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.
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?
Jackson Nock is a senior from Denver, Colorado. He is a double major in International Studies and Religious Studies with a minor in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies.This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.
When we think of art, we think of a world in which creativity and expression know no bounds. However, when certain stories are labeled as “religious” or “sacred” as opposed to “non-religious,” we seem to look at art differently.
In my REL 322 class we have been focusing on the Indian epic the Ramayana. What I have found most interesting about this story is the number of tellings and depictions that exist. Recently, we watched the film Sita Sings the Blues, an animated film based on the Ramayana produced by American artist Nina Paley. Paley’s telling of the Ramayana received criticism for its portrayal of certain characters in a negative light and a number of Hindus found the film offensive.
Similarly, the comic book series The 99 written by Naif Al-Mutawa has faced criticism in its portrayal of characters. The 99 is about a team of superheroes each based on one of the 99 attributes of Allah found in Islamic traditions and is generally directed toward a younger Muslim demographic. The comic is banned by the Saudi government and ISIS members have even called for the killing of Al-Mutawa.
These two instances raise questions over how far artistic license extends. Are there certain topics, themes, or stories that should be left off limits? Should “religious” or “sacred” stories be told only in a certain way in order to prevent possible cultural appropriation? The problem with these questions is that it looks at stories such as the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah through these “religious” or “sacred” labels.
As Dr. Ramey notes in his blog post “What if Harry Potter is Sacred,” “When we label something as ‘sacred,’ that designation often changes how we engage it.” But why do we use these labels to describe certain texts or stories in the first place? In his book Capitalizing Religion, scholar Craig Martin argues “when there is a chafing relationship between [a] state’s practices and the practices of a particular civil institution, the latter may cry foul on the grounds of ‘freedom of religion'” (Martin, 44). Thus, religious groups, Martin argues, use “religious” or “sacred” labels in order to reduce the reach or scope of “secular” institutions in their private lives (Martin, 44). Could it be possible to extend this argument into the realm of artistic license?
In both the cases of Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Al-Mutawa’s The 99, we see religious groups protesting the content of artwork they see as degrading to things they hold as “religious” or “sacred.” If we are to use Martin’s line of logic, the use of these labels to describe the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah is a way of limiting the scope of artistic license on them. But is this healthy? Should artists refrain from creating their work out of fear of backlash?
Despite where you stand on this issue, the important thing to realize is that using the terms “religious or “secular” to describe certain stories has an impact on the way people think about them. This, in effect, has discouraged artistic license in regards to them. Therefore, it is important to examine how these types of labels may be affecting the telling or retelling of a story when you examine it.
Jared Powell will be presenting a paper titled “And the Beat Goes On: Imaginings and Retellings of Han Shan by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.” The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Ramey‘s REL 419: Tales From Asia course. In the paper, he analyzes the ways in which Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac–two Beat Generation writers–translate and retell the poetry and life of Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Han Shan. He argues that in their works, Snyder and Kerouac create an imagining of Han Shan as an ascetic Buddhist ideal that champions typical Beat emphases of playfulness, spirituality, and counterculturalism
Sarah Griswold’s conference paper is also Asia related. Titled, “There is a Well at Cawnpore: The Politics of Commemoration in Colonial India,” her paper analyzes a memorial at a well in the Indian town of Cawnpore. The well stood as a memorial of the Siege of Cawnpore during the 1857 revolt under British colonial rule. The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Altman‘s special topics REL 483: Religion in Colonial India course (that will soon be a regular course offering in the department).
You can find the full conference program here. You might even notice a few other REL names on the schedule.
Do you have a paper from a course that you’re proud of? Are you interested in sharing your work beyond just your professor? REL offers many opportunities to share your undergraduate research, such as this blog, the REL Honors Research Symposium, the UA Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference, and the regional AAR meeting. Talk to your professor about how you can present the great research you are doing in your courses!
What connects red lipstick, racecars, and health care? The study of religion, of course! (Well, sort of.) Khara Cole, a 2013 graduate with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations, has found the skills that she developed in Religious Studies particularly important, as she designs products and their implementation for a health insurance company. She returned to campus last week to talk about her experiences working in the corporate world. The tasks of writing persuasive business proposals and accessible marketing texts clearly draw on her skills that she developed in our classes that emphasized various writing assignments. Solving problems, looking at both the little details and the broader picture as well as the ways different people might respond to the issues, employs the analytical and critical thinking skills that she, like many of our majors, considers a highlight of their work in Religious Studies.
In terms of lipstick and race cars, Khara provided this concrete example of the value of her religious studies major. When Khara began working on her current team implementing new products for her company, she noticed two previous marketing posters, one with a tube of red lipstick dominating the poster and the other with a racecar. Thinking of her first course in the department (Women and Religion with Prof. Simmons), she recognized the gender stereotypes implicit within these posters geared to different audiences and began developing more effective marketing efforts that avoided such gendered stereotypes that would alienate portions of the target audiences. Her story illustrates clearly the relevance of the questions that we often ask in our classes about the ways dominant symbols develop and the groups that those symbols exclude. Looking at those posters with a critical gaze enabled her to consider the ways a range of people might view them rather than accepting the symbolism of dominant stereotypes. In her experience, her skills in critical analysis, therefore, facilitate better marketing and communication strategies. As other graduates have told us, a major in Religious Studies helps students develop skills that provide vital contributions to a range of careers, including business and marketing.
Then take a look… Continue reading
Have you ever been to one of our Aronov Lectures? Well, Dr. Steven Ramey, Associate Professor in REL and Director of UA’s Asian Studies program, has just a published an edited collection of the first decades’ worth of these annual guest lectures (established in 2002), entitled Writing Religion (University of Alabama Press). We recently asked him a few questions about the volume. Continue reading
To view an enlarged pdf file of the
pictured article about Dr. Ramey, click here.
Did you catch this article featuring Dr. Ramey and his research in the recent College of Arts and Sciences newsletter “Celebrating Excellence” (Vol. 5, No. 1)? If not, you can pick up a hard copy in our office, or click the link above to read it online.
The fifth episode in our second season of ar·ti·facts is now on Vimeo! It features Dr. Ramey and his set of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags that he acquired in Singapore. Give it a watch!