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Musical Notions

From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India by Lakshmi Subramanian; Oxford University Press, 2006;

Musical Notions

From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India

by Lakshmi Subramanian; Oxford University Press, 2006; pp viii + 196, Rs 545.


n India, “classical” is a relational concept, one that is meant to distinguish the “high” art forms that now go under that name from forms and genres considered to be lesser or “lower”. Although it is often defined in absolute terms as referring to a particular style or set of composers, actual usage shows in fact how the concept is always articulated with respect to something that is not it. The existence of genres of music labelled “semi-classical” or “light classical” is one example of this. The word itself becomes relativised, so that one can speak of degrees of classicalness. It is not uncommon to see the term used in such a relative sense in critics’ reviews of south Indian Karnatic music, where a musician’s rendering of one raga will be praised as “highly classical” or “more classical” than other pieces in the concert or than other musicians’ renderings. “Classical” in this sense is not a straightforwardly referential label but a term of judgment.

The social history of how such judgments came to be applied to south Indian Karnatic music is the subject of Lakshmi Subramanian’s new book, From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy. In this book, Subramanian uses a wide variety of archival sources to construct a history of the social classes, communities, and institutions that redefined Karnatic music as south Indian “classical” music in the 20th century. Using the court of Tanjore, a princely state in south India that flourished musically in the first few decades of the 19th century, and the Madras Music Academy, established in 1928, as her two major focal points, Subramanian constructs a kind of institutional history which demonstrates the central position of this music to the building of a brahmin, middle class identity in urban south India.

Departing from conventional scholarship on Karnatic music, which has tended to be strictly musicological, Subramanian presents Karnatic music as it is known today as the product of a complex history and ongoing social processes. Her work makes an important contribution to the historicising of “classical” music in India, a project that has been gaining momentum in the last few decades, and one that is central to challenging hegemonic claims to high culture. Judging from the increase in the number of historical and anthropological works on Indian classical music in the last few years, it seems that this music, once enshrined in musicology and considered untouchable by history or anthropology, is now being considered as a serious topic in Indian history and post-colonial studies.1 Several factors are at work here: post-colonial studies’ recognition of “cultural” domains such as art, music, dance, and literature as crucial sites of colonial encounter and nationalist identity-making; the breaking down of anthropology’s resistance to “studying up”; the willingness of ethnomusicology to examine its own canonical division between “art musics” and “popular musics”.

Subramanian’s book essentially tells the story of how brahmins, who migrated to the colonial city of Madras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to fill civil service positions in the colonial administration, laid claim to the tradition of Karnatic music and effectively became its “custodians” in the 20th century. Within the terms set by middle class Indian nationalism, articulated famously by Partha Chatterjee , “classical” music was seen to occupy the innermost realm of the “inner” sphere that would remain untouched by colonialism. In more immediate but not unrelated ways, brahmins’ patronage of music, as Subramanian shows, was intimately tied up with the formation of “a new social identity around the educated middle class of colonial south India... As an integral part of its self-imaging, this class attempted to straddle the world of tradition it had lost and hoped to retrieve, and the world of modernity that colonial education and administration promised” (p 7). Music was used by the brahmin elite to create a kind of public sphere in Madras and a sense of community identity. By 1900, as the anthropologist Milton Singer has documented, smarta brahmins in Madras had created a network of voluntary associations, the Radha-Krishna Bhajanas, which gathered in homes and community halls to sing bhajans and devotional songs [Singer 1972]. In her ethnography of smarta brahmins in Madras, Mary Hancock suggests that the individualised voluntaristic notion of bhakti, or Hindu religious devotion, was appropriated by brahmins as a kind of expression of bourgeois nationalism, a “hallmark of new, nationalised, and self-consciously modern elite sensibilities” [Hancock 1999]. At the centre of this imagined ethos was the figure of Thyagaraja (1767-1847), who, as Subramanian shows, became not only a revered composer but a social icon who embodied personal austerity and devotion to music. Brahmins celebrated Thyagaraja’s storied refusal of court patronage and disdain for politics as emblematic of a “high” musical culture divorced from the politics and social forces that constituted the “outer sphere.”

Music and the CityMusic and the CityMusic and the CityMusic and the CityMusic and the City

Subramanian divides her narrative into 5 chapters. In the first, “Music comes to the city”, she traces a genealogy for Karnatic music back to the 15th century and then follows it forward to the Tanjore court of the early 19th century, which, she argues, was the scene of an unprecedented cultural efflorescence that represented a crucial

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 phase in the development of Karnatic music. It was in Tanjore under the maratha kings, she states, that music achieved a set of canonical standards and that composers gained status as such: criteria that would enable the music to be called “classical” in the 20th century. From there, the movement of music and musicians into the colonial city of Madras occurred, as Subramanian lucidly argues, in two phases. Following the decline of the Tanjore court, musicians migrated to Madras city and found patrons in merchant magnates who supported music on the model of court patronage. This served to build a community of musicians and listeners in Madras which laid the groundwork for the second phase: “the articulation of a self-conscious cultural project by the western educated middle class elite of Madras city”, as exemplified by the Madras Music Academy.

