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Voice behind the Song, Song through the Voice

Voice behind the Song, Song through the Voice Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India by Amanda J Weidman; Duke University Press, Durham, 2006; pp xiii+350, price not mentioned.

Voice behind the Song, Song through the Voice

Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India

by Amanda J Weidman; Duke University Press, Durham, 2006; pp xiii+350, price not mentioned.


manda Weidman’s Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India, comes in the wake of an increasing interest in music amongst social science scholars in India.1 This interest, as she mentions, is different from the investment that ethnomusicology has made in music theory and practice. Ethno musicology, says Wiedman, “was embracing Indian classical music as part of India’s ‘great tradition’, [and] anthropology at least in regard to south Asia, was busy developing its own canon around the ‘little traditions’” (p 24). These two dominant ways of looking at music have been displaced by a more fully articulated claim on music by anthropology, which takes it away from the strongholds of ethno musicology and musicological study by examining “the practices of musical performance and cultures of listening [which] are crucial as domains in which modernity is staged and embodied and in which claims to authenticity are made” (p 24).

The book is divided into six chapters under the titles, ‘Gone Native? Travels of the Violin in South India’, ‘From the Palace to the Street: Staging Classical Music’, ‘Gender and the Politics of Voice’, ‘Can the Subaltern Sing? Music, Language and the Politics of Voice’, ‘A Writing Lesson: Musicology and the Birth of the Composer’ and ‘Fantastic Fidelities’ which is appended by an afterword ‘Modernity and the Voice’.

Weidman’s narrative traverses the various modes of ethnography beginning from her own experience as a student of Carnatic classical music, especially the violin, under a guru in the atmosphere of a ‘gurukulavasam’ in Madras (Chennai), to archival research and the many interviews she has had with practitioners and theorists of music. These various strands are sutured into a perceptive narrative which has the multiple facets of being partly a social history of Carnatic music, partly a theoretical exposition of the politics of voice as well as an eminently readable account of the interaction of cultural and aesthetic forms with larger political structures.

In the first chapter, discussing the history of the violin in south India, the author says, “the violin came to be seen simultaneously as the moderniser of Carnatic music and the preserver of Carnatic Music’s authenticity, as embodied in the centrality of the violin” (p 14).

Locating the violin as central to the development of Carnatic music as both tradition and classical, Weidman argues:

In reproducing voice, the violin also becomes a ventriloquiser. The perfect violin accompanist is one whose playing is so self-effacing and unobtrusive that the vocalist forgets there is anything except her own voice. At the same time, the vocalist cannot be heard without the violin. The violin thus renders Carnatic music “more articulate”. This same power of ventriloquism, which effect a separation between voice and subject, content and form, is perceived as the very magic that saved Carnatic music from destruction in the face of colonialism… By the logic of ventriloquism, the site of deepest colonial impact is transformed into the very sign, and sound, of a pure Indian voice. The voice emerges as that which escapes the colonial impact precisely by allowing itself to flow through another medium, the hollow body of the violin (p 56).

In the second chapter titled ‘From the Palace to the Streets: Staging Classical Music’, the author discusses various issues ranging from the changing institutional structures of patronage, the pedagogic anxieties of music critics who deemed it necessary to train people into becoming good audiences, the emerging discourses of a new urban public sphere and the complex interactions between the then newly introduced microphone and the voice. The third chapter ‘Gender and the Politics of Voice’ discusses, using the case of M S Subbulakshmi, the emergence of a new discourse about a “natural voice”. This discourse was interlinked with the nationalist approach to the women’s question which made women not only the true bearers of tradition but also the best suited agents for this tradition to travel globally. Women were then seen as the custodians of a tradition in modernity. This modernity had the contradictory qualities of becoming an all encompassing presence and bringing about a desirable refinement to culture. The contradiction, says Weidman, was dramatised in the cryptic visibility of the female body on the concert stage where, unlike in the western classical tradition, it was not effaced by a concert black dressing, but made visible as a respectable family woman. The voice, then, was separable

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007 from the body as it was also that which provided interiority to the modern subject. Weidman argues, “The interiorised conception of voice made possible the subject positions of both the ‘classical artist’ and the ‘respectable woman’; the natural voice of the artist was – and still is

– identified with the chaste body of the respectable woman” (p 149).

The fourth chapter ‘Can the Subaltern Sing? Music Language and the Politics of Voice’ offers new insights into the question of Tamil nationalism along with theor ising the role of music in this politics. Observing that “the Tamil music movement was more than a demand that the classical music repertoire include more songs in Tamil” she goes on to suggest that “it was part of a new set of discourses about the singing subject and the relationship between music and language”. Weidman argues that music emerged at this point as a domain separate from literature but modelled “like a language” or was a language in itself. This 20th century idea, she says, applies “to music the concepts of meaning, intentionality, and under standing that are commonly applied to language in modernist thought” (p 152). This conflict between, on the one hand, the universality of music, and on the other its particularity, its cultural “meaning”, is beautifully laid out in Weidman’s narrative.

