This paper reflects on ways of studying aural traditions and practices in South Asia and in the process engages with issues of inter-disciplinarity and methodology – issues that have been at the heart of what has come to be known as the New Cultural History Project. It also hopes to showcase the kind of work that is now emerging in South Asia which goes beyond the ‘reinvention of tradition’ framework and examines the developments in the post national period to rethink issues of aesthetics and criticism and of subjectivity and form. My own specific interest is to think through the idea of identity and language politics as that of gender. It is in this context that the paper will refer, albeit in passing, to the Tamil music movement of the 1940’s and allude to the life of K. B. Sundarambal who not merely straddled the classical-popular music divide but whose vocal quality, persona and political stance challenged the conventional notions of the sweet singing voice, of caste-based identity politics and of classicism. The paper is organized around three sections: section one will look at the corpus of recent writings on the colonial and modern history of music in south Asia and examine the broad paradigmatic assertions they have deployed in theorizing the aural, section two will look at some of the more recent writings that have come to characterise the understanding of music consumption and transmission in the post national context when technology, public sponsorship and regional imperatives combined to reconfigure the idea of modern classical music and its performance conventions, while section three looks at Tamil music (stage, concert and film) through the specific life of K. B. Sundarambal whose career enables us to examine issues of subjectivity and individualisation that were articulated in very specific personal and political contexts. Taken together, I hope to address the larger mandate of this workshop which is about cultural and social approaches to musicology and the shifts the discipline has accommodated.
Theorizing the Aural: Emerging Music Histories
Understanding aurality and performance practices in modern India within the framework of historical research involves two levels of theorising. One level engages with the idea of unconventional archives and the other with an understanding of ‘cultural publics’ and of the changing politics of patronage and performance. Studying the field of the aural as that of the visual until recently tended to focus on the nationalist cultural project of the late 19th and 20th century, when a series of developments transformed the social and political context of performance and consumption of music. The dispersal of music practice and transmission within a larger public space that stood outside the ritual spheres of court and salon produced new communities of listeners and commentators whose investment in sponsoring and staging music as a major cultural asset and marker had important consequences for both the art form and its aesthetic appreciation. The history of performance practices in modern India, especially in the realm of art music, was closely and deeply implicated in the politics of individual and collective self-fashioning as well as of the changing public sphere constituted by new registers of authenticity, aesthetics and affect. In tracking these changes from the late 19th century, there has understandably been a marked dependence on discursive literature and narratives of representation bolstered by ethnography and oral history. The combination between text and interview, between institutional records where they exist and anecdotes gleaned from personal autobiographical accounts has meant engaging with the idea of an expanded archive and with notions of greater and lesser authenticity in the context of re-inventing a classical music tradition. For the most part, the recent works on music especially in southern India have emphasized the making and staging of a classical music and the delineation of a distinct tradition and style constituted by repertoire and aesthetics and how this was directly linked to the social prominence of high caste elites in the transformed public sphere. A lot of the reconstruction has had to do with multiple ways in which musical practice and their emotive importance were represented by the new patrons of music whose domination of the public space coincided with new social and cultural reform imperatives with unexpected, but profound, consequences for traditional and hereditary performing communities.
