Daily O

How I discovered Karnatik music is caged by caste

[Book extract] With art becoming an agent for social organisation, the artist is nothing but a pawn.

Social and cultural markers are drafted into every art form’s internal structure. In every aspect of art, from learning to performing, they are passed on from generation to generation. Control systems are not external pressures; they are devised into the art and, through stories, images, presentations and performances, internalised by everyone who belongs.

Let me speak from personal experience. I am a Brahmin and therefore a lot of what I received in music class, at Karnatik concerts and in conversations was only an extension of what I believed to be “normal” culture. It was only in retrospect that I identified these as methods of indoctrination. Those who propagate these beliefs are not conniving or manipulating; they are just convinced that this is how it should be.

A Karnatik music class is not a place for musical exchange alone. It is a cultural space, a caste-specific cultural space. From the way students are expected to dress to the pictures that decorate the walls, the environment informs you of what is the norm. Girls almost always had to be dressed in salwar-kameez or what we call pavadai-davani (half-saree) in south India. There was no question of any other attire as far as girls were concerned but teenage boys could, of course, get away with jeans or even shorts. I also know of some (rare) teachers who insist that boys, too, have to be dressed in dhotis. The pottu (bindi) is an absolute must. If not worn, the girl may be handed one by a friend or the music class would be converted to an “our culture” class. This is exactly how Hindu boys and girls are expected to dress when they enter temples. Now, all this has very little to do with music but is bundled in as a show of respect for the music. Karnatik music is, in their minds, Hindu — Brahmin — music! The classroom walls will not only have pictures of the great composers, but important Hindu deities too keep watch over us. I have never seen Hindu gods or goddesses such as Mariamman (a non-upper caste goddess) find a place in a Karnatik music classroom.

tm krishna insideTM Krishna (Courtesy: TM)

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