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”

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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. 

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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”

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:

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)

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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

Continue reading “The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique”

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