What did the new histories enable? How did these depart in focus and emphasis from an earlier generation of scholarship that for convenience we may call ethno-musicological? Were they intended to critique older studies of music and musicians, of form and change? What was the methodology they deployed and how did this differ (if at all) from older scholarship? I ask these questions not so much to provoke a mock battle between disciplines but in order to set up a possible conversation between new modes of history, writing, and of ethnomusicology about shared methodologies and understanding of archives– written and oral– to tease out the complex relation between politics and culture, to reflect on the consequences of the politics of representation that often marginalised individuals and groups and occasionally generated counter-voices of protest and dissent. It is my contention that such a dialogue will enable us to look more carefully into the actual dynamics of stylistic change, of individual understanding of aesthetics or even notions of teaching and pedagogy from within the constituency of the practitioners – an exercise that historians tend to be wary of. But the possibilities for writing such a parallel history exist and this is a something that we can flag as a possible field of investigation and something that newly emerging research is beginning to address. (see James Kippen’s new work on the drumming manual, for instance, or the responses that musicologists have come up with in the context of Janaki Bakhle’s work)
But first, let us consider the range of histories of Indian music that were written not necessarily by professional historians but by amateur scholars, colonial/European musicologists, folklorists and subsequently nationalist musicologists and linguists. Even before this, histories of Indian music enjoyed an old and even distinguished pedigree – from medieval (Sanskrit and Persian) treatises on form and grammar to the expositions of melody and musicians, there was, in fact, an established tradition of writing about the art form, its antecedents, values and conventions. Their value was, however, partly undermined by the colonial bias of looking at this material as unreliable sources (not histories) and partly by the intrinsic tendency of texts to speak of idealised musical values while not reflecting actual performance practice. When modern Indians began to write a history of music, some of these biases were addressed while others were reproduced for a variety of reasons, the consequence of which was the upholding of a particular account of the musical tradition. The project was also taken up by a generation of European musicologists who relied on field recordings and on informants to add to this version of the tradition by focusing more squarely on form, analysing scales, notes and transcription techniques. It was only later that musicology adopted a sociological, anthropological and historical perspective by beginning to consider the social context of performances and practices. The best illustration of this adaptation in musicology is Dan Neuman’s 1980 work The Life of Music in North India, which provided an anthropological account of modern Indian classical music culture, its adaptation to changes ushered in by modernity, of its close relationship with culture. His interaction with musicians enabled him to come up with an innovative and comprehensive understanding of the gharana tradition in north Indian classical music, of the hierarchical social organisation of music and musicians, in short, a structuralist approach to the workings of musical culture. Subsequent research undertaken by musicologists relating to both the Hindustani and Carnatic systems of music paid greater attention to the social context of music even as some developed very important and impressive analyses of textual material, even if there often was a recurrent celebration of ancient traditions of music in India – the invocation of the Vedic chant, South Indian purity and the isolation of southern India’s musical experience from developments in the rest of the subcontinent.
I do not wish to specifically flag what I consider to be seminal works in cultural and historical musicology – except to make the point that through the 80’s and 90’s and thereafter, there has been an expansion of the frontiers of traditional musicology which has given us a fascinating sense of musical thought in ancient India (Rowell) of the diversity and dynamism of musical forms in Medieval India, of the history of musical instruments in their changing social contexts. For southern India, there was Jon Higgins who very early on spoke of the shifts in the structure of patronage that refigured Carnatic music and subsequently Mathew Allen whose work on genres such as padams gave us a fascinating glimpse into the politics of social and artistic engineering undertaken by nationalist elites. There have also been important expositions on the study of melodies and forms (ragas and kritis), but for the most part the emphasis was on the history of celebrated composers, of the great trinity in eighteenth century Tanjore and thereafter. Histories by Ranga Ramanuja Ayyangar and of Dr. Seetha demonstrate the overall thrust characterising the scholarship that documented an ancient tradition, referring to the primacy of great composers and the centrality of compositions in the tradition and implicitly acknowledging tropes of continuity and antiquity and relative purity circulated by orientalist readings of Indian music and of its intrinsic capability in adapting to the challenges of change. Thus, if Neuman’s preoccupation with social organisation of music reaffirmed his advocacy of a structuralist approach to culture, of which music practice was but a part, Jon Higgins’ understanding of Indian classical music corresponded to the nationalist version of a constantly evolving tradition
Far from being the enemy of tradition, change has been rather the core, the soul of a vital art form constantly in the process of becoming. Over the past two thousand years and more every new generation has received the oral corpus of musical repertoire and style, transformed it and in turn transmitted it to the next generation. So far as we know the tradition has undergone a constant process of evolution. (Higgins 1976:20)
