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…

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Some thoughts on #NotInMyName

Note: This short piece was originally published on the website of Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a grassroots organization I’m part of. When I use “we,” I am referring to Sadhana. 

Source: Al Jazeera

In the past few days, thousands of people across the world, both in India and abroad, have publicly taken a stand against the cow/beef-related mob violence, lynchings, and targeted killings of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India, under the slogan #NotInMyName. (If you want to read more about the protests and the violence that inspired them, you can Google “not in my name protests india”.) These protests have been widely praised, but also heavily critiqued by others.

Rajesh Rajamani argues that the #NotInMyName protests are “part of the problem,” and take focus away from “Brahmanism, which is at the core of the Hindu religion, and its scriptures that sanction social inequality and allow for violence to preserve its unequal structure.” He further states that any distinction made between Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is “imaginary and false”.

Mr. Rajamani is correct in pointing out that any discussion of the violence perpetrated against Dalits and Muslims is incomplete if we do not also address the systemic violence that takes place through the institution of caste. Brahmanism refers specifically to the system of caste hierarchy which leads to entrenched social inequity.

However, we simply cannot agree with Mr. Rajamani’s claims that Brahmanism lies at the heart of Hinduism, and that Hindutva is no different from Hinduism.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on #NotInMyName”

“Blink, and there he was…”

This school year, I’ve been taking Persian to fulfill my college’s language requirement, and (unsurprisingly) it’s been my favorite class all year! I’m working on a longer post on the connections I’ve made and some of the mini-revelations I’ve had while learning Persian, but for now I just want to share some verses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) rendered as a qawwali by the legendary brothers, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad (who have been featured on this blog before). To my surprise, with just a few months of learning Persian I can recognize quite a few words and make sense of some of the sentences, even though they were composed around eight centuries ago! The video description informed me that “Ayyaar” means “vagabond” in Persian, and love is often described in this idiom in Persian Sufi poetry.

Here are a few verses with translation (please correct me if I made any mistakes). Enjoy!

هر لحظه به شكلي بت عيار بر آمد, دل برد و نهان شد
هر دم به لباس دگر آن يار بر آمد , گه پير و جوان شد

Har lehza ba shakal-aan but-e-ayyaar bar-aamad, dil burd-o-nihaan shud
Har dam ba libaas-e digar-aan yaar bar-aamad, geh peer-o-javaan shud

Blink, and there he was in a different form – that sly Beloved! He stole the hearts of the people, and hid from view.
Every time he came out in a different garb. Sometimes he was young, and sometimes he was old.

خود کوزہ و خود کوزہ گر و خود گلِ کوزہ, خود رندِ سبو کش
خود بر سرِ آں کوزہ خریدار برآمد, بشکست رواں شد

Khud kuza-o, khud kuzagar-o khud gil-e-kuza, khud rind-e-subu kash
Khud bar sar-e-aan kuza kharidaar bar-aamad, ba shikast o ravaan shud

He is the wine flask, he is its maker, and he is the clay used to make it.
He was the drunk who bought that flask. He himself drained it, broke it, and moved on.


Kanaka Dasa’s musical critique of “Caste, caste, caste”

The poet-saint Kanaka Dasa lived in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka, in the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Empire was flourishing. A devotee of Krishna, he was a member of the haridasa devotional movement, which began in the 14th century and continued on through the 19th century. Some well-known haridasas include Purandara Dasa and Vyasatirtha. The haridasa movement significantly influenced what we now know as Carnatic music; Purandara Dasa is known as the “Great Father of Music” (sangeeta pitamaha), and many of his songs and the compositions of other haridasas are sung today. Because we have lost the original melodies of these songs, modern musicians and scholars have set these Kannada compositions to music, and that’s what we hear today. Many of Kanaka Dasa’s songs are sung as part of the Carnatic classical canon, including the charming ragamalikaBaro krishnayya“.

