Music for the Masses: Hindu Identity and Artistic Expression

TM Krishna and other musicians play a concert for the public in southern India.

Keeley McMurray is a junior double majoring in English and Religious Studies with a minor in Theatre. The following post was written for Dr. Ramey’s REL 321 course, Religion & Identity in South Asia. 

Visual and performing arts continue to be seen as bold expressions of personal identity in modern cultures throughout the world.  Despite the fundamental inclusivity of art as means of sharing and preserving culture, the politics of artistic expression have limited the opportunity for certain groups to practice and perfect their crafts.  In South Asia, art is complicated by the complex religious and social identities of those living in the region.  Elite Hindus often restrict India’s cultural legacy to artistic forms that they dominate, overshadowing a myriad of minority contributions and subaltern narratives.

A primary example is Carnatic music, a religiously-inspired genre significant to Hindu culture.  For centuries, upper castes have preserved this music as a divine art form symbolic of brahman and practiced it with utmost artistry.  Because of its association with divinity, purity, and pleasure, upper castes have often limited the practice and enjoyment of traditional Carnatic music to major temples, royal courts, and a few rich landowners; local kings, some being composers or musicians themselves, would traditionally patronize performances.  In recent years, however, the exclusivity of cultural and religious identity associated with Carnatic music is changing to accommodate a more diversely artistic society.  Activists are making an effort to ensure that those left out of the cultural narrative are given their recognition, and have a fair opportunity to explore their artistic potential.

Thodur Madabusi Krishna, a classical musician in southern India, has made it his mission to break the social barriers surrounding Carnatic music in order to “liberate the art to new spaces.”  While he has encountered opposition from those that wish to preserve the restrictions on this genre of music, Krishna was recently bestowed the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership in “ensuring social inclusiveness in culture.”  Characteristic to southern India and largely untouched by Persian and Islamic influence, elements of Carnatic music trace their divine origin to the Vedas.  Thousands of hymns are dedicated to the gods and chanted in Hindu ritual, put to complex melodies called Ragas.  These proponents assert that the potency of this music demands ritual tutoring through the gurukula system, in which a student would live and learn with a Carnatic guru.  Gurus often descended from ancient lines of musicians and composers, and thus were selective and rigorous with instruction.  With these qualifications to become a worthy and revered musician, many were left unable to pursue their art.

This degree of discipline and the significance of Carnatic music to Hindu culture assured the social superiority of both patrons and practitioners, still to this day.  Krishna, a musician born into the Brahmin caste, recognizes the present social implications of this music considered Hindu.  The Magsaysay Award Foundation praises Krishna for seeing that his art was “a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s cultural legacy.”  The musical performances of the Dalits and other non-Brahmin communities, for example, are rarely given praise or publicity.  Music festivals and large concerts around India have been notoriously guilty of showcasing only upper-caste talent, disregarding other groups without the luxury of guru education or elite sponsorship.  This is an unfair representation based on social identity and a conservative interpretation of Hinduism that chooses to ignore “the music of the marginalized.”

The way society has restricted Hindu culture further divides those who identify as Hindu.  In a region as complex as India, it is problematic to homogenize artistic expression in reflection of the elite few.  In hopes of promoting a more unified culture, Krishna is taking action to transform the arts into a more egalitarian space.  He began by hosting concerts in unconventional locations:  crowded buses, railway platforms, and even the slums of Sri Lanka.  In areas that would have remained unexposed to classical music, Krishna has introduced school curriculums for Carnatic instruction, musical scholarships for rural youth, and free music festivals for the general public.  Most importantly, his Svanubhava movement brings together musicians of diverse social backgrounds in an attempt to “heal differences and break stereotypes.”  By dismantling the social structure of Hindu culture, one achieves a more reformed portrayal of India:  a diverse nation where art is appreciated, regardless of social identity.

