“Resounding Islam: Occluded Muslim Histories of Modern South Indian Rāga-Based Music”

Davesh Soneji, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania

This talk examines the inaudible yet polyphonic pasts of modern South Indian rāga-based music by exploring the long and complex history of Islamic musical production in Tamil-speaking South India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It follows three genres that populate the Tamil Islamic sonic landscape: the kīrttaṉa, the patam, and the Arabic-inflected muṉājāttu, and analyzes these in relation to highly localized Tamil Ṣufi devotional cultures on the one hand, as well as formal, canonical traditions of Tamil Islamic literary production on the other. It also locates this music in the deeply intermedial world of cultural production that predates the “classicization” of popular rāga-based music in the 1920s: a world in which lyrics and paratextual materials stand out in sharp relief for their aesthetic and theological uniqueness; in which intermedial exchanges between arts like dance, music, and drama are wholly natural; and in which no sonic borrowing or repurposing is considered irreverent or uncreative. The modern Tamil theatre (known today as icai natakam), Islamic and Catholic musical forms, courtesan music, and the music of the wider para-Tamil Indian Ocean world all constituted the soundscapes of what I call “popular rāga-based music” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The focus on Tamil Islamic music in this paper also raises significant questions about the social organization of rāga-based music in South India, and also about its relationship to larger questions of religious and aesthetic pluralism in the cultural life of modern Tamilnadu. Perhaps most significantly, it forces us to reconsider the basic premises of the supercultural force represented by “classical” music in modern South India, which was molded by the politics and aesthetics of upper-caste cultural nationalism, and certainly today, thrives as the very aesthetic heart of the politics of communal majoritarianism in this region.

Dates: 
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Foster 103