This implicit endorsement of a nationalist version of culture and of a particular mode of historicism was what the new cultural histories attempted to critique. Janaki Bakhle’s Two Men and Music (2005), Subramanian’s From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Academy and Amanda Weidman’s Singing the Classical: Voicing the Modern (2006) preferred to look at the social history of music not as an uninterrupted history of tradition but as a phenomenon that was invented in the context of Indian nationalism and its espousal of modernity. The starting point for all these works, therefore, was the construction of a modern classical tradition that was completed around the middle of the twentieth century when (largely through the initiative of middle class Brahmin and upper caste/class enthusiasts) music and dance was shifted out of the traditional venues and placed in modern concert halls, generating in the process a variety of changes in style, form, repertoire and representation that came to mark a singular and standardised classical style. There were important differences in emphases in all of these works; Bakhle’s understanding of North Indian classical music through the lens of two major publicists and reformers and of a regional court in western India was perhaps the most polemical as it stressed the communalisation of the public sphere in western India and critiqued the assumptions of the nationalist project as it was developed by two key figures, namely Bhatkhande and Paluskar. The focus of Bakhle’s work centered on the workings of nationalism and communalism, and the prehistory of its project relating to music and music education. A healthy scepticism about the nature and quality of feudal patronage of music and a more strident attack on the flaws of the nationalist cultural project saturated in part by bhakti nationalism and in part by flawed secularism (her words) meant, as Slawok’s review puts it, overturning several assumptions about the history of Indian music: that musicians enjoyed favours and an easy environment in regional courts, that Indian music had an uninterrupted history from pre-Islamic times to the present and that Indian music was relatively untouched by the colonial interlude. Although Slawok does not see parts of this interrogation as entirely consequential, I would argue that what Bakhle does is important for understanding key aspects of the prehistory of modern classical music as it developed in the context of regional court politics especially of the later Maratha variety. The half century of transition exercised very profound changes and produced a particular mode of self-reflexivity on the part of multiple agents (musician, ruler, publicist), a hybridised sensibility drawing from different elements is a story that affected music as it did other domains of cultural production and practice. Whether musicians did better in other courts than they did in Baroda (the case she takes up) is beside the point – that the new elites and rulers of courts such as Mysore and Baroda engaged and participated in a changing world of ideas, in tentative cultural agendas which had implications for traditional practitioners and for new consumers is what marks out the history of late colonialism in India. While her impatience with ethno-musicological approaches is exaggerated and her wish list for a secularised music is unrealistic, the critical appraisal of Hindu nationalism and of Hindu inflected histories is not to be discounted. Also, while it is important not to exaggerate the divided nature of the practice of music or its public location – or indeed to overstate either the calculations of individuals like Bhatkhande or the abject dependence of Muslim Ustads, it is useful (even salutary) to revisit regional court histories to be able to reflect on the changing context in which practitioners were compelled to look at their own inheritance on the one hand and publicists who chose to represent that inheritance on the other.
In the case of southern India, the new histories have undertaken an exploration of the links between nationalism and music, mediated largely through the self-styled patron and connoisseur whose responsibility it was to not merely listen self-consciously but to capture that ineffable sense of affect and translate it into modern expressions of criticism and aesthetics. Without denying music’s historic links and context, the new histories preferred to focus quite centrally on the staging of the classical as a canon and as a performance style. My own writings argued that it was intimately connected with the existential anxieties of new middle class (in the case of southern India upper-caste and Brahmin) connoisseurs most of whom had definite recall of hearing music as part of ritual and marriages in the districts they came from and who were trying to integrate the practice into a new milieu that threw up its own set of problems. What has been fore-grounded in my work has been the self-conscious projection of the listening subject who articulated the aesthetic and also spearheaded reform and reinvented a tradition within an institutional framework provided by the Madras Music Academy. The academy represented the collective conscience of the new listening public and intervened to give formal shape to a classical style based on newly conceived aesthetics and on a repertoire of compositions singled out as the most authentic and most amenable to the exercise of transmission. Thus there was, in my work, a tacit endorsement of the immense significance of older cultural production especially of composers (and especially the Trinity) of the eighteenth century whose work came to be subsequently consolidated through a lineage of disciples and transmitted through technologies of print and pedagogy. On the other hand, Weidman argued that the elevation of the Trinity was the product of bourgeois anxiety of new city-based middle class patrons and the very act of staging the classical was a complex outcome of the encounter between colonial modernity and indigenous adaptation. Both works identified the key features of the new aesthetics – the primacy of bhava and virtuosity that had to be disseminated through an appropriate repertoire. Pedagogy was at the back of the new project – music was seen as a tool for regeneration – it had to be part of the new enthusiasm for education – educating both a large community of disciplined listeners as well as budding performers. In developing a classical format the music that was selected for social engineering and categorization belonged predictably to the non-temple ritual music domain – it was squarely drawn from those genres that had been used as court performance genres and subsequently adapted and showcased for urban concerts. The demarcation of Carnatic music as urban sabha music meant a very definite severing of its older linkages with ritual or periamelam music although we have instances of later and retrospective nostalgia for this expressed by performers and publicists alike.
