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…

Continue reading “Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman”

God smokes cigars in Viralimalai

Summer vacation is here, which means more time to read everything I didn’t have time for during this past school year! (I’ve also been spending time relaxing with friends and family, watching Modern Family, learning how to cook, getting started with my research job… but that’s not the point here.)

I hadn’t read fiction of my own choosing in quite a while, so I decided to start things off with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The reviews on the back described it as a black comedy, but I can’t say I noticed much of the humor; I spent a good portion of the book feeling a bit sick to my stomach. That being said, I found myself drawn into the narrative very quickly, and Adiga pulls no punches in his scathingly sarcastic analysis of contemporary Indian society. I do recommend it–just don’t expect a very lighthearted read.

This past week, I returned to the familiar embrace of academic nonfiction with Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. Soneji, a professor at McGill University, takes an intimate look at the devadasis of South India, women who were traditionally the center of music and dance in South India until the 20th century, when their dance was appropriated by upper-caste women and transformed into what we now know as Bharatanatyam. Devadasis, who were branded as “prostitutes” by nationalist reformers, still suffer from extreme social and economic marginalization today. I learned so much from Soneji’s book, and I’ll be posting more than a few excerpts in the near future.

For now, however, I just want to post a funny anecdote I came across in Unfinished Gestures. Soneji describes the small town of Viralimalai in the state of Tamil Nadu. Viralimalai plays an important role in the history of devadasi dance, but it’s also home to a temple with a very, very, interesting tradition:

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Viralimalai town

“Although the early history of Viralimalai is unclear, the temple has traditionally been associated with the military and administrative chiefs appointed by the Nayakas [16th-18th centuries] known as pALaiyakkArar. The present temple structure evidences Nayaka-style renovations, and the pALaiyakkArar Vadi Lakkayya Nayaka was largely responsible for these renovations in the sixteenth century. It later came under the control of the Marungapuri zamindari, and then in the eighteenth century, the “little kingdom” of Pudukkottai ruled by the Tondaiman rajas…

“An acknowledgment of the definitively modern colonial-pALaiyakkArar heritage of Viralimalai survives in a number of oral narratives that circulate in the town today. In the popular imagination pALaiyakkArars are associated with the unusual custom of presenting a cigar as a food offering (naivedya) to the god. The popular story of the cigar offering, as narrated by a priest at the temple, is as follows:

The minister of a pALaiyakkArar chief named Karuppamuttu Pillai visited the Viralimalai temple every Friday. On one occasion, because of heavy rains, the river Mamundi, which separated Karuppamuttu’s home from the temple, had become impassable. Stranded on the bank, Karuppamuttu was left without food and, more importantly for him, his most beloved cigars (suruTTu kaLanji).

Murugan, seeing his devotee in such a condition, appeared to him in a human form holding a cigar and matches in his hand, and led Karuppamuttu safely to the temple. From that day onward, Karuppamuttu decreed that cigars be offered to the Lord at Viralimalai along with the food offerings (naivedyam) on a daily basis.” (Soneji 165)

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A plate of offerings. You can clearly see the two cigars!

Image sources: Viralimalai town, temple picturesRavi Varma painting

“The Grammar of God”, or why translation is so complex.

Imagine growing up with a book that was written in a certain language; hearing it recited and sung at special events, constantly discussing it in school and at dinner with your family, going over every minute grammatical detail, being exposed to commentaries from throughout history, and learning to become accustomed to its contradictions and ambiguities. Imagine that, one day, you come across that text’s English translation one day. You know that this book is popular throughout the world, and its translations are much more widely circulated than the original. You open up the English translation, and to your shock, from the very first verse it is almost unrecognizable.

Now, imagine if this book was the Bible.

Aviya Kushner, a writer from a small Jewish town near New York City, grew up reading the Bible in its original Hebrew. It wasn’t until graduate school that she came face-to-face with the Bible’s English translations, and to her surprise, some parts seemed like completely different texts when compared to the Hebrew. Her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is more than just an engaging look into the way Jews have understood the Old Testament throughout history; it provides some incredible insights into the complex phenomenon that is translation.

Kushner’s book is part memoir, part scholarly analysis. I really appreciated her informal tone, which kept me interested even during long-winded descriptions of Hebrew grammar or the biography of a certain Jewish translator of the Bible. She describes her childhood and the way she grew up with the Bible in humorous, touching recollections, and then transitions effortlessly into a discussion of how the lack of punctuation in Hebrew compared to the explicit and varied punctuation of English dramatically affects one’s understanding of the first few verses of Genesis.

