Book Review: "Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance and Nationalism"

Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance and Nationalism. Anna C. Schultz. 2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press [xii, 231 p. ISBN 9780199730834, $22.] Photographs, bibliography, index, music examples on companion web site.

While living in Pune, Maharashtra as a student of Hindustani classical music, I was consistently baffled by the religio-political atmosphere of the region. The middle-class musicians I worked with criticized Hindu right wing political parties, but generally advocated a very Hindu, perhaps even implicitly Hindu nationalist discourse of Hindustani music. The public demonstrations held by Hindu fundamentalist parties, in which street mobs danced to religious music blasted from truck-mounted speakers, initially seemed ideologically uncomplicated until I realized that these mobs comprised individuals, each with his own interest in religious music. One participant might support the sponsoring parties’ exclusive nationalism, while another may feel a pride for his country or religion that accepted other religious and ethnic groups. Still others, and perhaps the majority, might simply enjoy the music and dance as a diversion from a day of hard labor. At the time I lacked the political or theoretical capacity to develop any kind of descriptive model for what I experienced, but it was clear that Maharashtra’s nationalism defied the binary of religious-conservative vs. secular-liberal that American politics had conditioned me to expect.

Anna Schultz’s Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance and Nationalism describes the nationalism expressed and disseminated musically through nāradīya kīrtan. Kīrtan is a pan-Indian term which may refer to a number of religious song genres. The most popular Maharashtrian devotional genre, vārkarī kīrtan, is largely participatory and is ideologically egalitarian; its saint-pantheon and performer base consist largely of dalits or “untouchables.” By contrast, nāradīya kīrtan involves little audience participation, focusing instead on a virtuosic solo performer who is usually an upper-caste Chitpavan Brahmin. Schultz describes implicit and explicit political discourse in nāradīya kīrtan performance, and its sub-genre, rāstrīya (nationalist) kīrtan. Recognizing the important work done globally on musicians who challenge the status quo, Schultz asserts the importance of studying musicians who seek to maintain the status quo as well. She explores religious conceptions of “nation” presented by kīrtankārs (kīrtan performers). Her stated goals are 1) to demonstrate how nationalism is expressed through regional perspectives and idioms, and 2) to reveal the highly regional, and at times even regionally exclusive, nature of nationalism in India. Singing a Hindu Nation is divided into three sections; the first two are historical while the third analyzes contemporary kīrtan performance.

The first section (chapters 2 and 3) tells the story of nāradīya kīrtan before Indian independence in 1947, beginning with its development into a distinct genre during the 19th century. Schultz demonstrates how mainstream nationalist movements attempted to co-opt kirtan performances for their agendas, and how the kīrtankārs resisted such attempts. During the independence struggle, middle-class elite leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw kīrtan as a potential vehicle for mainstream politics and attempted to modernize kīrtan for the educated middle-class that spear-headed India’s nationalist movement. However, many kīrtankārs had their own vision of a Hindu nation which resisted modernity. Some supported or even deified independence activists (including Tilak, Gandhi, and Savarkar), while others rejected them, advocating ancient scriptural ideals and a Brahmanical Hindu society. The history of rāstrīya kīrtan is told here largely through descriptions of individual kīrtankārs. While Schultz does argue for ideological trends within the genre, she also demonstrates the diversity of individual artists’ political motivations and messages. Admirably, she does not shy away from including the messages of artists whose political ideologies dissent from her broader conclusions about rāstrīya kīrtan.

The second section (chapters 4 and 5) describing the transition of rāstrīya kīrtan through Indian independence. Indian nationalism, which had been defined in parallel with Indian independence from British rule, was forced to redefine itself.  Many rāstrīya kīrtankārs saw their goals fulfilled with Indian self-rule, and retreated from politics entirely, singing purely religious kīrtan. Additionally, radical exclusionist strains of nationalism were emerging which defined themselves in opposition to Islam’s perceived ongoing invasion of India. Much of the Indian middle class was shocked away from such nationalism when Chitpavan Brahmin nationalists assassinated Gandhi in 1949. Those who continued to sing rāstrīya kīrtan were therefore catering to smaller and more radical audiences. Schultz again recounts the performance styles of individual artists who incorporate politics into their kīrtan performance, emphasizing the transition from advocacy of self-rule (svarāj) to advocacy of “good rule” (surāj). Accordingly, some rāstrīya kīrtankārs supported state agendas such as family planning and elimination of caste prejudice. Others denounced the “weak” Nehruvian social state, championing “strong” nationalists such as Vallabhai Patel. Through these individual accounts, Schultz once again effectively traces the general direction of rāstrīya kīrtan without suppressing the creative and ideological agency of the kirtankārs performing within the genre.