The song I want to share in this post, “Kula kula kula vennutiharu,” is rarely heard on the Carnatic concert stage, but its message is as urgent now as it was hundreds of years ago. In this song, Kanaka Dasa questions the notions of purity and pollution that form the basis of caste. He cleverly points out that lotus flowers, cow’s milk, and fragrant musk all originate in locations that orthodox Hindus may see as “impure”; yet, their products are seen as symbols of divinity and goodness! He asks the listener: which caste do Vishnu and Shiva belong to? Which caste does the soul or the five senses belong to? These questions may seem frivolous and rhetorical, but the fact that caste hasn’t been eradicated yet shows us that we need to take Kanaka Dasa seriously.

This song has been set to a joyful raga, Hamir Kalyani, and is sung here by the Bangalore Brothers, M.B. Hariharan and S. Ashok. Kannada lyrics follow, with an English translation taken largely from William Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices:

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Carnatic music as a tool for social change: “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”

Happy New Year all! I’ve been quite busy with college in the last few months, which is why I haven’t been posting as much lately. However, I did want to share this incredible video with you all.

“Chennai Poromboke Paadal” is another boundary-pushing project featuring Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been working tirelessly in the past few years to break down the elitist culture of Indian classical music (I’ve written about him in many previous posts). It was directed by Rathindran Prasad, who rose to fame with his “Kodaikanal Won’t” rap video starring Sofia Ashraf, and also involved journalist and activist Nityanand Jayaram and songwriter Kaber Vasuki. This video highlights the environmental impact of unrestricted urban development in Chennai, through a Carnatic composition in the colloquial dialect of Chennai Tamil.

Krishna has often asked “why is Carnatic music only in Sanskrit or chaste Tamil or chaste Telugu, and why is it talking about only [Hindu gods], when it could be talking about anything?”

“It’s very easy to say that Carnatic music should have different subjects and be in different dialects. It’s only when you do it that you realise if it works or not. The greatest thing the project has gifted me is that it has shown me such an experiment is possible and has opened incredible doors for me and for so many others.”

I’ll be honest: it’s a little unsettling to hear phrases like “concrete kattadam” (concrete buildings) sung in Anandabhairavi raga, but it’s also a really exciting feeling. I truly hope to see more projects like this; utilizing the rich aesthetic framework of this elite art form, but redirecting its lyrical focus to promote social change and introspection. This is the beginning of a new janma for Carnatic music.

Read more here, and watch the video below:


“The Unforeseen Impacts of Activism”

Note: I wrote this blog post this summer, after participating in a youth program run by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a DC-based advocacy organization focused on issues facing South Asian American communities. I know I haven’t been active on this blog lately, but I have some new content coming soon, I promise — especially now that my final exams for this quarter are now over.

This post later led to me being interviewed for this article on The Caravan: “How South Asian Americans Are Asserting Their Political Voice This Election”!

Anyway, here’s the post (originally published here):

Sitting in my university’s library last spring, I was procrastinating on studying for finals by browsing Facebook—something any college student can relate to. In between the endless feed of news articles and photos, one event caught my eye: a three-part discussion series, “South Asians for Black Lives.” The Facebook event listed some incredible speakers and activists who would be talking about important issues such as the model minority myth and colorism in South Asian communities, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in solidarity with Black communities (or not).

Although we had really wanted to attend the discussion series, logistically it wasn’t very feasible to do so. Talking with my friends who expressed an interest in the event, we decided if we couldn’t go to “South Asians for Black Lives”, we would bring “South Asians for Black Lives” to us. That is, we would basically copy that event and hold it on UChicago’s campus instead.

There were some important differences, though. Our university’s South Asian Students Association was robust, but focused more on cultural and social events, like the annual spring show and chai socials. When it came to programming related to social and political issues, there wasn’t a whole lot. My friends and I weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get from our campus community—would anyone even show up?—so we decided to make our event a one-day affair, instead of Northwestern’s three-part series. We reached out to professors, activists, and fellow students from the UChicago community and the greater Chicago area as well, and invited some really incredible, passionate speakers.

