Critiquing the theory of the 19th century Nationalist revival of Carnatic Music
Critiquing the theory of 19th century Nationalist revival of Carnatic Music

One thing that became clear to me through my own research on Bhakti is that devotion is not the same across religions. It appears similar at times, but likening Christian devotion to Hindu devotion somehow does not serve a purpose. These two systems of devotion have different starting points altogether.

Late last year, I had the unique opportunity to teach a course in Cultural Studies to students of music at a reputed university in Bangalore. Music students, who are often also performers, are unaccustomed to such courses that veer towards a history or sociology of music and my attempts to combine this class with an English Literature class earlier had miserably failed. The course had come through not so much by planning as through accidents of all kinds and some adventurous leaps. The experimental course took a lot of time to put together and I struggled to find relevant essays and articles. And when I did find some interesting pieces, lo, my students hated them.

What they hated most was the theory of the 19th-century nationalist revival of music; we were especially discussing its Carnatic aspects. The nationalist revival of music is a theory that proposes that during and after the nationalist period, embarrassing aspects of India’s cultural traditions were done away with and were rearranged in acceptable formats. That is, the courtesans and temple dancers who preserved classical forms of music were culturally boycotted, on an occasion jailed and criminalized under the new laws and music for domestic women became increasingly acceptable, which after much struggle could actually be performed in public. The best example for this and a fairly recent one too is the great vocalist, M S Subbulakshmi, who came from a socially unacceptable background for her times and struggled to find success until she was promoted by an upper-caste man of considerable repute, whom she married later.

Quick glimpses of the theory of the nationalist revival of arts in general and music in particular with a few corollaries can be found below:

“The idea of the past that the national struggle sought to create in its early days was one of a pre-historic India of mythic origins that was divine, pure, monolithic and untainted by any polluting ‘external’ influence…” (Sadananda Menon, 2016)

 “Bhatkhande’s anti-colonial project for a nationalist music had an in-built anti-Islamic tenor.” (S Gopalakrishnan, 2014)

“While the reformers presented the Hindu temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ in order to do away with her, the revivalists presented her as a ‘nun’ in order to incarnate her afresh.” (Amrit Srinivasan, 1985)

He [Balachander] began by situating the proceedings historically, amid the late-nineteenth-century revival of interest in Indian music, a revival that focused on standardizing and preserving Indian music. (Weidman, 1999)

Every student in my class had a problem with the facts, concepts and the arguments of this theory. Whenever they objected, I reminded them of the concrete example: MSS. The din would die down for a bit and then they would begin to raise objections again. They kept repeating a phrase, “In my experience…,” this cannot be true, struggling to articulate, for the lack of words and the right kind of language. Since I try not to be a teacher who imposes ideas on students and expects them to accept it, or age-discriminates against them, we journeyed together through numerous personal examples of discrimination, especially against women in various fields and pulled out some statistics that did shock the daylights out of us. They seemed to accept these other facts and examples but were unwilling to give up their initial resistance to the nationalist revival theory.

Even as we read Amanda Weidman’s beautiful narrative prose and exciting analysis from her book, my students insisted: we could not have oppressed others. They had no memory of it in any part of their being, collective or individual, as it were, and they searched within for traces but shook their heads. They had not heard of the nationalist revival theory from anywhere and found it distasteful and unacceptable. When I challenged them to provide an alternative theory, they named the few odd musicians from the “lower” castes, the women composers of different eras, the bhakti tradition and so on. I objected that these may not be enough, when they pointed to the major composers and said they were not courtesans—so there were possibly courtesans as well as others who preserved our music. This was reasonable. But to make sure their problem with the theory did not emerge from their middle-class locations, I spoke at length about sex-work and the many myths surrounding it—they seemed affected by it all—and were open to the legitimization of sex-work.

On my part, I tried to characterize their responses variously—perhaps they were too taken by the nationalist history that is presented in school textbooks? Perhaps, they had a point—femininity was celebrated rather than the category of women in pre-independence era and while this was slowly changing—we were witness to growth pains of all kinds. And so on.

