Book Review: "Musicking Bodies: Gesture and Voice in Hindustani Music" by Matthew Rahaim

Musicking Bodies: Gesture and Voice in Hindustani MusicBy Matthew Rahaim. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012. [xvii, 182 p. ISBN 9780819573261. $24.95.]

Reviewed by Nadia Chana

As the title indicates, this skillful and interdisciplinary book takes an embodied approach to a subject that has long been left out of music-theoretical studies of Hindustani music: non-codified, spontaneous gesture. Drawing on a decade of fieldwork and training in Hindustani music, Rahaim focuses specifically on improvisatory performances (primarily in khyal) of musicians who belong to the lineage of either Gajanan Rao Joshi or Jitendra Abhisheki, two teachers who diverge sharply in gestural and vocal styles. From this tangible bedrock, Rahaim sets out to show that melody in Hindustani music is not simply sound, a result of vocal action. Rather, it is an intertwining of both vocal and gestural action that is rooted in the musicking body, which, in Rahaim’s conception, is “a trained body in action, engaged mindfully in singing and/or playing an instrument” (143). Unlike Christopher Small, Rahaim does not include listeners in his definition of the musicking body (Small 2011).

Musicking Bodies hails from several lineages, building on historiographies of Indian music and dance reform in the twentieth century (Quinn 1982; Subramanian 2006; Soneji 2012), engaging with the work of dance ethnographers and others involved with embodied ethics (Hahn 2007; Hirschkind 2006; Wulff 2006), and joining the burgeoning ethnographic literature on bodily practices (Blacking 1977; Csordas 1990) and physicality in musical practices (Baily 2006; DeWitt 2003; Godøy and Leman 2010; Gritten and King 2011; Le Guin 2006). Closer to a geographic home, it draws on work on “the bodily action of Indian musicians” (11) (Clayton 2007; Leante 2009; Neuman 2004; Tzanetakis et al. 2007). Rahaim writes with an attunement to the field of gesture studies (Calbris 1990; Kendon 2004; McNeill 2005), and takes a strongly phenomenological approach to “the musical life of the body” (12) (Husserl 1964 [1928]; Merleau-Ponty 2002 [1945]).

The result is a book that focuses on the live and musicking body, and on cultivating an understanding of such in the reader rather than on constructing a rigid map of an unchanging relationship of gesture to voice. Drawing on his own experiences as a student of Hindustani music, Rahaim provides ethnographic descriptions that invoke the sensing body. He relates, for example, how he struggled to understand melodic trajectories until, after practicing for months with his eyes closed, he finally opened his eyes and noticed that the curves that his teacher was making with his hands were the curves of the vocal melody (35). Similarly, he describes a student who, transcribing music at a concert, paused every once in a while to trace with her hands the shapes of particularly difficult phrases in order to decipher the note names (33). Fittingly, much the same way as a music teacher repeats the same concept in many different situations, Rahaim skillfully recalls us again and again to the musicking body, teaching us through repetition a different way of seeing. The project is a difficult one, and the risk is that readers more keen to categorize rather than to practice might mistake these reminders for redundancy, though they are an integral part of Rahaim’s theoretical, body-centered framework.

Rahaim is careful to point out that chapters address interconnected aspects of performance that have been somewhat artificially taken apart for us to look at, much the same way that students “may split a melody into discrete notes” in order better to understand it (13-14). In this way, each of the six chapters provides a different angle on gesture. First, he provides a history of movement and singing in India, constructing a genealogy for the current negative views of gesture (Chapter 1). He then looks at gesture as melodic motion (Chapter 2) in space (Chapter 3) and in time (Chapter 4) before closing the (what he would argue is artificial) separation of gesture and voice in his discussion of the musicking body (Chapter 5). He ends with a discussion both of how the musicking body is inculcated and of the ethical implications of this inculcation (Chapter 6).

Chapter 1 is particularly valuable for its insightful way of mapping the history of the split between body and voice that was exacerbated in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. Dance and music diverged as singing became a respectable activity for middleclass women who did not want to be associated with courtesans who traditionally both sang and danced, while gestures became small so as not to attract attention to the body. Music theorists such as Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande began to write about Indian music in a way that omitted gesture, thus aligning themselves with European traditions, which were particularly influential under colonial rule. The invention of the phonograph provided readily available musical experiences in which voices were severed from bodies. The introduction explores these developments and serves the further purpose of convincing the reader to trust Rahaim in his undertaking despite those who have denied gesture’s importance.