The merits of such analyses have been identified largely in the plausibility of studying aural practices in modern India through adopting historical methods that tease out the social context in which musical practices and forms underwent important processes of transformation and by exploring the larger theoretical issues of archivization and methodology. In claiming the aural field as a legitimate source of historical investigation there has been a fruitful dialogue with ethnography, anthropology and cultural studies to reflect on social context and constituency of performance, the limits of language in speaking about music and its aesthetics, the construction and contestation of taste and to a lesser extent on what moves the new histories. All of this is ultimately a concern with the political – with the politics of performance and with the question of problematizing the relationship of an aesthetic practice such as music with that of representation. The focus on gender and power relations in prefiguring notions of the idealised voice enabled the new histories to study social change and attitudes through the lens of music and performance. Where the studies appear to fall short are more in the realm of the subjectivity of performers, of changing notions of classicism and spirituality, their changing cadences and of the important intersections of technology, market and aesthetics especially in the post-national period. It is here that some significant interventions are being made to go past the reinvention of tradition framework or the postcolonial anxiety about Orientalism and its legacies. Two major trends seem to be emerging in the field of music related studies in India; one trend relates to the study of non-hereditary performers and the redefinition of the canon and related categories in a changing social context and the other trend relates to the assertion of individual styles and regional/local musical identities and their politics.
Some of these new writings take their cue from interdisciplinary approaches which may be seen as basic fodder for new cultural history and musicology. To that extent, the advances in historical musicology would form part of the same tendency thereby making recent writings (Katherine Schofield, Richard Widdess, Peter Manuel, James Kippen, Wim van der Meer et al) part of cultural history’s mandate. Exploring the emergence of Medieval genres and compositions, locating their practitioners within a social context, exploring relations between aesthetics and politics and reflecting on archives, orality and discourse are features of this project making the boundary between history and historical/cultural musicology fuzzy. The fuzziness is, however, productive as it helps highlight the social dynamics of the art form and revisits the old and hackneyed question of politics and culture in creative ways. Among the most significant interventions of this turn has been a heightened appreciation of the Indo-Islamic interregnum in music’s history adding a valuable piece of insight into the general understanding of politics and aesthetics in late Mughal and early colonial India: the importance of studying available texts of the late 19th and 20th century by practitioners, reviewing the work of modern institutional spaces of performance and pedagogy, and addressing the issue of non-hereditary performers. There has also been a growing interest in developing a regional history of music – the lives of individual musicians and their contributions to developing individual styles and aesthetics in the context of a changing cultural publics especially in Bengal and western India.
What do these shifts represent? For one, they enable a better conceptualisation of categories like spiritualism and individuality, subjectivity and aesthetics as well as a more detailed understanding of the pre-colonial history of Indian music practices. That the idea of the spiritual in Indian music has had a changing history, that it accommodates different cadences and has to be seen through multiple registers of aesthetics, politics and political culture is now established just as the myth of the Mughal establishment under Aurangzeb as being anti-music has been effaced. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that to argue for, as Bakhle did, a construction of a classical music free of religious associations would amount to an arbitrary erasure of history which would ultimately do injustice to the historical development of Indian music– its ideology as well as its form. The fact that practitioners claimed and lived out multiple identities that were not easily encapsulated under modern categories is a welcome reminder and alerts us to the possibilities of excavating the complex and intermeshed skeins of musical discourse and experience. At the same time, the materiality of performance and political contexts after independence urges us to look for part two of the invented tradition and classicism story.