Barometers in the Field: Another Student Report from the Regional AAR

Sierra Lynn Lawson is an Anthropology and Religious Studies double major and a Spanish minor. She is from a small town in Wyoming and hopes to study the illegality of midwifery in Alabama as it relates to post-civil war identity formation.

I was most pleased with my experience at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) because it provided me with the opportunity to see what is, and what is not, happening in the academic study of religion. As someone completing a B.A. this Spring and entering an M.A. program in the Fall, I believe the connections I made at SECSOR could be foundational to the work I hope to do in the near future.

Outside of attending panels such as ‘Religion and Ecology’, ‘Ethics, Wellbeing and Sexuality’, and another looking at narratives of Utopia and Dystopia, I made a point to be present at less-formal meetings, such as meals for marginalized groups. My method for choosing specific panels, and events, was to seek out individuals exploring critical issues of authorship, identity formation and representation in their work.

The majority of the conference was based around research reflecting Christian theological endeavors. As SECSOR is co-hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature, this was not particularly surprising. While Christian theology is on the opposite end of where I would place my academic interests on of the spectrum of religious scholarship, I found its presence critical to understanding of the current state of the field.

One of my peers, Parker Evans, was presenting his own undergraduate research regarding the influence of nationalism on Heidegger’s thought. Upon mentioning that he was from the University of Alabama before his presentation, the chair for the undergraduate panel replied that Parker was “…probably from the most South out of all of us”. While this was an erroneous comment in terms of literal geography, because many Floridian and Georgian schools were also attending the conference, in my mind it summoned all sorts of interesting discussions about where we draw boundaries for the ‘South’.

Similarly – it seemed academic approaches to religion also negotiate specific margins constituting different means to more or less critical ends. The name-dropping of Russell McCutcheon seemed to serve as a barometer measuring self-alliance with the study of religion as its own category. Academics from Emory to Florida State proudly displayed their loyalty to McCutcheon’s work and specific paradigms, and I chuckled at the serious tone they adopted when speaking of the man whose office I find myself in more often than my own living room. I knew McCutcheon was somewhat of a polarizing figure in the field, but I had never seen a group of people adhere so stringently to another individual as a euphemism for the paradigms they themselves operate from.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were academics who seemed to consider themselves, or their work, to lie outside of phenomena which is ‘fair game’ for data. From personal conversations I was aware of Dr. McCutcheon’s critique of Mircea Eliade, and was utterly dumbfounded by academics who counterintuitively avoided investigating  the obvious connection between their critical inquiries and their own predispositions or desires.

I consider the humanities to be integral to understanding the implicit and explicit intentions, which inform interactions between members of society as well as the phenomena they invest meaning into. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to find other individuals aligning with this mentality as students flock to majors providing a straightforward map for entering the work force.

The funding I received from both the University of Alabama, as well as the Amy Lynn Petersen Endowed Support fund within the Department of Religious Studies, provided me with the opportunity to travel to Raleigh, NC for the regional conference for the American Academy of Religion. At the SECSOR I engaged with fellow aspiring academics, as well as individuals who are well established in academia and known for their scholarship. I am forever indebted to the generous contributions, for without the connections I made at the conference I fear I may have never expanded my horizons to appreciate the field of Religious Studies, as it exists in its contemporary form, as well as the role I might play in it.

50th Anniversary Fun Fact #12

Although dating to 1932, in 2016-17 we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, given how the Department was reinvented in 1966-7 — in keeping with how the study of religion was established then across public universities in the US. No longer confessionally-oriented and staffed by campus ministers, it became a cross-culturally comparative and interdisciplinary field.

So all semester we’ll be posting some weekly fun facts from 1966 — not that long ago for some of us yet ancient history for others. Continue reading

Outlawed Violation of Human Rights or Protected Religious Practice?