Chapter 2 provides a well-constructed argument for the view of gesture as melodic motion. Rahaim begins by looking at two models of understanding melody in India: music as motion and music as a sequence of notes. He provides ethnographic evidence for how musicians think in these two ways, showing that the two models of understanding are connected. This allows him to introduce gesture as a way of articulating melody as motion. One of the many strengths of this book is that it does not try to construe the relationship of melody to gesture as a rigid 1:1 mapping. Rahaim instead both insists and illustrates that the “logics that link vocalization and gesture are temporary and contingent, not deterministic” (39). Understandably, he is interested in the point of view of a musicking body, not of a detached observer who wants to quantify a static relationship: it is enough to admit that vocalization and gesture are related and to trace examples of that relationship, as he himself does not only throughout the chapter, but throughout the book. Consistent with this view, Rahaim cautions against thinking in a way that is biologically deterministic or emphasizing the ways in which our joints predetermine gestures, suggesting instead that we look at the loops and curves singers trace in the air as they sing as serving a purpose. After all, we do not emphasize how the choices we make while singing are constrained by the human larynx (43). He stresses also that although gesture and vocalization coexist, gesture is not a representation of vocalization, and neither is redundant; they are concurrent articulations of melody (50-52).

Having established that gesture and singing occupy parallel channels of melody, Rahaim contextualizes melodic motion by theorizing its space in the context of Hindustani music: raga (Chapter 3). In doing so, he offers a complementary view to the traditional view of ragas as grammars that organize notes. He elaborates on the idea of the temporary and contingent, illustrating, particularly through his discussion of catchphrases, how gestures work to articulate raga space. Though raga space, unlike “normative” space, appears in performance, it too is palpable and intersubjective. Singers, therefore, have an ethical responsibility to the audience to hold open this space and to maintain its character and pathways: “Just as one walks and talks differently in a mosque than in a crowded bazaar, raga spaces call for different gaits, tones of voice, and gestural bearings” (58). This chapter contains some of the most beautiful metaphors and lyrical writing in the book, as well as an excellent explanation of raga. Though thoroughly appealing to those familiar with Hindustani music, it could also easily serve in isolation as an engaging introduction to raga for new students, especially as Rahaim avoids rough translations of Hindustani terms into Western ones, defining them instead in their own contexts.

Rahaim takes a similar approach to the concept of time (Chapter 4) as he does with the concept of melody, offering an explanation of tala and theorizing how gesture works to articulate phrasing. It is in this chapter, too, that after having been focused previously only on musicking bodies, Rahaim broadens the discussion to include listeners, maintaining that “the musicking body of a performer may serve as a model of temporal awareness for others” (83). Just as it is the musician’s responsibility to respect and maintain raga space, it is also the musician’s responsibility to maintain flow for the audience.

While the previous chapters look at voice and gesture as two separate entities that are intertwined, Chapter 5 brings them back together through the musicking body, a concept that acknowledges no separation of voice and gesture. It is this chapter that most rigorously breaks down the illusion of a material body and an immaterial voice: the musicking body is something that is not reducible to flesh and bone, and vocalization is not reducible to a system of signs or disembodied sounds. In fact, though the musicking body is visible, it appears only during musicking; it is a completely different way of moving and being in the world. Similarly, though the movements of the larynx are not immediately visible to us, vocalization is an act that is firmly rooted in the body. This elegant and persuasive argument, one of the highlights of the book, is particularly relevant to scholars involved in any capacity with embodied ways of knowing. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to discussion of posture, handshape, grip, virtual objects, and stances in relation to the music.

The final chapter, like the first, provides another way of looking at gesture situated in history. However, while the first focuses primarily on historical movements, Chapter 6 takes a body-oriented approach. Looking at transmission from teachers to students, Rahaim examines what he calls the paramparic body, a term that derives from “parampara” or a lineage formed from a chain of teacher student relationships, and which refers to the trained musicking body which bears the marks of a lineage and of other bodies as a result of its training. He thereby once again expands his discussion to include bodies in relationship with other bodies. As he examines the habits that a body learns from hours spent in front of a teacher’s musicking body, Rahaim positions the imbibing of these habits not as a force that simply infiltrates the helpless body, but rather as a process in which an element of choice is involved. In so doing, he generously affirms individual agency while acknowledging the power of relationships and context. In this chapter, Rahaim takes his investigation of sociality a step further by addressing ethics, work that promises to grow into his next book project on vocal production in India.

