found to be particularly interesting.

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Mapping connections in the Indo-European language family

My mother tongue, Telugu, is a Dravidian language, related to just a few other South Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tulu, but I think the linguistic connections in the Indo-European language family are incredible–especially since they span such a wide geographical area, from Bangladesh to Russia to Spain. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the Proto-Indo-European people; Karen Armstrong’s books Fields of Blood and The Great Transformation give brief overviews of Proto-Indo-European religion and the shared origins of the Vedic religion and Zoroastrianism, but I haven’t read much about the evolution of the Indo-European languages.

I’m all about neat little linguistic diagrams, so here are a few.

“The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.

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This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish) edit: rendu (Telugu), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.” (source)

Here’s another diagram showing the word for mother:

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(source)

Chicago is cold. History favored the cold. (Sort of)

Winter has officially begun with full force in Chicago — I’m typing this during the warmest part of the day, at a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite how pretty campus looks when covered in snow, walking outside is an ordeal that requires one to adopt a marshmallow-like aesthetic while also covering their face like a Tuareg man.

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The scarf with which they cover their face is called a tagelmust. A must-have for life in the Sahara desert or by the shores of Lake Michigan. (source)

I guess the weather isn’t that bad, and it’s definitely an exciting, new experience. However, on the bitterly cold two-minute walk from the bus stop to the dining hall, I asked myself, “Why did humans decide to build a city here, of all places? The first European colonists in this area must have spent a winter or two here — why didn’t they take the logical decision to build their settlement somewhere else? Why is it so damn col– oh we’re at the dining hall now?” My questions obviously weren’t too serious, but they got me thinking about this passage from Charles Mann’s book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created:

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