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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Getting lost in Bahudari

I have a summer research job where I mostly work on my laptop at home, so I’m free to listen to music, podcasts, lectures, whatever. Lately, I’ve been listening to Carnatic concerts, since it’s otherwise kind of inconvenient to listen to two-and-half hour-long YouTube videos during my everyday routine. So, while listening to a 2015 performance by TM Krishna, one of my favorite Carnatic musicians (for a variety of reasons), I was pleasantly surprised to hear him render a composition in one of my favorite ragas, Bahudari.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Bahudari, because why write about it when you can listen instead? But I will say this: Bahudari is a unique Carnatic raga, in that it doesn’t contain rishabham (the equivalent in Western solfege is the second note, re). Partially because of this and a few other details in the raga, Bahudari lends itself to bright, expansive melodic phrases. It’s a feel-good raga, in my opinion. (Also, a detail that has no relevance to the raga itself: the word “bahudari” means “many paths” in Telugu.)

In Carnatic music, Bahudari is generally seen as a minor raga, rarely selected for extensive improvisation. There aren’t too many compositions set in Bahudari either, but one of the few is “Brova Bharama,” which happens to be one of my favorite kritis composed by Tyagaraja. In the TM Krishna concert I was listening to, “Brova Bharama” was the composition through which he explored Bahudari.

There’s something playful and (dare I apply this word to Carnatic music) fun about TMK’s exploration of Bahudari and “Brova Bharama”. At 37:07, Krishna begins with a tanam (improvisation with more of a rhythmic focus) that starts out delicately, becoming increasingly forceful. He is mirrored almost perfectly by the violinist RK Shriramkumar, whom we’ll be paying more attention to soon. Today, it’s unusual for vocalists to sing a tanam before a composition, but I remember reading somewhere that it is/was common for veena players to do so. Anyway, Krishna’s tanam explores the lower octave of Bahudari, increasing in complexity over time.

Now, it’s the violinist’s turn to shine. At 40:55, Shriramkumar begins a short alapana in Bahudari, and the very first phrase he plays is so well-crafted that it elicits an appreciative “Oh!” from Krishna. At 41:33, he then switches to a tanam (I think…), just like Krishna did before. That goes on for a minute or so–and then at 44:13, without any warning, the violinist decides to begin “Brova Bharama”!

This is a break from traditional protocol: usually, the violinist would end his improvisation and then allow the vocalist to begin the composition, but here the violinist headed straight into the composition from the tanam itself, with a smile on his face. Krishna is visibly surprised, but he goes with the flow, joining in soon after the violinist begins. This cheeky move by the Shriramkumar sets the tone for the entire composition, and it makes the whole thing fun and a real treat to watch. So, finally, here’s the video:

Finally, the part that really caught my attention was a short phrase at 46:05, when the Shriramkumar begins the charanam (third and final verse of the song). This sequence is just played so sweetly that I had to take my violin out and play along with the recording. Which I then did, on repeat, for like an hour… as cliche as it sounds, I think that was the first time I really experienced “getting lost in a raga.” That one phrase played by the violinist actually inspired me to write this whole post.

I remember when I used to fall asleep during the improvisational parts of Carnatic concerts. How I’ve changed! (Ok, that still happens sometimes. I’m working on it.)

Do any of you have similar experiences “getting lost” in music or art in general? I’d love to hear about them!

Ninda-stuti: Trash-talking God

Looking at the various religious traditions of the world, devotion takes a staggering number of musical and literary forms, such as the qawwali music sung at Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, the gospel music of African-American churches, mantras chanted at a Buddhist temple, and the boisterous Vodou-Catholic rara parades of Haiti. Hindus express devotion (bhakti, in Sanskrit) through a variety of ways, from intricate, philosophical Sanskrit poetry to simple bhajans sung by children and adults alike.

The tone of devotional music and poetry is often one of emotional, self-deprecating adoration: “Oh God, Lord of the universe, you are so great! I am a sinner in your eyes, but you are an ocean of compassion! Please bestow your blessings upon me!” However, even within Hinduism alone, there are many more dimensions to bhakti. For example, in South Indian poetry, bhakti has historically taken on the character of shringara (erotic love). Another unique form through which bhakti has been expressed in South India is that of ninda-stuti: basically, trash-talking God.