Without giving too much away, I want to highlight a couple of my favorite parts of this book. Firstly, Kushner’s recollection of the way in which she grew up reading the Bible:

“While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text–what is called the pshat, literally “the simple or the plain”–that is not how I usually read it, and that is not how it is generally taught in yeshiva classrooms. In school, as a child, I read the Torah from books called mikraot gedolot–“great scriptures,” also called the Rabbinic Bible in English–volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible in different languages, scripts, and fonts. To the side sat the words of Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism, whose great first-century translation into Aramaic can be read as a commentary. Beneath the text of the Bible lay Rashi’s commentary, expressing his thoughts in his special medieval script…

Around Rashi lay other commentators, rabbis chiming in from their perches in Spain, France, Germany, the Arab world, and Israel, spanning at least twelve centuries. Everything was up for discussion, and from my earliest memory I was taught to demand a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth, to cross borders of time and language in order to hear those multiple voices. The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

Growing up encountering a sacred text surrounded by differing commentaries is really appealing to me–I’m kind of jealous of Kushner! In my personal view, when it comes to religion and religious scriptures in particular, everything really should be “up for discussion”, and the whole structure of mikraot gedolot is a concrete realization of this idea. I’ve come across a couple websites and books that displayed the verses of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in a similar fashion, but I wish this convention could become more popular for all religious texts.

Kushner devotes plenty of pages to talking about the concrete implications that translation has for the meaning of the Bible, and the ways in which translation can be used to aid larger causes. One of the most chilling examples is that of slavery. During the period of slavery in America, Biblical passages were often cited in defense of slavery, presenting it as a fulfillment of God’s curse towards the descendants of Cain or, at the very least, as tolerated by God. However, the verses in the Bible that describe the slavery endured by the Jews in Egypt present a very different view of slavery, one that is not necessarily present in some English translations:

“In Hebrew, the beginning of slavery involves animalistic imagery that sears the soul; in English, this is toned way down, made much less disturbing, less cruel and visceral. Slavery in Egypt starts nice and easy in the King James translation, with a pleasant-sounding baby boom: “and the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them,” Exodus 1:7 reads. But in Hebrew, the passage is more ominous. The verb vayishretzu, which the King James Bible translates as “multiplied,” is actually the far more unsettling “they multiplied like little animals.” Even-Shoshan explains that the word sheretz refers to all small creatures who reproduce quickly and have numerous descendants, such as scorpions, frogs, and mice.”

For someone who has never read the Bible and knows even less about Judaism, I felt like The Grammar of God got me a little more up to speed–as much as any single book could. It really was a fascinating look at a text that is constantly relevant in today’s society, and I have gained a new appreciation towards the act of translation. Of course, we can’t read every work of world literature in its original language, and translation serves a valuable purpose in exposing us to perspectives we may never encounter otherwise. However, there is always another side to translation; one that makes me a little apprehensive. I think Kushner says it best:

“There is no perfect translation, because there is no way to bring a text fully from one culture to another, one language to another, one person to another–but every translation attempts to keep a book alive… We should read translations to know how those living next door understand the books we read in the privacy of our own home. And we should also always acknowledge that we are reading a translation–not the original text–and that there is another voice in the room, another mind at work, as we read.”

(image source 1, 2)

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.

Continue reading “Singer, saint, goddess: who was M.S. Subbulakshmi?”

“Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music

Should Carnatic music be classified as art music or devotional music? Both? Neither?

I tried to answer this question in one of my first posts, and I still don’t have a clear answer.

T. M. Krishna is one of the most skilled vocalists in the next generation of Carnatic musicians, but the reason I admire him so much is because he is attempting to re-imagine nearly every aspect of Carnatic music. He’s stoked controversy through his various articles on social and political issues in India, and by declaring that “Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated, male chauvinistic world.” Krishna has worked to raise awareness about the forces of casteism and sexism historically present in Carnatic music, while also democratizing Carnatic music today. For example, he has pledged to boycott the most prestigious (and rather elitist) Carnatic music festival in Chennai, instead holding a music festival in a fishing village. In addition, he is also aesthetically reinventing the format of Carnatic concerts, which tend to follow a rigid structure.

Krishna has written an excellent book on Carnatic music called A Southern Music, in which he makes an argument for focusing on the aesthetic, artistic aspects of Carnatic music and improvisation over the devotional aspect of most Carnatic compositions:

“Is Karnatik music inherently religious?

To answer that, I must ask whether Karnatik music was intended to be religious. It is not possible to respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ terms to this…

But clearly its journey included a relationship with temples and their associated rituals. This is where we need to look beyond the function and the practice of the music. We need to recognise the brilliance of musicians whose genius was logistically linked to religious sites, but was aesthetically free to and did indeed travel beyond the precincts of the temple where they practised their art. In this complex formation lies the answer to the question about the intent of Karnatik music. My point of view on this subject is not atheistic but aesthetic.

Now to pose another related question: what happens when the thought in the musician’s mind is the music’s religious content? This is not an academic question, but is about a very real situation. Most Karnatik musicians in the past and many in the present hail from conservative families, more often than not of brahmin descent. They believe strongly in religion and ritual. This automatically makes their relationship with Karnatik music religious. In this situation, the lyrics rendered further entrench their already conditioned minds in religious belief, leading many musicians to feel, believe and then propound the belief that they are conveying the philosophical and religious meaning of the vaggeyakara (composer) to the audience. Many kirtanas are rendered with deep feeling and focus on the names of the deities and the vaggeyakara’s yearning for these gods.