Throughout the book, Rahaim provides detailed ethnographic examples that anchor his exciting and vast ideas. Ethnographic vignettes at the beginning of each chapter ground readers in the world to which he attends, while ethnographic descriptions support theoretical arguments in the body of the text. In general this is a well-organized book, with detailed roadmaps about how it proceeds and chapters that can be read separately from each other as well as consecutively. Rahaim is also very clear about how his images function, but while the images, including both drawings and video stills, might make intuitive sense to someone who has watched a lot of Hindustani music performances, readers less familiar with Hindustani traditions might find them difficult to interpret. To this end, an accompanying DVD or website would be very useful.

Though Rahaim smooths out messy spaces between dichotomies of subjective/objective, body/mind, and flesh/form with great sensitivity and without reductionism, the text reads so seamlessly that it can be easy to overlook some of the contradictions and complexities that mark this investigation. For example, there are complications involved not only in dismantling the pairing of subjectivity with hiddenness and objectivity with visibility, as Rahaim does eloquently in the introduction, but even in contextualizing the original problematic pairing: for whom are these elements paired, and why? (9) On the other hand, Rahaim’s ability to maintain momentum, addressing only a few of the contradictions and complexities, functions as a strength of this work, which is, as a result, highly readable. Finally, since there is only so much space in one book, Musicking Bodies leaves room for future work that wrestles not only with more of these contradictions and complexities, but that takes a more explicit approach to them. Another avenue it leaves open for investigation is gesture’s relation to gender, which Rahaim has only a brief chance to explore in the first chapter.

Musicking Bodies is rooted in a specific geography and context, but it emerges at the confluence of many fields and speaks to just as many. It is what ethnographic work strives to be: a significant contribution through a localized area. It is also empathetic: Rahaim patiently and generously teaches us a way of knowing that might not be familiar to us, listening not just to words, histories, and symbols, but to bodies and aliveness. In sum, Musicking Bodies is an essential read for any scholar of Hindustani vocal music, and highly useful to scholars of dance, performance studies, gesture studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology of the body, and ethics – in short to anyone to whom the last sentence speaks: “No body, after all, moves in a vacuum; no body learns to be itself by itself. Every body, whether speaking, singing, or silent, has a parampara” (134).


Baily, John. 2006. “John Blacking and the Human/Instrument Interface: Two Plucked Lutes from Afghanistan.” In The Musical Human, edited by Suzel Reily. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Blacking, John. 1977. “Towards an Anthropology of the Body.” In The Anthropology of the Body, edited by John Blacking, 1–28. Association of Social Anthropologists Monograph Series 15. London: Academic Press.

Calbris, Geneviève. 1990. The Semiotics of French Gestures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Clayton, Martin. 2001. Time in Indian Music: Rhythm, Metre, and Form in North Indian Rag Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Csordas, Thomas. 1990. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18(1): 5–47.

DeWitt, Mark. 2003. “The Diatonic Button Accordion in Ethnic Context: Idiom and Style in Cajun Dance Music.” Popular Music and Society 26(3): 305–330.

Godøy, Rolf Inge, and Marc Leman, eds. 2010. Musical Gesture: Sound, Movement, and Meaning. New York: Routledge.

Gritten, Anthony, and Elaine King, eds. 2011. New Perspectives on Music and Gesture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Hirschkind, Charles. 2009. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1964. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kendon, Adam. 2004. Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leante, Laura. 2009. “The Lotus and the King: Imagery, Gesture and Meaning in a Hindustani Rag.” Ethnomusicology Forum 18(2): 185-206.

Le Guin, Elisabeth. 2005. Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McNeill, David. 1992. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. London and New York: Routledge.

Neuman, Dard Abraham. 2004. “A House of Music: The Hindustani Musician and the Crafting of Traditions.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Quinn, Jennifer Post. 1982. “Marathi and Konkani Speaking Women in Hindustani Music, 1880-1940.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota.

Small, Christopher. 2011. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Soneji, Davesh. 2012. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Subramanian, Lakshmi. 2011. From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Tzanetakis, George, et al. 2007. “Computational Ethnomusicology.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies 1(2): 1–24, art. #071201.

Wulff, Helena. 2006. “Experiencing the Ballet Body: Pleasure, Pain, Power.” In The Musical Human, edited by Suzel Reily. Aldershot: Ashgate.


"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.