Performing ‘Religious’ Music: Interrogating Karnatic Music within a Postcolonial Setting - PhDData

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Performing ‘Religious’ Music: Interrogating Karnatic Music within a Postcolonial Setting

The thesis was published by Nadadur Kannan, Rajalakshmi, in September 2022, University of Stirling.


This research looks at contemporary understandings of performance arts in India, specifically Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam as ‘religious’ arts. Historically, music and dance were performed and patronized in royal courts and temples. In the early 20th century, increased nationalist activities led to various forms of self-scrutiny about what represented ‘true’ Indian culture. By appropriating colonial discourses based on the religious/secular dichotomy, Karnatic Music was carefully constructed to represent a ‘pure’ Indian, specifically ‘Hindu’ culture that was superior to the ‘materialistic’ Western culture. Importantly, the category called divine was re-constructed and distinguished from the erotic: the divine was represented as a category that was sacred whilst the erotic represented ‘sexual impropriety.’ In so doing, performance arts in the public sphere became explicitly gendered. Feminity and masculinity were re-defined: the female body was re-imagined as ‘sexual impropriety’ when in the public sphere, but when disembodied in the private sphere could be deified as a guardian of spirituality. Traditional performing communities were marginalized while the newly defined music and dance was appropriated by the Brahmin community, who assumed the role of guardians of the newly constructed Indian-Hindu identity, resulting in caste-based ‘ownership’ of performance arts.
Mechanical reproduction of Karnatic Music has created a disconnect in contemporary Indian society, in which Karnatic Music is disembodied from its contexts in order to be commodified as an individual’s artistic expression of creativity. This move marks a shift from substantive economics (music was performed and experienced within a specific context, be it royal patronage or
Indian nationalist movements) to formal economics (music as a performer’s creative property).
I question the understanding of Karnatic Music as ‘religious’ music that is distinguished from the ‘secular’ and seek to understand the colonial patriarchal mystification of the female body in the private sphere by deconstructing the definition of the ‘divine.’ In doing so, I also question the contemporary understanding of Karnatic Music as an item of property that disembodies the music from its historical context.

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