Finally, it was the day of the event. Although there were some minor hiccups, everything went quite smoothly. After a panel discussion with two activists and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, we moved into small group discussions led by members of UChicago’s Organization of Black Students and other student activists. Although the theme of our event was geared towards South Asian students, quite a few students from different Asian backgrounds attended, as well as students of other ethnicities. Afterwards, my friends and I were frankly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response we got from those who attended! Many of them expressed that they would love to see more events focusing on social and political issues relating to Asian-American communities on campus.

The success of our “South Asians for Black Lives” event inspired me to find out whether other South Asian students across the country had also been trying to hold social justice-related events, and what kind of success they were having. While looking online, I stumbled on SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI) webpage. YLI seemed like exactly what I was looking for: a group of young South Asian Americans who were passionate about social change. By the time I found out about YLI, it was just a day before the application deadline, but I managed to send my application in anyway (a couple hours late). Thankfully, I got in!

The YLI training in DC was eye-opening in a variety of ways. It seemed like every member of the cohort felt like their colleges’ South Asian student groups also didn’t focus that much on social and political issues as much as cultural events. The theme of this year’s YLI was Immigrant Justice, and after hearing about the different projects we were hoping to execute on our campuses, I was honestly in awe of everyone else. We learned about the current immigrant right issues facing our communities, we heard from activists and organizers, and we had some very honest and important conversations.

For me, one of the most meaningful moments of the YLI training was finding out that the project that originally inspired my friends and I—the “South Asians for Black Lives” event at Northwestern—was actually organized by a member of the 2015 YLI cohort, Sanjana Lakshmi! One could say this was just a coincidence; Sanjana’s event just happened to show up on my Facebook feed one afternoon. However, I think it was more than just a coincidence. It was proof that our efforts to have these important conversations in our communities can have a much greater impact than we could ever imagine. I’m sure that in the coming years, as each YLI cohort works to tackle a variety of social and political issues in their campus communities, their work will serve as inspiration to many more young South Asian Americans, just as it did for me.


Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art

It’s no secret that light skin is favored over dark skin throughout the Indian subcontinent, an attitude that is found in many other societies and is generally referred to as colorism or shadeism:

“Everyday media culture in India … consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women. Matrimonial classified advertisements in Indian newspapers specify routinely that prospective grooms prefer women with ‘‘fair’’ or ‘‘wheatish’’ complexions. A majority of the Indian female actors in Bollywood are light-skinned women, and the few dark-skinned women actors who have overcome the restrictive norms of skin color wear thick make-up to conceal their dark facial skin.

Interweaving colorism into a seamless package of physical attributes, the faces of Indian models in advertisements are almost universally light-skinned with smooth complexions, shining black hair, and slim bodies. The most lucrative products in the Indian cosmetics sector since 1998, a decade after India’s initial incorporation into the global economy, are chemical and herbal products that promise to reduce darkness and preserve light skin by preventing further tanning.”

Colorism in India doesn’t just exist in the realm of cosmetics and modeling; it finds a stronghold in religion as well, which makes understanding it even more complicated. One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about how the popular Western depiction of Jesus Christ as a white man has actually had some pretty serious consequences. In this post, I’m going to touch on some questions that are much closer to home:

  • Can colorism in the Indian subcontinent be attributed to British colonialism alone, or are there much older causes?
  • How has colorism influenced popular depictions of Hindu deities?
  • What are the social implications of depicting Hindu deities with extremely fair skin?
  • Are colorist attitudes beginning to change among Hindus, and among all South Asians in general?

Origins of colorism in South Asia

I think it makes a lot of sense to imagine a connection between British colonialism in India and colorism in South Asia today. However, all the explanations for colorism that I’ve come across make it very clear that colonialism did not introduce notions of colorism into South Asia; rather, it significantly strengthened pre-existing attitudes. So, where did these pre-colonial attitudes come from?

Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular writer on Hindu mythology, asks the same question: “Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti [light-skinned] complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonial [advertisements]? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past -– that the nomadic tribes who came from the [northwest] held the dark-skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white.

But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities –- but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists –- but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th-century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity…”

If the origins of colorism can’t be adequately explained by the Aryan invasion theory, where else should we look? Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School, attributes colorism to perceptions about caste status:

“The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor.

From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.” (emphasis mine)

Continue reading “Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art”