New Questions: New methodologies
Taking a leaf from a recent work by Anthony Copley, I will suggest that we are ready for framing a set of new questions that will put the focus back on performers and performance. Much of the work done so far has enabled us to discount the careless use of categories such as spirituality of Indian music and or of communalism and flawed secularism, to encourage a closer understanding of the actual dynamics of cultural practice within a changing political context. These works have been important and must be acknowledged. They have also demonstrated the value of an inter-disciplinary methodology using field work, oral testimonies and written archival material to deconstruct the actual history and sociology of music and performance. Davesh Soneji’s work, for example, challenges conventional understandings of devadasis and their dance histories and illustrates the utility of adopting the archival trail for exploring a cultural history of salon dance and music in 19th century Madras, but without forsaking the ethnographic mode. In his words, ‘the second half of Unfinished gestures thus challenges us to dwell on the borderline between the embodied present and the historicised past and to oscillate between the two’. What remains important, therefore, is to explore the question of the subjectivity of performers, musicians and writers about aesthetics as embedded in performance and pedagogy. The experience of music making, the meanings attached to it, personal experiences and responses to actual politics and the articulation of individual styles remain important issues that would lend greater weight to categories such as spirituality, art’s autonomy and their relation to politics and power. The scepticism that we experience when it comes to speaking about the spirituality of Indian music partly because of Orientalism’s long shadow and partly because it offers no real explanatory value needs to be problematized. This can be done only by looking at actual musical production –past and present and by remaining sensitive to the lexical markers of aesthetic discourse or ethnographic production. Looking more closely at the lives of musicians in post independent India, the articulation of their individual styles and subjective perceptions within a material context of teaching and performance, we may need to understand differently the idea of the spiritual as a deeply subjective experience. This would require revisiting reminiscences and memoirs, written or oral testimonies as well as older musical biographies to go past the invention of tradition framework to consider issues of improvisation and creativity. Equally important would be to investigate the making of the classical-popular divide particularly rampant in the representation of music in southern India, where the politics of language and caste lent a very specific, even skewed perspective on art’s relation to politics.
Some of the new work by younger scholars is an attempt in this direction. There is a close engagement with institutional history of teaching academies and with the articulation of regional styles and claims to a new version of classicism and tradition. Sagnik Atharthi working on what he calls the Bengal subdominant looks at the work of instrumentalists such as Nikhil Bannerjee and Radhika Mohan Maitra to make a case for an alternative history of music and the cultural publics in Bengal, for the idea of the spiritual as constituting a deeply subjectivised experience in a new context. Aditi Deo’s work looks at non-hereditary performers and the ways in which idioms and meanings of Khyal are constructed through reality TV shows to make a strong case for mediations in the market and technology which create a new understanding of music and performance. We have Urmila Bhirdikar’s work on the travels of North Indian musi, on female impersonation and the sangeet natak all of which presents us with newer insights into modernity and the social experience of Maharashtra. More recently, we have work on dalit performance with a sharp political edge (Zoe Sherinian) that underscores the importance of locating the political in the cultural and which to me remains the most significant element in the new cultural history project.
All this is not to make an exclusive case for contemporary history of classical music, but merely to urge a refining of the older paradigm that postcolonial studies of nationalism and modernity have engendered. I would, in fact, argue that by focusing less on late 19th and twentieth century nationalist ideology and its very specific appropriation of history and culture and more on the actual history of regions and regional developments, one can appraise social relations and cultural production in a more layered fashion that would permit multiple readings of texts as of the materiality of musical performance. Without falling into the colonial logic of representation, a more neutral scrutiny of the legacy of Maratha imperialism and its consequences for cultural, especially musical practice, would open up the story of migration and mobility, improvisation and accumulation of cultural resources that facilitated aesthetic experiments whose dimensions were often flattened out by the hegemony of orientalist assertions, nationalist mimicry and postcolonial anxieties. This is certainly true for southern India where there has been an over-emphasis on either excavating the historical roots of Tamil separateness and its irreconcilability with classical music or on the historical fissures underwriting the colonial modern project of music and dance. While these points of emphases have produced important scholarship there are new questions to be asked, and as Soneji illustrates in his book Unfinished Gestures, we need to look at both the afterlives of marginalised communities as well as to think more creatively about the links between memory, politics and testimony. In other words, how does one write a history of personal musical values and experience? What constitutes the archive and what are the reading and hearing techniques we can adopt? It is in this context that I will allude to the life and work of K. B. Sundarambal to look at how she, and women in general, cope with spaces of political, social and cultural control to further the debates we have had on the notion of an ideal singing voice, of the boundaries of classicism and the apparent divergence between Carnatic music and Tamil Isai. It is also my contention that by examining actual compositions and the changes that they have accommodated in their form and interpretation, we will be recuperating the political and agential even as we do cultural history.
K. B. Sundarambal: the voice of Tamil Isai?
A few words by way of introducing the Tamil Isai or the music revival movement of the 1940’s may be in order here. The movement definitely posed an explicit challenge to the classical tradition as it was put together by the Madras elite and cognoscenti in collaboration with a certain strata of musicians. In doing this, it provided an important platform for singers like Sundarambal to perform and negotiate with the competitive world of musical entertainment and destabilise notions of classical and popular as well as ideal singing vocal types. I argue that examining the movement, especially in connection with individual singers, significantly foregrounds the question of choice, of politics and its close relationship with culture and aesthetic. The choice of a singer like Sundarambal on the other hand is guided by consideration of the relative merits of a biographical approach in understanding the issue of subjectivity in music and of working with an unconventional archive made up by reminiscences and later day retrospection including commissioned films.
