Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India

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While Karnatic music, a form of Indian music based on the melodic principle of raga and time cycles called tala, is known today as South India’s classical music, its status as “classical” is an early-twentieth-century construct, one that emerged in the crucible of colonial modernity, nationalist ideology, and South Indian regional politics. As Amanda J. Weidman demonstrates, in order for Karnatic music to be considered classical music, it needed to be modeled on Western classical music, with its system of notation, composers, compositions, conservatories, and concerts. At the same time, it needed to remain distinctively Indian. Weidman argues that these contradictory imperatives led to the emergence of a particular “politics of voice,” in which the voice came to stand for authenticity and Indianness.

Combining ethnographic observation derived from her experience as a student and performer of South Indian music with close readings of archival materials, Weidman traces the emergence of this politics of voice through compelling analyses of the relationship between vocal sound and instrumental imitation, conventions of performance and staging, the status of women as performers, debates about language and music, and the relationship between oral tradition and technologies of printing and sound reproduction. Through her sustained exploration of the way “voice” is elaborated as a trope of modern subjectivity, national identity, and cultural authenticity, Weidman provides a model for thinking about the voice in anthropological and historical terms. In so doing, she shows that modernity is characterized as much by particular ideas about orality, aurality, and the voice as it is by regimes of visuality.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern is a brilliant critique of the emergence of Karnatic music as a ‘classical’ art during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Situating her account within modernist and colonialist discourses of the authentic subject, Amanda J. Weidman explores a broad range of sources, from little-known early-twentieth-century Indian texts (in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Telugu) to contemporary studies in anthropology and musicology to feminist and media theory.”—Katherine Bergeron, author of Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes

“Amanda J. Weidman brilliantly turns the tables on ideologies of voice in challenging us to envision music as constituting technologies for producing voices. Ethnomusicology, anthropology, postcolonial studies, and critical histories of technology all take a step forward as a genealogy of Indian ‘classical’ music engenders new insights into colonialism, nationalism, gender, traditionality, and modernity.”—Charles L. Briggs, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Rolf Groesbeck

Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern ranks as one of the most important contributions to South Asian music studies in recent years.”
Joshua S. Levin

“Brilliant and essential are two words that are best avoided in any review, and though I made every effort to resist, I cannot properly conclude without invoking them. I have hardly scratched the surface of this well-supported, provocative, multifaceted text. Weidman’s book deserves multiple close readings and further discussion by anyone interested in the processes and politics involved in the cultural construction of aesthetics. Those who have specific interest in Indian Classical music, Karnatic music, or the postcolonial negotiation will be well rewarded by this brilliant and essential read.”
Joshua Tucker

“In this fascinating study Amanda J. Weidman brings postcolonial theory to bear upon music, a field of endeavour largely neglected by postcolonial scholarship in general. . . . [T]his book is well-written and cogently argued, and it should be suitable for use in graduate classrooms. It should also be of particular interest to anyone interested in postcolonial theory, modernity, performance and Indian music more generally.”
B. Nettl

“This work will be indispensable to anyone interested in South Indian musical culture and wishing to go beyond encyclopedia articles.”
Chloe Coventry

“Through analysis of music theory treatises, advertisements and other media, and drawing from contemporary feminist theory, linguistic anthropology, and musicology, Weidman pieces together an erudite study of the political and historical roots of one of India’s cherished musical traditions. Her theoretical framework deserves special attention; it engages productively with historical detail in order to conceptualize the role of music in producing modes of South Indian subjectivity and modernity. . . . What makes this book exemplary is Weidman’s painstaking historiography, her postcolonial stance, and her commitment to putting Karnatic music in its social context.”
Sindhumathi Revuluri

“Weidman should be commended for her thoroughly interdisciplinary effort in undertaking such a complex and problematic task, for understanding the importance of performance and history, and for taking account of modern technology in writing that history. The book opens the way for area specialists, anthropologists, and music scholars alike to produce work that takes seriously the place of music in debates about modernity, especially in colonial contexts.”
Ian Bedford

“Weidman’s is one of the best books I’ve read about a contemporary musical tradition.”
Ashwin Kumar

“Weidman’s narrative traverses the various modes of ethnography beginning from her own experience as a student of Carnatic classical music, . . . These various strands are sutured into a perceptive narrative which has the multiple facets of being partly a social history of Carnatic music, partly a theoretical exposition of the politics of voice as well as an eminently readable account of the interaction of cultural and aesthetic forms with larger political structures. . . . [W]e must make mention, enviously, of Weidman’s writing which is crisp and simple and yet capable of carrying complex ideas within a sparse and measured prose.”
Katherine Bergeron

Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern is a brilliant critique of the emergence of Karnatic music as a ‘classical’ art during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Situating her account within modernist and colonialist discourses of the authentic subject, Amanda J. Weidman explores a broad range of sources, from little-known early-twentieth-century Indian texts (in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Telugu) to contemporary studies in anthropology and musicology to feminist and media theory.”
Charles L. Briggs

“Amanda J. Weidman brilliantly turns the tables on ideologies of voice in challenging us to envision music as constituting technologies for producing voices. Ethnomusicology, anthropology, postcolonial studies, and critical histories of technology all take a step forward as a genealogy of Indian ‘classical’ music engenders new insights into colonialism, nationalism, gender, traditionality, and modernity.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336204
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Amanda J. Weidman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College.

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Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern

By Amanda J. Weidman

Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3631-0

Chapter One

Gone Native?


No other instrument is so powerful as the Violin. -T. K. Jayarama Iyer (1965)

Unlike the golden age of India, which Orientalist accounts place in the precolonial era, the golden age of Karnatic music occurred, according to conventional accounts, at the peak of colonialism, the early to mid-nineteenth century. The so-called trinity of composers-Thyagaraja (1767-1847), Syama Sastri (1762-1827), and Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1835)-who are said to have revolutionized the sound and practice of Karnatic music were all active during this period. Even more extraordinary is the fact that while they were composing their masterpieces, a new instrument was changing the sound, practice, and repertoire of Karnatic music: the European violin. Brought to South India circa 1800 by British and French colonial officials and visitors to the princely courts, the violin was taken up and, shortly after its arrival, adapted by South Indian musicians, who gradually altered its tuning, playing position, and technique.

This is no secret: although Karnatic music is unanimously described as a vocal music, theviolin is one of its most visible and audible elements, found on almost every concert stage playing solo or doubling the vocalist's line. In twentieth-century South India, the violin not only became a vehicle for conveying Karnatic music to modernity but also came to be seen as essential to preserving Karnatic music's authenticity. These notions of modernity and authenticity, so crucially intertwined in the redefinition of Karnatic music as "classical," are played out in the central role that the violin has had in constructing the voice of Karnatic classical music. This chapter traces the career of the violin in South India from its arrival around 1800 to the present. How did a colonial instrument "gone native" come to be heard as the source of an authentic Karnatic voice?

In its early days in South India the violin was an instrument for Scottish jigs and reels, French dancing songs, and English marching tunes, rather than an instrument of Western classical music. In the beginning of the twentieth century, however, attitudes toward the violin changed, the old "fiddle" image was rejected in favor of a classicized "violin" whose counter-part was the classical violin of the West. The newly classicized violin was central to a discourse about modernity: the violin was seen as the vehicle for bringing Karnatic music into the modern age since it could reproduce the voice with more accuracy than the old-fashioned veena, with more sensitivity than the "mechanical" harmonium, and with a kind of social impunity the sarangi had never had. The defining aspect of the violin was its double character; it was Indian in its ability to reproduce the Karnatic voice, yet Western in its origins and form. These double capacities made the violin the ideal instrument for twentieth-century musical experiments: violin-and-piano, violin-and-Bach, violin-and-computer, and multi-violin concerts that enact and rearticulate the relationship between Karnatic music and the West.


Descriptions of Indian music by European scholars in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century were primarily concerned with comparing Indian music with the music of the West. Such studies inevitably placed Indian music in a cultural half-state, as though waiting to be awakened. Though Indian music was relentlessly compared to the music of the West, the separation, usually opposition, between the two was scrupulously maintained. Indian music had to take its place in a historico-musicological tree of natural connections, but it was also to stand on equal footing with Western music as one of the great musics of the world. In contrast to such a vision, the violin and its passage to India represented the possibility that instead of separation and opposition, there could be mixing and influence. Western scholars of comparative organology in the late nineteenth century showed little interest in the violin's increasing popularity in India precisely because it threatened to undermine the neat family trees they were determined to draw to illustrate the relationship between Indian music and European music.

In his Researches into the Early History of the Violin Family Carl Engel's genealogy of the European violin depended on "an acquaintance with the musical instruments of foreign nations in different stages of civilization, extant at the present day" (1883, 3). With the European violin as the pinnacle, or endpoint, of "civilization," the "rude fiddles" in evidence around the world were to be taken as stages of development whose natural connections to each other could be traced. Following the evolutionary theory of the time, such "natural" connections were assumed to be based on function, not form. Engel hinted that ancient migrations were the cause of diffusion of fiddle types but considered present-day migrations unimportant, as admitting of possibly unnatural connections that gave rise to inauthentic imitations of the violin. "Shapes resembling the f-holes are occasionally to be met with on Asiatic instruments.... [T]he two sound-holes are sometimes merely painted upon them, without their being pierced into the sound board. What can be the origin and object of this fancy?" (19). Engel likewise mentioned the use of the European violin in India at length but then dismissed it as inconsequential.

