Professor Anna Morcom: Democratisation and Hindustani Music, SAST Colloquium

Wednesday, September 7, 2022 - 4:30pm

Houston Hall's Ben Franklin room    

Anna Morcom UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Headhsot Photo of Anna, a white woman smiling. Sept 7th, 4:30 P.M. Houston Hall, Ben Franklin room.  All words that are listed in the description. Dark blue background.

Democratisation and Hindustani music: a story of class, caste, money, and more or less obvious contradictions

It is well known that Brahmin performers predominate strongly in Hindustani classical music, something that can be traced back to the canonization projects that saw subaltern ‘traditional’ hereditary performers marginalized – courtesans and devadasis sharply, and more subtly, the Muslim Ustads. The concentration of power was also geographical and regional, at least in part a factor of the rise of the presidency cities Calcutta and Bombay as major centers of Hindustani music. In this talk, I explore the class, caste, regional and urban concentration of north Indian classical music in more detail, with a historical and political economic approach. As scholars of world systems have shown, a system is not just its centers, but its hinterlands; as Eric Wolf in particular revealed, societies and cultures are unbounded, engaged in long-durée interlocking processes (1982). While the vast majority of research has equated Hindustani music with classical music, it is in fact inseparable from so-called ‘semi-classical’ and ‘light’ music, and borders into folk and Bollywood. As we incorporate these less illustrious musical forms and areas into the picture, we are able to draw a history of Hindustani music today that looks more sharply at questions of social mobility, and lack of it, and ways that it is, as well as is not, a national (north Indian) tradition. The contours of class and caste are strong in today’s Hindustani music, and reform was certainly no democratization. But there are some areas of partial mobility, as I explore, with the music schools playing a key role. There are also some twists and turns, driven by the contradictions of classical music’s post-reform ideology. The reform of classical music as a chaste middle class Brahmin culture not only separated it from a larger public culture, but also gradually distanced it from India’s big money, undercutting its viability as an elite art. Performers increasingly engage in many lower brow genres as well as with the unabashedly commercial world. In addition, classical music is becoming a less appealing profession for elite musicians, and the dominance of Brahmins has reduced to some degree.