My students were both atheists and believers (for the lack of a better word). Some claimed that it was impossible for them to perform without bhakti, while others said that did not matter—the latter group viewed their art as made up of rasa—locating it purely in aesthetics and emotional expressions. This came up during our discussion of an essay that traced back the origins of music to Vedic ritual and the (soma) rasa therein. Such individual differences did not vary their collective disdain for the nationalist revival theory and my students continued in their surety. I suggested their surety might be stemming from ignorance, they took this in their stride and insisted something was completely wrong with the theory. Of course, they were very early in their research careers (MPhil and PhD) and I could not expect them to come up with well-formulated arguments, yet their intuition should have some value, I thought.

Such intuition, I have had myself as well, when I first met with many theories in the Social Sciences. To this day, though, I am not sure if my own resistance came from my middle-classness or from a deeper source within. But this much is clear, intuition or hunches/guesses are often what lead us to new hypotheses and they further scientific thought. Theory catches up with experience after much struggle; it always lags behind. Perhaps a way of out this conundrum, wherein experience rejects theory is to produce the alternative theory. My students showed tremendous resolve to do this and accepted many a challenge I threw their way and presented bits of arguments in class and through assignments. For me, the aims of the course were accomplished—they didn’t have to agree with me as much as learn to argue with me.

This is not the first-time students have presented to me the category of experience as a means to challenge certain theories in the Social Sciences—they have had problems with critiques of nationalism as well. Even before I detailed the arguments, they would quote verses that mentioned all the rivers of the sub-continent, the odd references to jambu dveepa and bharata varsha and claimed that we might not have been a nation, but we were a culturally unified entity—which demands theorization, because in Europe such formations led to nations. There is indeed some truth to some of these students’ ideas, but much work needs to go in, to shape them into theories.

Despite my own discomfort with a number of theories in my discipline, I must say that Partha Chatterjee’s “The nationalist resolution of women’s question” truly solves the problem it poses. The argument here is that the nationalists resolved the women’s question by creating divisions that correspond with: the home and the world, material and the spiritual and masculine and feminine. Without these divisions, how could women become relegated to the home, and apologize for wanting to work or how could they become bearers of tradition while men chased the material world?

The gendered analysis of the nationalist revival of music, to my mind, is an offshoot of this notable essay by Chatterjee along with “the invention of tradition” theory proposed by Hobsbawm. According to Hobsbawm: “‘Traditions’ which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.” It is unclear however that this theorization of Western nations is directly applicable in India. However, academic scholars have gone to great lengths to show its validity, as we glimpsed above. And this is the theoretical cluster from which T M Krishna is deriving his own arguments. The time is possibly ripe for an alternative theory but the point is, it needs to be built with facts, evidence, archival work and arguments.

Since the recent controversy on Carnatic music with Christianized lyrics broke out, I cannot but remember the resistance of my students to the theories that form the premises of one camp. They invoked experience as a category although it is at once fluid and structure-resistant, easily accessible yet prone to misidentifications. Experience is usually the result of a collected set of events and observations over a period of time. In a culture like ours that lacks history and plays upon the usefulness of memory and forgetting, experience is an even more contested and fragile category.

Nevertheless, if I had to take my students seriously for a bit, here are the questions I would like to raise, in order to critique the nationalist revival theory and its various assumptions, corollaries and applications as well as critique those who are using them to make arguments in the contemporary world of Carnatic music.

-We view art as something that should have freedom, but is there some responsibility it should have as well? The demand for art’s freedom comes from a very specific moment in Western history, wherein art was expected to perform social critique. And it was in rebellion to such an expectation that ‘art for art’s sake’ became the slogan of an entire generation of artists. For more on this, one has to read, Peter Burger’s book: Theory of the Avant-Garde. So, what about responsibility?

-If artists argue that with modernity our arts too have borrowed the problematics of art in the West, then are we completely like the West now? Or, at least in this like the West? Did not modernity leave its mark on us in specific ways so that we continue to be unlike other modern cultures? After all, we were not a blank slate upon which modernity was etched; it was etched on existing cultures in haphazard and unexpected ways. So, then is there an alternate history of our arts available to us or can we build such a decolonized theory? How can our experiences aid us in this project?