The Tamil Music Movement was an extension of the politics of language devotion in southern India sponsored largely by Raja Annamalai Chettiar and his associates whose investment in Tamil language promotion did not inevitably merge with the politics of Non-Brahmanism. It was more directly connected with the passion for Tamil language and scholarship, Saiva Siddhanta philosophy around which an affective community of listeners and speakers had converged and who in the process questioned some of the bases on which the Carnatic classical style had been constituted. Here the repertoire came under some scrutiny as its advocates argued that singing in the mother tongue was the only effective way of communicating with the listeners and interpreting the fullest potential of the songs in question. Without discounting the importance of the compositions of the Trinity (in Telugu) the protagonists of Tamil Isai nevertheless insisted that Tamil compositions were there to be retrieved and promoted. This produced a search for Tamil compositions – old and new – as well as a new discourse on the authentic register which involved an informed enunciation of the song texts combined with a spontaneous voice that could carry the affective potential of Tamil song. Both the demand for Tamil songs and the conditions in which this was articulated coincided with and was a consequence of the growing musical entertainment industry in the Tamil country – referred to by Hughes as the music boom. Among the consequences of the music boom was an extended soundscape, the circulation of melodies and songs and opportunities for young singers to perform on the stage and with that a constant negotiation between ideals of classicism and ideas of popular entertainment. To sing in Tamil was more than simply singing in one’s mother tongue giving facility to the singer and the listener; singing in Tamil was also to begin engaging with a new conception of voice and vocal range, spontaneity of diction and enunciation and of total immersion in the language of lyrics.
What meanings did Tamil Isai carry for artists? What did it mean for them to sing in tamil? Did it reflect among other things affiliation with a particular politics? What kind of networks of patronage, learning and socialization did Tamil Isai provide for performers? Did the movement eventually split the artistic community? These are some questions that we could address effectively in the context of Sundarambal’s life, one which did not follow the same trajectory as that of others from hereditary performing communities.
Writings on Tamil Isai have emphasized the complex range of responses it drew from its publicists and artists who chose either to endorse its ideals or to resist its politics. On the other hand, in terms of framing its project for excavating the historic origins of Tamil music, or of fixing its repertoire of songs and pans (melodies) and standardizing it, Tamil Isai followed the same methodology of the Madras Academy and relied on the ‘expert opinions’ of senior musicians and musicologists. At the same time, several among the latter participated creatively in the Tamil Isai project as they set compositions to tune, integrated several into the more standard Carnatic concert structure and continued to perform in multiple spaces. Women musicians set the trend in this aspect – we have instances of singers from hereditary backgrounds – Periya Nayaki, Enadi sisters, Salem Papa et al, even as others from similar backgrounds continued to stay away from excessive commercialisation and to refine their aesthetics which were preserved like a family heirloom. Owing to this, writings on women musicians and on the female voice have tended by and large to focus on their marginalisation from mainstream discourse and/or on their artistic expression in the context of very particular modes of patronage and ethnography which developed therein a narrative of exceptionalism.
The case of Sundarambal offers a very different set of possibilities. Not that her life and work was not closed to appropriation or that retrospective commemoration (commissioned films, book etc) did not see her musical life in very particular ways. Yet these do offer possibilities of reading along the grain to reflect on the changing context of performance in small towns in southern India, the nature of patronage and musical sociability, the materiality of performance in an age of expanding theatre and cinema, and how the field of the ‘popular-aural’ was consolidated and separated quite rigorously from the classical. It is here I suggest that Tamil Isai had its logical constituency intersected and formed decisively in the consolidation of an aesthetic and popular taste. This was devotional music but with a wider public range that went beyond the temple and the private listening space to that of drama and cinema: experimenting with sonic repertoire but remaining committed to the exultation of the Tamil language and to the possibility of staking a Tamil variant of the classical. Not only did early films play with this idea, but in terms of melodic and artistic expression, there were definite negotiations between what constituted sampradaya sangeetam and what constituted the more accessible realm of musical affinity and affect.