Nay, it is well known that in some of the seaport towns of Hindustan the European violin has actually been introduced although it does not appear to have obtained much popular favour. The rajas seem not to appreciate its really commendable qualities, to judge from the fact of their having ordered violins to be manufactured of silver instead of wood.... We have seen that the Hindus are not entirely unacquainted with the European violin.... There is now in Calcutta a Musical Academy, founded in the year 1871 by the Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore, in which this instrument is actually taught, so that ere long we may perhaps expect in our public concerts a Hindu virtuoso astonishing his auditory with the performance of some of our brilliant violin compositions. However this may be, it can hardly be said that this European introduction has affected in the slightest degree the spirit of the Hindu national music. (16-17)

Engel thus dismissed the use of the violin in India as a mere superficiality, just like the f-holes painted onto "Asiatic" instruments. Such a dismissal hardly squares with the fact that the violin was, according to Charles Day in Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan (1891), rapidly taking the place of the sarangi in South India. Strangely, however, this is the only mention of the violin in Day's entire work. His large section of illustrations and descriptions of South Indian instruments includes lengthy descriptions of the veena and its tuning but omits the violin entirely. The sarangi is described as the main accompaniment to the voice, yet the illustration of "a musical party" depicts a violinist, not a sarangi player (Day 1891, 98). It seems that for both Engel and Day, the present-day music of the violin seemed to threaten their ability to hear "echoes of an indigenous music ... remaining in the Indian music of today; but not yet so clearly heard that we can say we identify here or there a refrain of an original or pre-historic music, although we may unconsciously be very near it" (ibid., x).

These accounts were pervaded by a longing for a pure Indian music unaffected by colonialism, a music impervious to its contemporary circumstances. Such a vision of Indian music continues to dominate Western scholarship even at the end of the twenty-first century. For instance, Gerry Farrell's Indian Music and the West (1997), a book about the West's encounter with Indian music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, also never mentions the violin. Farrell's approach seems to invest in an idea of "Indian music" as an essentially stable field free from the unstable realm of politics and the whims of "the West." Accordingly, his analysis allows only for the coming together of spectacularly different elements: the use of "Indian" motifs in Western parlor songs for piano; the use of the sitar in Western pop music in the 1960s. Such examples are certainly worth discussing, but Farrell's alignment of them seems to suggest that the story of Indian music and the West can be told completely in terms of such spectacular misfits, of misguided Western appropriations of a pre-existent and independent entity known as Indian music. If, as Farrell states, "at the very core of Western attitudes toward Indian music is the idea that it is in some way deeply unknowable," then his own position unwittingly seems to fall within such attitudes (9). His approach preserves a pristine place for Indian music as an entity that exists before and after two centuries of "misunderstanding" on the part of the West, an entity that went on "developing and adapting as it would, largely impervious" to the debates and appropriations to which it was subjected (54).

The career of the violin in India surely does not fit into a history that would prefer to leave Indian music untouched by the West or by colonialism. Following the violin in South India points to a different history, one that admits the centrality of the colonial encounter in the creation of what is now called "Indian classical music." Such a history does not amount to a narrative of Westernization, a story other ethnomusicologists have told. The Westernization narrative implies that before the arrival of Westerners, Karnatic music existed as much the same kind of entity we know now, and that it was then selectively affected by Western musical practices and ideas. This narrative suggests that definitions of "Indian" and "Western" are unproblematic, and that the Western influences could be stripped away, leaving a pure core of Karnatic music. Certainly, the colonial encounter changed musical practices and discourses about music in South India. These practices and discourses are not Western, however, but specifically colonial. They position Karnatic music as India's classical music, definable and audible as such precisely because it is poised in opposition to the classical music of the West. Pervading this peculiarly colonial discourse is a structure of comparison that, as I have suggested, includes both a claim to commensurability and a claim to essential difference.

The King of Instruments

The first violins in India were probably brought to Calcutta in the 1760s for the Calcutta Harmonic Society, which played Handel, Corelli, and later Haydn and Mozart, and for the Catch Club, which played jigs and reels for dancing (Head 1985,549). Musical instrument shops opened in Calcutta in the 1780s, and the Calcutta Band, an orchestra, was established in 1785 (551). Yet although there must have been interaction between English and Indian musicians, the violin did not seem to play a major role. By contrast, in South India the violin's influence seems to have been immediate.