What is ninda-stuti?

The Sanskrit word ninda means “abuse, blame.” Stuti is a general term for devotional literary compositions, but literally means “adulation, praise.” Putting these two together, we get what William Jackson calls a “song of praise by way of sarcasm” (Jackson 367).

Madhu Khanna writes, “It is commonly understood that a ninda-stuti is a form of shlesha-kavya, literary composition laden with double entendre. This form of address is ultimately looked upon as a form of dvesha- bhakti, devotion expressed through hatred and enmity.

Such forms of dialogue are well known in the epics and in the Bhagavata Purana. In the Mahabharata, Shishupala and Dantavaktra recite a ninda-stuti to Krishna. In the Bhagavata, Kamsa, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha, and in the Ramayana, Ravana and Kumbhakarna don the roles of god-haters.

The [idea] is that it is the god in question who empowers them with such hatred, it is god who creates these situations through his power of maya [illusion] to put such characters in a quandary and finally it is god alone who releases them and frees them from bondage to the immoral and evil traits of their character” (Khanna 205).

Ninda-stutis aren’t just found in epics, though. Their “familiarity and humorous disrespect” lend themselves naturally to performances of music, drama, and dance (Jackson 367). Quite a few ninda-stutis are presented in performances of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance. The Tamil composers Muthu Thandavar (16th century), Papavinasa Mudaliar, and Marimutha Pillai (both early 18th century) were especially known for their ninda-stutis. An online Carnatic radio station notes that “these compositions are seen as passionate outbursts of the devotee, who takes liberties with [the] Lord because of the special relationship between them. Even though the [lyrics appear] to criticise the deity, the songs are an expression of affection, with the composer treating the deity addressed as an equal” (emphasis mine).

I want to emphasize that last phrase: the composers of ninda-stutis are addressing their chosen deity as an equal, and I think this is a really unique and fascinating way of imagining a relationship to the divine. It’s important that William Jackson reminds us that this attitude is not totally unique to Hinduism: “there are also examples of this complaining to the deity going back to the Old Testament: Job XVI 6-17 and XXI, 1-6.” (Jackson 367). However, I would argue that most religious traditions, including many Hindu traditions, have not fostered this attitude to the extent that we see occurring in ninda-stutis. In this post, I want to highlight three examples of ninda-stuti, all composed in different languages and addressed to different deities.
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Kanakamayam Ayidum: a game of “Who’s That God?”

In the busy calendar of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, there are two major festivals. The Painkuni utsavam takes place in the Malayalam calendar’s month of Meenam (March/April), while the Alpashi utsavam is held during Thulam (October/November).

Both of these festivals are ten days long, and each day, an idol of Lord Padmanabha (a form of Vishnu), accompanied by other deities, is taken on a procession in a different type of vahana, or vehicle. It is said that originally the deities were taken out on elephants, but after an elephant ran amok one year, the temple decided to use vahanas which are carried by temple priests instead. These include a throne, Vishnu’s eagle Garuda, and a palanquin, to name a few. The festivals culminate on the tenth day, when the deities are taken to the Shankumugham beach for a holy bath in the ocean.

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A portrait of Swati Tirunal

Swati Tirunal, the 19th-century king of Travancore, was a prolific Carnatic and Hindustani composer whose compositions I’ve written about before. One of his most interesting works is the Utsavaprabandha. It’s made up of twelve compositions: an introduction, a conclusion, and ten main songs, each one describing a specific day of the festivals. They are set in a variety of ragas, some popular and some rare, and their lyrics are in highly Sanskritized Malayalam.

The charming song “Kanakamayam Ayidum” was composed for the third day of the festival, when Lord Padmanabha’s idol is taken out on procession atop the kamala vahana (lotus vehicle). It describes a conversation between two devotees who are watching the procession go by, but aren’t sure who the deity is. It’s kind of funny; Hindu kids are often teased about the seemingly endless number of Hindu deities, but as this song reveals, plenty of Hindus also find them hard to keep track of!

This song is set in raga Huseni and is in rupaka talam (six-beat cycle). Here’s a rendition by the wonderful Rama Varma, with a translation of the lyrics below:

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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.

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”