The fifth chapter ‘A Writing Lesson: Musicology and the Birth of the Composer’ begins by recounting the controversy generated around establishing the authenticity of the composer Swati Tirunal, which was sparked off by S Balachander in the mid-1980s when he argued that the composer did not exist at all and the compositions attributed to him were penned by someone else. Locating in this example issues around authorship and authenticity Weidman moves on to describe in fair detail the emergence of the practice of notating south Indian classical music. Making perceptive comments about the different functions of the notes in western and Indian classical music, she says in the former tradition if the notation “acted as an authoritative text”, in the latter it functioned as “a trigger for memory”:

Like a palm-leaf manuscript, notation in this second sense is not meant to be sightread but studied and then interpreted. This way of using notation acknowledges the impossibility of total interchangeability between the oral/aural and the written; it considers the gap between oral/ aural and written as productive rather than problematic. In admitting that notation is not perfectly legible, it acknowledges its profoundly mediating role (p 232).

This profoundly “mediating” and ambivalent role of the text in the context of music and tradition is an aspect that surfaces time and again in Weidman’s work. Using “mediation” as a concept is a significant move that Weidman makes. It could further push her towards examining music practices more closely than to imposing them on the already existing and by now predictable postcolonial rubric of nationalism and modernity. Although nationalism and modernity are very significant frames for Weidman, the limits that they impose on her rich ethnographic and archival material is quite visible.

Meaning of Technology

The last chapter ‘Fantastic Fidelities’ discusses the role and meaning of technology in shaping music practice. In what is almost a coup de grace Weidman finishes her elaborate discussion of the anxieties begotten by the infusion of technology into music with an example of an electronic ‘tambura’ (tanpura) manufactured by Radel, the shape of which actually resembles a “real” tambura. This fantastic closure of a study that begins with the ventriloquism of the violin and ends in the simulacrum of the electronic tambura, opens up many more contrapuntal ways of reading the material in this book.

Weidman’s book is a fine example of rigorous ethnography and a close and intelligent reading of cultural forms. But it is also an opportunity for us to reflect on a larger methodological question – the question of reading itself. Weidman’s analysis in some senses “reads” the processes of modernity on to the particular cultural practice of classical music in south India. The resultant narrative makes the development of Carnatic music yet another instance of the machinations of modernity in a non-western space with its vicissitudes of colonialism and nationalism. The close reading that Weidman subjects her material to is useful only insofar as it functions like an anchor to narrate modernity.

One wonders if the solution to this problem lies in what Weidman begins by critiquing: the ethnomusicology and anthropology of music. Although Weidman’s arguments about the way in which these two disciplines frame their research object are very compelling, they do not take into account one significant factor: that “the rules” of the musicological discourse and practice itself may gain significant emphasis in these two disciplines. This shift in the structure of rules if traced against the backdrop of modernity, would have given Weidman’s work a better analytical edge. One instance could illuminate this. Discussing the emergence of codifications of ragas and tracing their connection to the desire for reformulating music theory and practice in the light of the western musicology, Weidman fails to theorise an example which is similar and which is considered in south Indian musicological circles even to this day to be a rigorous codification system: Venkatamakhi’s ‘melakarta’ system (c 1660). She describes in detail the functioning of the melakarta system and notes how this system was reclaimed as a marker of and for the modernity of classical music. She says, “the point however was that any raga past or future could now find a place in this universal table of scales” (p 234). By making this minor point about placing past or future ragas on one scale, Weidman seems to be missing what according to me is the crux of the issue: to differentiate between the logic of the melakarta system and the logic of that very system seen as a system of “scientific” classification in present day music practice. The expertise of an ethnographer/anthropologist may not be best suited to carry out this task but it is only when modernity is thus understood from the “outside” that we get a better theoretical grip of the subject. In the absence of such an enquiry Weidman’s meticulous and nuanced work runs the risk of becoming a mere description of the “differences” between music practices in modernity and in a previous infinitely regressing “non-modernity”. These differences do not illuminate much as there is no one systemic framework within which to see them.

None of these are problems with the scholarship and detail of Weidman’s work. On the contrary, they are problems about finding better and alternative frames to cast the study of modernity in. In conclusion we must make mention, enviously, of Weidman’s writing which is crisp and simple and yet capable of carrying complex ideas within a sparse and measured prose.




1 Janaki Bakhle, 2005, Two Men and Music:

Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Clas

sical Tradition, Permanent Black, New Delhi;

Lakshmi Subramaniam, 2006, From the

Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy,

OUP, New Delhi; Tejaswini Niranjana, 2006,

Mobilising India: Women, Music and Migration between India and Trinidad, Duke University Press, Durham.

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

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