REL Contributes to Wabash Early Career Workshop

Last weekend, Prof. Steven Ramey braved the cold to meet five other scholars of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, an hour west of Indianapolis. The group bunkered down at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion while they planned a workshop series for professors who teach undergraduates.

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Culture on the Edge: An Origin Story

Last week, Professors Steven Ramey and Vaia Touna sat down to discuss their involvement with the Culture on the Edge research group and blog, along with their two book series. Though the discussion was intended to focus on Prof. Touna’s recent addition to the published series, it naturally led to a conversation on the implications of fabricating origins and identity.

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A Visit to Montgomery Museums

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL commemorates all documented cases of lynching in America. Each metal pillar is engraved with the victims’ names and the county where the crime took place.

Several weeks ago, along with Prof. Ramey, Caity Bell, Savanah Finver, and Keely McMurray (all first-year MA students in the study of religion) took the two hour drive to Montgomery, AL, to explore a variety of historical representations in museums and memorials. They began their tour at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice before visiting the Legacy Museum and finishing at the Alabama State Archives Museum. Continue reading

The Book Event – As Told in Pictures

Last Thursday, the Religious Studies Department hosted its second annual book event at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in downtown Tuscaloosa. The refreshments and cozy ambiance created the perfect atmosphere for any book lover to mingle and browse the store. Professors, students, and even Tuscaloosa locals joined us to discuss Prof. Ramey‘s and Prof. Loewen‘s recently published books.

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Publication News

We just got word that a paper co-written by Sierra Lawson (entering the second year of her M.A. in our Department) and Prof. Steven Ramey has been accepted to be published in the coming year in UK peer review journal Culture & Religion.

What’s it on?

Sourcing Stereotypes: Constructing and Challenging Simplified Knowledge

Abstract

The social media uproar in Fall 2017 over a nursing textbook chart that presented generalized characterizations of minority groups generated an assumption that medical training needs more Religious Studies expertise. Analyzing the sources that the chart cited, we trace the authors’ assertions to studies of varying quality and identify several specific processes involved in simplifying knowledge for dissemination, as the authors disregarded the limits of each specific study and ignored counter-evidence or otherwise evaded critical scrutiny. Comparing this example to examples from world religions discourse illustrates both differences and similarities in the process of constructing simplified presentations. While both presumably developed out of good intentions, they generate significant problems in their effort to shape material to support larger arguments. Thus, scholars across disciplines should critique and complicate their own processes for generating simplified knowledge.

 

Summer Plans: Prof. Ramey

We asked the faculty what they were up to this summer; after all, just because the Spring semester is done doesn’t mean they’re all off gardening. And so this is what we learned…

Prof. Steven Ramey has a busy summer ahead tackling a few pieces of a larger overall project considering how we describe and narrate. One project involves experimenting with alternative approaches to ethnographic description using his own fieldwork, and the other is looking at historical narratives and the ways that critical theory should influence our narrative choices. These projects require reviewing a variety of sources, including contested accounts of Indian history, and working through some contrasting approaches. In addition to these projects, he will be preparing, as always, for teaching both undergraduate and M.A. courses in the fall semester.

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.

Finders Keepers

rel322

Tianna Usher is a senior earning a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Biology. After graduation she plans to enroll at The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to pursue a Master’s of Nursing. This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.

“Finders keepers, losers weepers.” While the jingle may have given us the upper hand in elementary school playground disputes over trading cards and action figures, matters get a bit more complicated in the adult world of cultural expression and exchange. Criticisms over the film Sita Sings the Blues, published in 2008 by Nina Paley, continue to raise questions about cultural appropriation in an increasingly globalized world.

Sita Sings the Blues is Nina Paley’s creative interpretation of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana. However, controversy over the film was immediately sparked as certain Hindu groups accused the European-American woman of appropriating Indian culture. In a revised publication statement, Nina Paley explained her motives behind the film and allowed free access to it by the public, adding, “Like all culture, it belongs to you already… From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” Her critics essentially argued that culture is, in fact, not shared, and that just because Paley found inspiration in another culture’s traditions, that didn’t give her any right to use that culture to create something of her own. Additionally, some critics argued that Paley’s representation of Rama and Sita diminished and mocked Indian culture.

Given the history of European colonialism in countries like India, as well as contemporary sociocultural Caucasian dominance, it is understandable that minority groups are defensive of their traditions and heritage. Yet at the same time, expanding globalization connects societies and allows for the observation and exchange of cultural ideas, making it increasingly difficult for any group of people to claim any product, tradition, or idea as exclusively theirs.

With that said, what place should cultural appropriation have in the world today? How far is too far, when it comes to taking pieces of other cultures and meshing them into one’s own? When minorities protest because Hollywood films based on their particular ethnic group’s heritage and traditions are cast entirely with European-American actors, it may seem obvious to some that the minority culture is being manipulated and controlled by the dominant culture’s representation of it. Yet matters may become a bit more complex when the issue at hand is a seemingly innocent Polynesian Disney costume or a “native” clothing line. In an American consumer culture, where it is normal to capitalize upon virtually any commodity—including those with ties to minority traditions—it can be easy to either miss the cultural implications altogether or to land at the opposite extreme and accuse every vendor of maliciously demeaning a group’s heritage. We must ask ourselves: where is the line between appreciating shared culture and addressing controversies over cultural appropriation in Hollywood films and popular culture? Is cultural appropriation theft or appreciation? Misuse or creative application?

For now, the appropriation of minority cultures by the dominant group is still viewed negatively, yet it can’t be ignored that cultural appropriation has paved the way for some remarkably creative works. Many minority groups find that capitalistic society is often driven by “finder’s keeper’s” principles. As traditions become consumer goods, these groups perceive that they often become the losers. But perhaps, in regard to culture, what we need is a new approach to the idea of cultural exchange in general. After all, worldwide globalization is fast approaching. Perhaps, even in 2008, Nina Paley was onto something with her “shared culture” after all?