Given the prominence of debates over classification in my classes I’m always on the look-out for a good e.g., something useful in getting us thinking about the interests driving classification systems and their practical effects — and, perhaps, illustrating how naming something as religion plays a role in all this. Continue reading

Study Religion: The Podcast Episode 2 “Turkey Ritual”

In this episode we think about the ways we categorize things as religion. The show begins with the ritual life of turkeys and what that tells us about the category “religion.” Then a few REL majors show us how the category “sacrifice” is all around us. Finally, host Michael Altman talks with Dr. Megan Goodwin (@mpgphd) about the new CNN show Believer and how religious studies can find a broader public audience.

Continue reading

“Yes, and I’ve Met His Dog”: A Student Report from the Regional AAR

Parker Evans is junior studying English and Religious Studies. He spends most of his time drinking coffee and making reading lists when he should be reading.

The regional AAR, or SECSOR, was a fantastic chance for a professionalizing experience. Sierra Lawson, another REL major, and I arrived late in the afternoon, and between checking into the hotel and presenting my paper, I had just enough time to change clothes from my flight and eat dinner. I was the first presenter on the first undergraduate panel, but this was actually a relief. Once I gave my paper, I was free to sit back and explore the conference. The presentation itself was painless and even a little gratifying. I don’t consider myself afraid of public speaking, but I was a little anxious about how it would go over. Since there were other panels going on simultaneously, the nine or ten audience members who had chosen to come to the undergraduate panel were almost exclusively undergrads themselves. Our panel was loosely organized around our paper topics covering a range of subjects from my own paper on Heidegger to Orientalist travelogues to the effect of psychedelics on “spiritual” experiences to a close reading of a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The audience members were very receptive to our papers, and we each received a couple of questions.

Just from the range of undergraduate paper topics, it was clear that this conference was not just gathered under the banner of Religious Studies. After my panel, Sierra, Dr. Finnegan and I attended the pre-reception event, which consisted of two short papers, one from a member of the American Academy of Religion and one from a member of the Society of Biblical Literature. For a field built on the colonial Christian enterprise of cataloging “religious” traditions, it was clear that the associations of the AAR still skew towards its roots. Both presenters were engaging, and they had an interesting conversation after their talks, but it was apparent that a Christian hermeneutic tradition still pulls at the academic study of religion. Along with the speaker from the SBL, several papers given at panels I attended were direct hermeneutic approaches to Christian scripture (although I understand that several papers were given on Islamic theology as well). By virtue of sharing a conference with the SBL, the AAR maintains a serious imbalance between its relationship with Christian academics and academic groups representing any other religious tradition, without even getting into the question of whether such a relationship should exist.

With that said, I had many interesting conversations with professors and students. On Sunday I had breakfast (out of coincidence) with a professor whose panel on ethics I attended on Saturday. Her paper focused on a study she did with her students in which she had them practice techniques analogous to Buddhist mindfulness practices. I found it extremely interesting that she had the students define religion before and after engaging in these techniques, and after engaging in them, the percentage of students who included practice (as opposed to, or in conjunction with belief) in their definition of religion doubled. We had an excellent chat about methodology and how to approach teaching the study of religion.

In addition to the ethics panel, I went to a panel on the philosophy of religion as well as another undergraduate panel. The papers on the undergraduate panel ranged from the relationship between “religiosity” and the sex lives of young Latinas in a community outside Raleigh to the long-lasting effects of the British colonial classification of a group of devotees as prostitutes. All the members of the panel did extensive research within the communities they discussed, and the resulting papers were impressive.

I was told before going to SECSOR that, as a student from the University of Alabama, I was marked by my association with Dr. McCutcheon. It was amusing how quickly I found this to be true. Several times, other students would say something along the lines of “Oh, you know Dr. McCutcheon?” to which I usually responded, “Yes, and I’ve met his dog.” Some professors took digs at a McCutcheon-y figure when discussing the direction of the field, while others would name-drop him to represent a vague counterpoint to which they were responding. (I am currently theorizing the phenomenon of the straw-McCutcheon argument.) But on the whole, our department received high praise whenever I mentioned it, and I was able to get a sense of where we reside in the larger field. The conference has given me a much better understanding of where my interests can expand within the field and how I can situate them within existing bodies of research. I’m already looking forward to Atlanta next March.