The second chapter focuses on the “discursive history” of classical music in south India, tracing the way orientalist discourse on Indian music was adopted by the 20th century project of musical “revival”. Key among the ideas that dominated orientalist writing about Indian music were an emphasis on a textual lineage that could be traced to antiquity, and the notion that music had fallen from a prior golden age. In early 20th century Madras, these ideas found expression in the translation of “ancient” Sanskrit and Tamil treatises on music, in the project of notating compositions, and in the formalisation of music instruction. The Madras Music Academy, the subject of Subramanian’s third chapter, took up these mandates with a clear sense of its own agenda: the standardisation of ragas and compositions and the introduction of music as part of the modern system of education using notation as a means of preservation and transmission. Most importantly, however, the Music Academy was instrumental in the creation of a new musical aesthetic, one that foregrounded the solo vocalist and the melody and downplayed percussion accompaniment and rhythmic improvisation. The new aesthetic also involved the use of a particular concert format, one that recreated in its order the boundaries between “really classical” and “less classical” kinds of pieces and modes of performance.

On the MarginsOn the MarginsOn the MarginsOn the MarginsOn the Margins

Subramanian’s final two chapters focus on two elements at the “margins” of this new redefinition of classical music. Chapter four concerns the traditional community of musicians and dancers known as devadasis, women who remained unmarried to mortal men but were symbolically married to the deities of Hindu temples and performed ritual services, music and dance for those temples. Subramanian shows how the redefinition of Karnatic music as a high art form dovetailed with social reform projects that labelled the devadasis as “prostitutes”, in the process incorporating some of the devadasi repertoire while disinheriting the actual devadasis themselves. Because of their location as a primarily female community of hereditary artists drawn from non-brahmin castes, devadasis were not in a position to challenge the Madras Music Academy’s claiming of Karnatic music. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, a challenge to brahmin hegemony was made by the Tamil music movement, which developed in the wake of the non-brahmin movement and the Tamil Renaissance. Backed by these larger and now politically legitimated causes, a group of patrons and publicists, mostly wealthy chettiars, decried the fact that Telugu repertoire had been granted pride of place in the Karnatic canon, to the exclusion of Tamil songs. Subramanian perceptively aruges in chapter 5 that the Tamil Isai Sangam, an institution founded to promote this cause, essentially paralleled the Madras Music Academy in its project of standardising repertoire and admitting musicians and music to the canon rather than challenging the latter’s principles mode of operation. She calls the Tamil music movement a “failed” project for several reasons: first, that it did not result in any change to the canon of Karnatic music, second, that it did not gather adequate support either from audiences or musicians, and third, because it was in fact marginalised within the priorities of the non-brahmin movement and Dravidian politics. In these immediate senses, the Tamil music movement was a “failure,” yet I am wary of this label because it seems to shut out the fact that the Tamil music movement did have certain effects on the discourse about music, that it did present a concerted challenge that forced the Madras Music Academy to articulate its own agenda.

This is a small book packed with historical details, written for a very specifically informed audience. There is little attempt to contextualise much of the discussion for readers not directly interested

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

in the history of Karnatic music. Many of Subramanian’s interesting arguments could be foregrounded and further elaborated; as it is many of these points are buried in the wealth of detail. For instance, Subramanian notes, interestingly, that the deployment of the English language was central to the project of musical reform and revival, but why? And to what kinds of effects? In another instance, several mentions are made in the book of a “new auditory habit” that was being formed in the 20th century definition of Karnatic music, but there is no elaboration of what is meant by this. What kinds of listening or performing or teaching “habits” underlay the newly redefined musical canon? Perhaps more attention to the impact of these institutions and historical shifts on musical sound and practice could have addressed these questions. But here I am simply pushing for more of what is an excellently-researched project.

Subramanian’s epilogue suggests that the ongoing history of Karnatic music would have to follow the new institutions being established for its custodianship, and the new patterns of patronage that are supporting it. In this context, she suggests examining the role of Karnatic music in the diaspora, particularly the US, where indeed many of the descendants of those who redefined the music in the early 20th century are now located. The location of Karnatic music in diasporic notions of self, Indianness, Hinduness, and in US class, identity, and race politics would make for a fascinating sequel.




1 Some of these recent works on south Indian classical music include: Allen Matthew (1998) ‘Tales Tunes Tell: Deepening the Dialogue between ‘Classical’ and ‘Non-Classical’ in the Music of India’, Yearbook for Traditional Music

30: 22-52; Bullard Beth (1998), Winds of Change in South Indian Music: The Flute Revived, Recasted, Regendered, PhD dissertation, Department of Music, University of Maryland; C S Lakshmi (2000), The Singer and the Song, Kali for Women,New Delhi; Indira Menon (1999), The Madras Quartet: Women in Karnatak Music, Lotus Books, New Delhi; Terada Yoshitaka (2000) ‘T N Rajarattinam Pillai and Caste Rivalry in South Indian Classical Music’, Ethnomusicology 44(3): 460-90; Weidman Amanda (2003a), ‘Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India’, Cultural Anthropology 18(2):194-232, (2003b), ‘Guru and Gramophone: Fantasies of Fidelity and Modern Technologies of the Real’, Public Culture 15(3): 453-76, (2005) ‘Can the Subaltern Sing? Music, Language, and the Politics of Voice in Twentieth-Century South India’, IESHR 42(4): 485-511 and (2006) Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India, Duke University Press, forthcoming.


Hancock, Mary (1999): Womanhood in the Making: Domestic Ritual and Urban Public Culture in South India, Boulder, CO, Westview, pp 57-58.

Singer, Milton (1972): When a Great Tradition Modernises: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilisation, Praeger, New York, pp 200-205.

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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