What was Sundarambal’s role in Tamil Isai? For one, she emerged primarily as a stage singer taking on male roles but her natural talent was something that everyone appears to have acknowledged. Recall how stalwarts of her times were mesmerized with her flawless voice that did not betray the slightest quiver and how many of them admitted that they felt secure principally because she had chosen the stage and not the kaccheri or public concert. She seemed reluctant to render concerts although when she did in Madras under the auspices of the Rasika Ranjana Sabha a noted litterateur and critic, Kalki, noted how effortlessly she sang and how the very parameters of classicism needed to be revised. Ironically, when she did sing for the official Tamil Isai concerts and chose an exclusive Tamil repertoire, latter day publicists insisted that her understanding of telugu compositions was no less impressive, betraying thereby the acknowledgement of the mainstream classical style and repertoire. Sundarambal was an artist, and she felt especially comfortable singing Tamil devotional songs that were raga based and required impeccable diction. Still, neither did her espousal of Tamil Isai translate into anti-Congress politics. Her personal and musical choices therefore need greater understanding which raises the contested issue of ‘spirituality’ in Indian music.
Born to a poor family, Sundarambal was blessed with a powerful voice and a musical memory that impressed local residents, the more affluent of whom even extended financial support from time to time. Talent and a streak of adventure prompted young Sundaram to perform as substitute actress in locally staged plays and to subsequently leave for Madras to take part in a drama troupe. Her initial days in the city were hardly all sunshine – the new patron iterated her as an unwanted domestic help even while creaming off the money she earned as a small time actress in the stage. Her powerful voice and vocal range made her very quickly a sought after artist, travelling both within southern India and outside, especially Ceylon and Malaya. Her encounter and subsequent emotional relationship with Kitappa (the silver star of the Tamil stage) was responsible for a winning combination bringing her accolades and honours. What was especially remarkable about her was the quality of her voice and how quickly it became emblematic of a Tamil musical idiom that was distinct and special relying on a notion of clear enunciation. The fact that she chose to don roles such as the legendary Tamil woman seer Avvai, chose to sing and extol Tamil in films that played around the theme of Tamil Isai and devotion created a very different understanding of the female voice and a parallel history of taste not entirely constituted by the discourse of classicism. Admittedly this music was not part of the ‘classical’ as understood in terms of repertoire or style, but it definitely owed its inspiration to the larger sound-scape of which Sundaramabal was a part of. What is striking is the way Tamil Isai in its conceptual intention and in its sonic manifestation found the perfect conduit in Sundarambal whose voice conveyed the power of spontaneous devotion and of the dense lyrics of Tamil poetry not so easily amenable to a strict Carnatic format. For the artist herself, the identification with Tamil music, with her lover/husband and with the nation seems to have been intense lending a very distinct dimension to her persona. Therefore, to reduce K. B. Sundaramabal to the status of a mere mouthpiece for Tamil Isai propaganda would be to do injustice to a woman whose responses to life, love and labour were extremely sensitive, individuated and complex. Her facility and talent, her immersion in singing and her joy in sharing the stage with Kitappa and then in playing very specific roles in film have to be seen as a deeply individual choices which happened to have the potential for retrospective celebration.
Without going into the politics of representation, let me suggest that what even retrospective accounts hold for us in drawing out the elements that made up the older musical landscape in southern India are the everyday practices of musicking- not confined to big cities and towns but to a range of establishments that included individual patrons, mathas and princely courts. These practices were the creation of an identifiable taste for Tamil music in the public (consolidated especially by musical theatre and film) which manufactured its own version of classicism by playing with ideas of a strong vocal expression, spontaneous singing, and perfect diction as well as relying on the active participation of performers in the creative side of Tamil Isai’s project. This was not necessarily a political choice- Sundarambal remained an ardent enthusiast for Congress politics, made over substantial assets and donations to the party and remained very much a staunch nationalist. Her decisions not to sing on stage after the demise of Kitappa or to take up certain kinds of roles were personal choices, yet she was able to pour into them a certain artistic conception of what music and devotion was. It is more than likely, as Soneji suggests, that artistic expression was a deeply needed strategy to make sense of the present, and that it is only by looking at performed subjectivity that we can even aspire to recover that aural trace to make sense for ourselves of music as both an everyday practice and as an esoteric pursuit whose language still remains incomprehensible to the modern subject.