50th Anniversary Fun Fact #11

Although dating to 1932, in 2016-17 we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, given how the Department was reinvented in 1966-7 — in keeping with how the study of religion was established then across public universities in the US. No longer confessionally-oriented and staffed by campus ministers, it became a cross-culturally comparative and interdisciplinary field.

So all semester we’ll be posting some weekly fun facts from 1966 — not that long ago for some of us yet ancient history for others. Continue reading

On Beginnings: Part 24

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

I’m not yet convinced that outcomes outside of a closed system are knowable in advance.  If they were, Olestra would have been marketed as a purgative, Ford Motor Company would have redesigned the Pinto, and I never would’ve sat through a vivid description of The Human Centipede.  It isn’t possible to say definitively whether any course you pursue – college or otherwise – will be fruitful.  Today, you might tell the pollster it has not been “worth it.”  Tomorrow, it might seem like everything in your life was leading to this moment.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and there is some positivistic truth we can attain and harness to build that better future, if we can only gather enough evidence.  I wonder whose truth, and whose future, it will be?

Maybe the problem with history is precisely that we try to “learn” from it – to extrapolate futures or justify assertions based on past events – to construct “meaning” from happenstance, which we then term “progress.”  This is partly how we come to define ourselves, in the characters, ideas, and values we either venerate or view with a *mote* of superiority.  Likewise, attempts to imagine the future may be meaningful, not in some vague, power-of-becoming sense, but in what they reveal about our own subjective presuppositions, which necessarily determine the ways in which we collect, organize, and analyze data, and hash out what, after all, constitutes data in the first place.  Perhaps this is why methodology is important – an aspect of data-gathering I never considered before getting my statistically worthless B.A.  To the extent that statistical analyses may be employed to either create or diminish uncertainty, depending on the context and goals of the user, it may be more useful to think of them as yet another strategy for authorizing a certain paradigm, rather than an algorithmic gyre toward a fated singularity.  We are the noisemakers, after all, and the modulators.  We might draw own measures from the gutter to the stars, or leap into the abyss but find, as another great philosopher said, “it only goes up to your knees.” Maybe we need this king-of-the-mountain battle over “truths” to continually re-present our own idiosyncratic cosmographies – a perpetual audit of what we think we can control and what we know damn well we can’t control:  enough “reality” to reassure us that we will make it through the day, and enough “uncertainty” to cling to the sometimes smug, sometimes despondent knowledge that we are not at the mercy of statistics, whatever we may choose.  Or as liberal arts major Stephen Sondheim melodiously put it:

“Who knows what may
be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods
To get the thing
That makes it worth
the journeying.”

On Beginnings: Part 23

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

“[I]rrational behavior in the markets may result precisely because individuals are responding rationally to their incentives.”  The Signal and the Noise, p.357.

Surely the incentives for generating $tati$tical analy$e$ are the same incentives I have to keep sweeping up crayons.  Molly Ball says it better:

“[P]ollsters get paid by the poll, ad makers by the ad, phone-calling firms by the call, direct-mailers by the piece. They all have an incentive to promote their services, whether or not doing so helps the campaign win—and they face few consequences if it doesn’t.”