In the book’s third section we arrive at the present day, and readers experience the performance of rāstrīya kīrtan through detailed description and analysis. Here Schultz demonstrates the range of techniques used by kirtankārs to influence their audiences through musical performance. She uses sound recordings very effectively to map out kīrtan performance structure, and I thoroughly enjoyed the guided listening experience. I initially felt Schultz might be overstating the importance of the blending of musical genres and philosophical traditions in nāradīya kīrtan; after all, one would be hard pressed to find a musical style in India that did not blend many genres and philosophical traditions. However, Schultz demonstrates how rāstrīya kīrtankārs deliberately invoke the connotations of these various genres, adding nuanced but significant layers of political meaning to their performances. Chapters 7 and 8 describe single kīrtan performances, by the artists Sudhatai Dhamankar and Yogeshwar Upasani respectively (full sound recordings of both performances are provided). Through analysis and thick description of these performances, Schultz describes the subtle techniques kīrtankārs use to persuade audiences; she calls attention to their sophisticated practice of positioning themselves as the saint-poet narrators through speech and embodiment, and of manipulating the listeners’ ideologies through the use of participatory affirmations. I found this to be the most engaging and enlightening portion of the book, and wished it could have taken up a larger portion of the work, although I recognize the importance of the book’s historical sections in establishing a foundation upon which Schultz builds her conclusions.

Theoretically, Schultz draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s model of “dialogue,” which assumes that “every word, utterance, genre is colored and deflected by potential and previous utterances of the same word or by other utterances that surround it” (174). Schultz admirably extends this model of literary analysis to musical analysis. Bakhtin’s “dialogue” provided an extremely useful framework for rāstrīya kīrtan, and has strong potential as a theoretical model for other ethnomusicologists. It would certainly be useful for other traditions in South Asia, where historically and regionally disparate understandings of ideas, genres, or deities quite often coalesce into their multi-faceted modern usages. Schultz also responds to Partha Chatterjee’s theory of religion and politics in India. Chatterjee argued that Indians responded to British oppression by cognitively and culturally separating the world of the material and political from the world of the artistic and spiritual. This allowed them to implicitly claim superiority in the latter when they could not in the former. Schultz contends that Chatterjee’s theories apply only to the middle-class, as such a division between religion and politics never occurred in the lower classes. This claim is well-evidenced in her ethnography, where individuals and groups present political agendas as logical conclusions of their religious beliefs.

One thing I missed in Singing a Hindu Nation was a sense of personal interaction with the kirtankārs. Schultz’s performance analyses are wonderfully executed, but the reader is given almost no view of the lives or behavior of these kirtankārs off-stage. In her introduction, Schultz notes the difficulty of conducting fieldwork with artists who may hold strongly intolerant views towards other religions and ethnicities. Schultz walks this tightrope well; she openly discusses prejudiced ideologies where they occurred, but presents them in an even, detached tone. I can only speculate whether such issues might underlie Schultz’s decision to exclude more personal ethnography, or whether she simply deemed it irrelevant to her arguments.

Singing a Hindu Nation succeeds admirably in both of Schultz’s stated goals: it explores the seeming paradox of regional performance of nationalism, and demonstrates the regional nature of nationalism in India. Schultz’s conclusion, in the closing paragraph, that all participants in rāstrīya kīrtan, regardless of their intentions or ideologies, are “participat[ing] in the performance of harsh stereotypes of minorities” and “in the devotionalizing of politics” (194) is harder to accept wholly. While Schultz does illustrate the “subtle and incomparably powerful” means by which kirtankārs can influence their audience, does this assertion not undermine the listeners’ agency? Is there no room for them to enjoy a performance that appeals to their musical and religious tastes without being drawn into exclusionary politics? Regardless of one’s stance on this issue, Singing a Hindu Nation is an excellent contribution to the discipline. Schultz’s exploration of an understudied genre, nuanced performance analysis, and differentiation between top-down unity-centered models of nationalism and exclusionary regional models all make this an essential book for scholars of South Asia, religious music, and musical nationalism.          

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