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Department of Ethnomusicology

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Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy: 1927-2009

By: Helen Rees and Donna Armstrong

Published: June 24, 2009

Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, an ethnomusicologist with an international reputation as a researcher, teacher, administrator, and an emeritus faculty member of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, died peacefully of lung cancer on Saturday, June 20 at his home in Van Nuys, California.

Jairazbhoy joined the UCLA Department of Music as a full professor in 1975 and in 1988 became the founding chair of the new Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology at UCLA.

Professor Jairazbhoy’s comprehensive knowledge of India’s folk, classical, and popular music traditions was unrivalled among those in the field of ethnomusicology, which combines the study of music with the ethnographic techniques and theories of anthropology. In addition, his promotion of audio-visual documentation and use of technology to disseminate performing arts traditions, his leadership in advancing the methodological debates of his field, and his pioneering efforts to create institutions which advance the study of “world music” traditions, made a place for him among those whose goal is no less than global human understanding.

Born in England of Indian parents, Jairazbhoy became interested in music as a child watching his mother play the sitar at home. He attended high school in India and England and received and B.A. in Geography from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in 1971 in Indian Music from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Publications to his credit include The Rags of North Indian Music: Their Structure and Evolution and Hi-Tech Shiva and Other Apocryphal Stories: An Academic Allegory. He has also produced numerous audio and video documents, which include A Musical Journey through India, 1963-1964 and, in collaboration with his wife, Dr. Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, Bake Restudy in India: 1938-1984, which received an award from the Society for Visual Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association, and Retooling a Tradition: A Rajasthani Puppet Takes Umbrage at his Stringholders, a fictive documentary. He also taught numerous courses in ethnomusicology at UCLA, including field and laboratory methods, transcription and organology, as well as courses on the folk and classical music of India. He served as director of Indian music performance in the department until his retirement in 1994.

One of Jairazbhoy’s major contributions is in the use of audio-visual materials. The work of scholars such as Jairazbhoy, whose research is based primarily on fieldwork in remote locales of poorer nations, demands a high level of proficiency in the technical facets of photography, sound recording, and video recording. (When a musical tradition has not previously been documented, the scholar must of course do all his or her own AV documentation before [s]he can begin to analyze the music or investigate its history and social background.) Jairazbhoy always had a strong technical bent, and by the 1980s he expanded his publications from the purely text-based to videos and films he edited and produced from his own field footage. In 1994, he and his wife established their own registered non-profit-making publishing company, Apsara Media for Intercultural Education (motto: "Bringing Ethnographic Content to the Classroom"), which is extremely active in publishing AV materials and books on the performing and other arts of South and Southeast Asia (many based on their own work, but including some that are collaborations with or authored by other parties).

Jairazbhoy’s work was revered throughout his life as pioneering because of his ability to think “outside-the-box.” For example, still today in Indian music circles, many people consider Indian classical music to be the only form of South Asian music worth studying. Jairazbhoy began his career in the 1950s playing, presenting, and writing on just that classical tradition. Nevertheless, almost from the outset, he developed a passionate interest in the undocumented but wonderfully diverse folk music traditions of India and Pakistan, and spent the last half-century bringing them to light. In many cases, the only reason we have any documentation of entire genres and their social and historical importance is because of Jairazbhoy's work.

In a related vein, when in the early 1970s the North American field of ethnomusicology was almost entirely focused on classical and folk musics of the world, he courted controversy by reading a paper at the Society for Ethnomusicology annual meeting on Bollywood film music ("How Indian is Indian Film Music?" [1973]), and advocating for popular music to be taken seriously as a hugely influential musical form (a view that is now mainstream). The same pioneering spirit led him to experiment in the 1970s and early 1980s with video field recording and computer applications for data organization and retrieval, to institute the first phase of an ongoing "restudy" of Indian musical genres recorded in the 1930s by Dutch researcher Arnold Bake (in fact, the first restudy ever undertaken in the field of ethnomusicology), and to collaborate with colleagues from other fields in work on acoustics and music perception.