In doing so, is the kirtana’s aesthetic make-up influenced? As much as the musicians are engrossed in the music, the focus is driven by textual meaning as they understand it and their own associations with the words being sung. Lines in the compositions are rendered with a clear emphasis on those words that create a religious – if not devotional – emotion both for the musician and the listener. These lines are even repeated to constantly emphasise the same emotion. In the process, the musician’s thoughts veer away from the musical structuring.

Within the modern world, the Hindu religious content raises an important question. Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?

The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music. They will silently pamper the religious responses to their music and encourage devotional and philosophical expressions. I am not finding fault, but highlighting the difficulty for them to be who they are within this world. The musical fraternity at large does not feel it necessary to give Karnatik music, especially its compositional forms, a purely aesthetic thought.

What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world.” (source)


Krishna makes a related argument even more forcefully at another point in the book:

“When listeners come with the mindset of understanding sahitya (lyrics) in order to connect with Karnatik music, they make the same mistake as the musician in not allowing the art object to create the magic. The listener is only listening to poetry in the garb of music. Although this can be a deeply moving experience, it prevents the listener from connecting emotionally to the abstraction. The music they are listening to becomes religious, social or political music.” (pages 278-279)


Looking back at my previous posts on Carnatic music, I think I’m guilty of prioritizing the religious meaning of Carnatic compositions over their musical aspects, and I definitely want to try and look at Carnatic music from a more aesthetic perspective now.

However, in the case of the song “Enta matramuna”, I think we’re allowed to take a good look at its lyrics, for a couple reasons. Firstly, this kriti was composed by the Telugu poet-composer Annamacharya, who lived from 1408-1503 and whose poetry I’ve written about before. Although we still have the lyrics to hundreds of Annamacharya compositions, we no longer know the original ragas or melodies in which they were set. In fact, many compositions were recently found on copper plates in a hidden chamber of the Tirupati Venkateshwara temple. Because of this, I don’t feel that by closely examining the lyrics of this song, I’m somehow disrespecting Annamacharya’s creative intent. Although he was a vaggeyakara — vach (word) + geya (singer) + kara (person) = composer — in his time, today we have to approach him primarily as a poet whose compositions have been set to music by others.

In addition, I think this song gives a insight into the spirit of religious pluralism that defines Hinduism and, at the same time, makes Hinduism so hard to define.

Continue reading ““Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music”

“Idgah” – my introduction to Islam

I think some of my earliest interactions with Christianity and Buddhism were through visiting their houses of worship: an ornate Chinese Buddhist temple near the Microsoft campus, a Unitarian church in which the local bhajan group held interfaith “Sunday school” and weekly bhajans. However, I didn’t visit a mosque until I was sixteen, and I didn’t have any Muslim friends until I reached high school. My childhood encounters with Islam were limited to singing bhajans which made reference to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, and talking to a Persian family who also attended the Sunday school and bhajans.

I think “Idgah” was my first introduction to Islam, even though it doesn’t discuss much of the religion itself. It’s just a simple story of a young boy and his day celebrating Eid, originally written in Hindi by the Hindustani author Munshi Premchand (1880-1936); it’s also one of his most well-known stories. Here’s the English translation I grew up reading (written by another great modern Indian writer, Khushwant Singh):

Idgah art
Illustration by Jagdish Joshi

Continue reading ““Idgah” – my introduction to Islam”

The “monkeys” of history: a Hindi poem

This moving poem was written by Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan (1911–1987), a great modern Hindi writer who often used the pen name “Ajneya”, meaning “beyond comprehension.” It’s referencing the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic in which the vanara sena, an army of monkeys, builds the prince Rama a bridge to the island of Lanka in order to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. The poet uses this episode to make a point about how we view history. I think it’s expressing a similar idea as the quote “until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”, but through the idiom of Hindu mythology.

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According to some retellings of the Ramayana, writing Rama’s name on the rocks allowed them to float and form a bridge to Lanka. (source)

जो पुल बनाएँगें
वे अनिवार्यत:
पीछे रह जाएँगे
सेनाएँ हो जाएगी पार
मारे जाएँगे रावण
जयी होंगें राम
जो निर्माता रहे
इतिहास में
बंदर कहलाएँगे

jo pul banaayenge
ve anivaaryatah
peeche reh jaayenge
senaayein ho jaayegi paar
maare jaayenge Raavan
jayee honge Ram
jo nirmaataa rahe
itihaas mein
“bandar” kehlaayenge

Those who build bridges,
Will inevitably be left behind.
Armies will cross,
Ravana will be killed,
Rama will be victorious.
But those who did the building
Will be known as “monkeys” in history.