This talk examines the inaudible yet polyphonic pasts of modern South Indian rāga-based music by exploring the complex history of Islamic musical production in Tamil-speaking South India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Drawing on an unexplored archive of Tamil songbooks, music manuals, devotional materials, and other print ephemera, this talk follows three highly flexible genres that populate the Tamil Islamic sonic landscape: the kīrttaṉa, the patam, and the hybrid musical muṉājāttu, and analyzes these in relation to highly localized Tamil Sufi devotional cultures on the one hand, as well as formal, canonical traditions of Tamil Islamic literary production on the other. It also locates this music in the deeply intermedial world of cultural production that predates the “classicization” of popular rāga-based music in the 1920s. This is a world in which lyrics and paratextual materials stand out in sharp relief for their aesthetic and theological uniqueness; in which intermedial exchanges between arts like dance, music, and drama are wholly natural; and in which no sonic borrowing or repurposing is considered irreverent or uncreative. The focus on Tamil Islamic music raises important questions about the social organization of rāga-based music in South India. Most significantly, it forces us to reconsider the baseline historiography of “classical Karṇāṭak” music in modern South India, which was molded by the politics and aesthetics of upper-caste cultural nationalism, and certainly today, thrives as the very aesthetic heart of the politics of communal majoritarianism in this region.
Davesh Soneji is Associate Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the award-winning Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2012). He is editor of Bharatanatyam: A Reader (OUP, 2010), and co-editor with Indira Viswanathan Peterson of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (OUP, 2008). He is also editor of the forthcoming volume Caste, Community, and the Performing Arts in Modern South India (Routledge), and with Anna Morcom, co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Indian Music. Currently, he is completing a monograph entitled Unbounded Tunes: Genealogies of Musical Pluralism in Modern South India, and for the 2023-2024 academic year is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University’s Institute for Sacred Music.