-When artists argue for the freedom of art or even the freedom to proselytize, are they not viewing the constitution in literal or absolutist terms, when in reality the constitution is subjected to interpretation and that interpretation is steeped in cultural and historical attitudes?

-Since the nationalism within the 19th-century nationalist revival of music was shaped in response to colonialism, it is bound to have been distortive of our cultural experiences in that it either adopted the colonizer’s ways or vehemently criticized it. How can we dissociate with this moment of nationalism and move forward, without losing cultural pride? Further, do we have to view the nationalist responses of the 19th century as entirely distorted or only partly so? –This is a question to which there is no scholarly consensus in the academia, today. In other words, where do we draw our lines about the distortion and the authenticity of 19th-century nationalist arguments, in any case? Should we stop at Gandhi and Tagore or start with someone else? Without a precise history of premodern India, how do we even develop the critical lens required to assess the intellectual surpluses and deficits created by 19th-century nationalism as well as colonialism?

We have been dumb in accepting British laws on a number of topics and in ignoring the vibrant culture of the temples, the annachatras and so on. My students reminded me how it was the British who criminalized devadasis, not us. We are not without fault; our complicity is inexcusable. Yet, without a gripping discussion of culture, we will continue to be complicitous. While some of us grant value to culture, others seem to ride on just the constitution—how can we free ourselves of this all or nothing predicament?

One thing that became clear to me through my own research on Bhakti is that devotion is not the same across cultures. It appears similar at times, but likening Christian devotion to Hindu devotion somehow does not serve a purpose. These two systems of devotion have different starting points altogether. And not just devotion, numerous other categories too are not the same. Why, experience as a category is not the same. Just because some parts of two wholes are similar does not mean that the wholes are similar too.

Even as we struggle to articulate these differences, controversies come and go. What will bring clarity is not a long list of opinion articles but actual theories and the extraordinary amount of hard work that goes into building them. Underneath the fact that there have been threats exchanged and much hullabaloo is a contestation over the 19th century nationalist revival of music—a theory that needs to be contested, critiqued, questioned and re-argued, if necessary. All else is noise, and definitely not music.


Amrit Srinivasan. “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance.” EPW. Vol. 20, No. 44 (Nov. 2, 1985), pp. 1869-1876

Amanda Weidman. 2006. Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India. Duke University Press.

Amanda Weidman. 1999. “Musicology and the Birth of the Composer.” Gender and Politics in India. Ed. Nivedita Menon. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Invention of Tradition. 1983. Cambridge University Press.

Partha Chatterjee. 1989. “Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question.” Recasting Women. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Peter Burger. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. University of Minnesota Press.

S Gopalakrishnan. 2014. “The Song of Forgetting.” Indian Express.

Sadananda Menon. 2016. “Bharatanatyam as an Object of Majoritarian Cultural Nationalism.”

Further Reading:

Bob van der Linden. 2013. Music and Empire in Britain and India: Identity, Internationalism, and Cross-Cultural Communication. Springer.

Janet O’Shea. “At Home in the World? The Bharatanatyam Dancer as Transnational Interpreter.” The Drama Review 47, 1 (T177), Spring 2003.

Janaki Bakhle. 2005. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford University Press.

Kaamya Sharma. How to Dress a National Elite: The Case of the Kalakshetra Sari. IQAS Vol. 48 / 2017 1–2, pp. 33–53

Lakshmi Subramaniam. “Contesting the Classical: The Tamil Isai Iyakkam and the Politics of Custodianship.” Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2004), pp. 66-90

Lakshmi Subramaniam. “The reinvention of a tradition: Nationalism, Carnatic music and the Madras Music Academy, 1900-1947.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 36, 2, 1999.

Martin Clayton. “Musical renaissance and its margins in England and India”, pp.71-93. In Music and orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: portrayal of the East. ed. Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon, Ashgate, 2007).

Purnima Shah (2002) Where they danced: patrons, institutions, spaces: State patronage in India: appropriation of the “regional” and “national”, 25:1, 125-141.

Paul Poovathingal. “Karnatic Music and Christianity: An Ethnomusicological Approach.” Journal of Dharma 40, 1 (January-March 2015), 77-94

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