Exactly where the violin first came to South India and who first adapted it to Karnatic music are matters of some contention. One popular story holds that the violin appeared in Madras in the late eighteenth century, probably introduced by colonial officials with musical hobbies. Baluswamy Dikshitar (1786-1858), who was from a Brahmin family and the younger brother of the composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar, moved with his father to Manali, a village near Madras, around 1800 or slightly before. Attracted by the English band music at Fort Saint George in Madras, Baluswamy expressed a desire to learn European music. Manali Chinniah Mudaliyar, son of the dubash to the governor of Madras, trustee of the Manali temple, and patron of many musicians at that time, engaged a European violinist from Madras to give Baluswamy violin lessons (Raghavan 1944,129). He had lessons for three years and also managed in that time to adapt the violin to Karnatic music, although there is no explicit mention of this in P. Sambamoorthy's account (1955a, vol. 1, 37). Baluswamy then returned to Tiruvarur, near the thriving royal court of Tanjavur, known as the principal seat of Karnatic music before Madras gained that reputation. The violin became known in South India through Baluswamy's performances. Indeed, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, a small state south of Madurai, was so taken with Baluswamy's violin music that he appointed him court violinist (samasthana vidwan) in 1824 (ibid.). Baluswamy's brother, Muthuswamy, later came from Tanjavur to Ettayapuram, and there had the chance to hear the violin and the European music his brother played on it.

Another popular story has it that the site of the violin's first transformation was the royal court of Tanjavur, where Maharaja Serfoji had appointed the Tanjore quartet-four brothers from what is now called the icai vellalar community-as court musicians and dancers (Subrahmanyam 1980, 47). Vadivelu (1810-1868), the youngest of the brothers, was a disciple of Muthuswamy Dikshitar and also studied Western violin with the missionary Christian Friedrich Schwartz, who had established a Protestant mission in Tanjavur in 1778 and developed a friendly relationship with the royal court (Seetha 1981, 103). Vadivelu later demonstrated the tunes he had learned from Schwartz to Muthuswamy Dikshitar, who composed songs based on them. Vadivelu also introduced the violin to the composer Thyagaraja, accompanying him while he was singing; sometimes Thyagaraja would ask just to hear the violin by itself (Subrahmanyam 1980, 48). When Maharaja Serfoji and the brothers had a disagreement over their rights in the temple at Tanjavur, the quartet was dismissed from Serfoji's court, but it was not long before they found another post in the court of the composer-king Swati Tirunal at Trivandrum in 1830. Vadivelu became an intimate associate of the king and taught violin to several court musicians there. In 1834 Swati Tirunal presented Vadivelu with an ivory violin inscribed with the eagle, emblem of the Trivandrum royal court, and a bow made from an elephant's tusk (ibid., 49).

A third version of the violin's entry into South India concerns the minister Varahappayyar (1795-1869), who worked for Maharaja Serfoji as the superintendent of all court musicians (Seetha 1981, 258). He eventually became Serfoji's trusted minister and when Serfoji wanted to enter negotiations with the governor of the Madras presidency, he sent Varahappayyar, who was noted for his proficiency in the English language (Jayarama Iyer 1985, 27). A musical negotiation seems to have resulted: the governor was hospitable to Varahappayyar and showed him his music room, which had violins and a piano. Intrigued by these instruments, Varahappayyar played Indian melodies on them, impressing the Western musicians, who then agreed to teach him a few violin techniques. "This news reached the ears of the governor ... [who] being very music-minded asked him to play before him. In order to please him and have his political mission fulfilled, he agreed to play before the governor (otherwise he would have preferred to play it to his Maharaja first). He took the violin and played some Indian melodies to the pleasure of the governor" (ibid.). The governor presented the violin and a piano to Varahappayyar, who returned to Tanjavur and impressed the maharaja. Varahappayyar later taught violin to Vadivelu, who was the first to fully realize the potential of the violin, and more violins were then brought to Tanjavur.


Excerpted from Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern by Amanda J. Weidman Copyright © 2006 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Gone native? : travels of the violin in South India 25
2 From the palace to the street : staging "classical" music 59
3 Gender and the politics of voice 111
4 Can the subaltern sing? : music, language, and the politics of voice 150
5 A writing lesson : musicology and the birth of the composer 192
6 Fantastic fidelities 245
Afterword : modernity and the voice 286
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