Nate Silver’s success depends upon him nailing his forecasts.  Other types of analyses may be funded whether they prove correct or no.  We can assume, given the uncertainty into which these predictions are cast, they aren’t as concerned with whether or not the statistics of an unknown future will vindicate them, as they are with the more immediate demands of saying something interesting, selling more copy, meeting a deadline, responding to a critique – i.e., getting about the business of circumlocution that constitutes the ever-changing public discourse in which we participate and by so doing, authorize.  I can’t debunk them – they might be right.  Like Fukuyama, they’ve chosen premises that aren’t falsifiable.  But as producers/consumers of this information, I think we could afford to be a bit more skeptical about the weight we give a statistical projection of a job market two, three, or five years into the futureI also just want to point out that we’re doing it – that inferences we represent as meaningful are simultaneously explanations of mathematical correlations and assertions of mathematical correlations.  And if you’re like me, it’s tempting to let these assertions inform the decisions we make when we ponder the costs and benefits of choosing an educational or career path, thanks to our procrustean tendencies to apply blanket abstractions to individuals.  But if I can’t assume I know anything about the creative processes of corporate CEOs based on my own stereotypes, maybe I likewise shouldn’t hold myself to projections of an unknown future based on deductions retrospectively drawn from a range of data within an arbitrary set of criteria. In the end, I am being imagined, too – just as the notion of a past is an imaginative exercise, and the assertion of a future based upon it is an extension of that conceit.  These will likely always be contested, unless Fukuyama’s History plays out to its natural End – or we could say:  someone else’s Beginning, Middle, or Tuesday.  I’m ready to believe in the possibility of anything, now that we’ve invented Furbies.  When faced with the showdown between “truth in the data” vs. “common sense,” I’ll put my money on the even chance that we’re making it up as we go along.  For “what is now proved was once only imagined,” so sayeth my favorite 18th century Englishman.  I’m with you, liberal arts major Newt Gingrich.  Let’s colonize this moon.  I bet I could get hosed there off two beers.

Part 24 coming today at noon…

On Beginnings: Part 22

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

In a side-effect sense, I can offer one abiding perquisite of a liberal arts degree:  the flexibility it gives you to respond to the unfair inquiry, “So what are you going to do with a degree in _______?”  Devise any occupation you please – I plan to: “pursue a Ph.D. in topology with a special focus on knot theory,” “write choose-your-own-adventure intergalactic erotica – I’ll post a link to my blog on your wall,” “become the CEO of Goldman Sachs then coast into the office of U.S. Treasury Secretary,” “invest in a crystal ball and tell my own future for $5 a reading.  You owe me $5.”  The nebulous aegis of the College of Arts and Sciences virtually guarantees that nothing will breach the bulwarks of tenability.  Like a brisk volley by liberal arts dropout Billie Jean King, your newly forged critical thinking skills and subtle finesse of plausible diversions will deliver an ersatz sense of authority that makes your “chosen” field seem respectable while marginalizing you just enough to abate any further lines of invasive questioning.  This will buy you some time while you wait to hear back about that incredible unpaid internship opportunity!

Game, set, match.

Godspeed, Civil Engineers.  I don’t know how to help you.

If my resumé is categorically non-traditional, I am curious to know from which “traditional career pathways” current struggling college majors are deviating.  What outcomes of “success” or “failure” are we assuming, and according to whom?  What is the unspoken destiny college grads are failing to fulfill when we don’t secure “jobs in our chosen fields?”  Or to frame the question differently, what not-so-subtle classism is implied by the expectation that college graduates won’t be carpenters, or plumbers, or welders, or the inventors of meat tea?  Who says the post-bacc lifestyle is the only variety worth aspiring to, making the choice before us merely college or not-college – disregarding all the rich and interesting things people do when they walk, apparently naked and unformed as a forgotten Hugga Bunch into the wild, wonderful, cruel void?  I would wager it’s as easy to predict the future value of a college degree in a changing economy as it is to predict the day-to-day performance of the stock market – not unpredictable exactly, but as far as I know, to the degree it may be deterministic, we do not flatter ourselves that we grasp its tangled workings.  At least, liberal arts major Robert Shiller and clarinetist Alan Greenspan seem to agree on this point.   So why spin these studies, and engage in a tautological, courtroom-like contest of spectacle?

Part 23 coming tomorrow morning…