On March 8th, the Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker Series hosted Katherine Butler Schofield and Davesh Soneji, who gave their talk, “Indian Music Between Past and Present: Conversations on Ethics, Archives, and Mortality,” in the form of a jugalbandhi, a duet performance, typically of a Hindustani and Karnatak performer, emphasizing the interconnectedness of these supposedly distinct and separate Indian musical styles.
The topic of the evening’s colloquium was courtly music of India. Classified as “Classical Music,” this art form is divided into two styles, one for northern India, called Hindustani music, and one for southern India, called Karnatak music.
Tradition defines these styles as distinct, as Hindustani music developed under the Mughals, and as such was influenced by Persian Islamic culture, whereas Karnatak music developed under the Vijayanagara Empire of the south (also called the Karnata Empire) and is understood by many Indian musicians to reflect a more “pure” Hindu culture.
In the first section of their jugalbandhi, Schofield and Soneji rejected that dualism in their talk, repeatedly noting many shared characteristics of both musical styles. One important similarity is the form of transmission of musical knowledge, passed down from a teacher to a disciple in extensively recorded musical lineages. Schofield also argued that many of the themes (called ragas) of Hindustani music did not even develop in northern India. Many of these ragas were appropriated by the Mughal court following attempted incursions into southern India.
Following Schofield’s demonstrations of the fluid boundaries of Hindustani music, Soneji continued on this theme, arguing that Karnatak music was certainly not a bastion of “uncontaminated” Indian culture. Many founders of the teacher-disciple musical lineages were cosmopolitan figures, and Karnatak music as a whole reveals the influences of various intellectuals, professional and amateur musicians from north and south.
Concluding by commenting on the work of nineteenth-century musicologist, Vishnu Narayan Bhakhande, who travelled the regions of British India to collect musical styles that would unite India culturally, Soneji remarked that this process of exchange throughout the subcontinent had already been happening centuries before Indian nationalists took an interest in Indian music.
The second section of the talk explored questions of ethics in historical archival work. As they noted in the first section of the dialogue, Schofield and Soneji both recognized the political fights over Classical music. Debates over the purity or corruption of Indian musical styles were “weaponized” in the modern conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India. “The past is important political capital,” Schofield said, and the (mis)use of archives of Indian music have been deployed to erase many contributions of certain groups of performers. The erasure of Muslim musicians from the classical lineages represents one such example from Schofield’s work. Likewise, Soneji’s discussion of the devadasi communities of female performers also showed how marginalized groups were often erased from archives.
Schofield and Soneji acknowledged that their own studies of Indian music raise significant ethical questions that any scholar must be prepared to address. Understanding who might benefit and who might be harmed, politically, culturally, or economically, from Schofield’s recovery of Muslim musical lineages or Soneji’s recordings of contemporary devadasi performers is a central concern of both scholars. That sensitivity to the consequences of scholarly research is the kind of academic engagement that the Chancellor’s Colloquium aims to bring to the UC Davis community.
The final section of the talk addressed the appeal of classical themes in Indian music, and highlighted the importance of the work both Schofield and Soneji pursue. The theme of mortality provides poignancy to both this body of musical styles, and to the work of the musicologist. Schofield noted that these performances are ephemeral; before the age of recording, we will never be able to hear exactly how music in the court of Aurangzeb sounded. Many Indian court musicians seemed to understand this sense of loss, and incorporated it into their performances.
Soneji continued on this point, that even in an age of recorded music, his studies of female performers has shown that many of these musical cultures are also disappearing. As his discussion of the archive showed, perhaps a few female performers would achieve some level of notoriety that would survive them, but most are lost to history and their culture of musical performance is under threat by forces of modernization. As one devadasi performer lamented to Soneji in a recording of a 2011 performance, “This isn’t how things used to be.”
The Chancellor’s Colloquium Series continues on April 19 at 4pm with Ken Caldeira’s talk, entitled “Coral Reefs, Ocean Acidification, and Transformation of Global Energy Systems.”
–Kaleb Knoblauch, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History