This "can do" spirit also resulted in numerous leadership roles: Jairazbhoy spearheaded the formation in the mid 1980s of India's renowned Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in New Delhi, which is now considered a worldwide model; in 1975 he became the first non-white President of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the premier professional association in North America; in 1988 he was the founding chair of the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA (now arguably the leading program in ethnomusicology in the English-speaking world); he consulted and presented for three Smithsonian Institution festivals; and he served as a member for eleven years of the Board of Directors of the UNESCO-affiliated International Council for Traditional Music (the most high-profile international organization in our field). The ideas and innovations he implemented in these roles still affect these institutions and their missions today.

Since his official retirement in 1994, Jairazbhoy’s career has remained vibrantly active. His most recent book came out in January 2008; he recently had an article published by Ethnomusicology, the flagship journal in the field; he edited and produced two published DVDs based on his field research in 2007; and awards and speaking invitations continued to flow in both domestically and internationally.

Since 1994, Jairazbhoy has spent four months nearly every year during the winter in India continuing his field research; despite his age, and despite difficult physical conditions in the countryside and small towns. An enormous flow of published works resulted from these trips and other research: his 2008 book on puppetry in Rajasthan; seven videos and DVDs as well as an audio CD, some produced in collaboration with his ethnomusicologist/filmmaker wife Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, that document folk music traditions of India, Pakistan, and Hmong Americans; two refereed journal articles; four book chapters; five conference papers; and several other smaller items. This period has also seen publication of the substantially revised second edition of his 1971 book The Rags of North Indian Music, now considered a classic in scholarship on Indian classical music. He and Catlin-Jairazbhoy recently completed a new DVD project based on recent fieldtrips to restudy South Indian musical traditions first recorded in the 1930s by Dutch scholar Arnold Bake. The DVD, Music for a Goddess, was screened in March at the National Centre for performing Arts, Mumbai.

Jairazbhoy was a role model for humanly concerned scholarship: until the end of his life, he continued to support the New Delhi Archive he established, depositing copies of all his materials there to benefit the originating communities and Indian scholars; he spoke constantly at Indian institutions; and following the disastrous Gujarat earthquake of 2001, he and Catlin-Jairazbhoy lobbied and raised funds for destitute musicians of the region, helping them get smashed instruments reconstructed, and ultimately assisting them in obtaining invitations to perform at both domestic and international venues, which helped their families both economically and in terms of social status. They were also engaged in a similar effort to help sacred musicians dedicated to the Goddess Renuka/Yellamma improve their own and their children's prospects while retaining musical traditions they wish to continue (despite local government determination to destroy everything associated with their lifestyle). These activities are in fact an extension of Jairazbhoy's decades-long custom of using his own personal funds to provide financial and counseling support to less well-off artists in India, in particular musicians and puppeteers from Rajasthan, and Sidis (African-Indians) from Gujarat.

Jairazbhoy's achievements have been richly rewarded with both domestic and international recognition. His professional society in North America, the Society for Ethnomusicology, has given him both of its highest awards: in 1995 he accepted the prestigious invitation to give the Charles Seeger Memorial Lecture (the keynote address) at the Society's annual meeting; and in 2005 the Board of the Society named him an "honorary life member," an honor reserved for the most distinguished senior figures in the field. In India, Jairazbhoy was honored in 2005 with the Music Forum Award (Mumbai) for "Contribution to the Cause of Indian Music by Overseas Resident Personality." He has also achieved the rare distinction of an entry on his life and work in the world's primary English-language music encyclopedia, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 and 2001 editions). In 2009 an oral history of his life and work was completed and submitted to the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research. In 2008 he received the UCLA Dickson Emeritus Award in recognition of his numerous ongoing contributions to UCLA, to many musicians and institutions in India, and to the wider world of scholarship.

Jairazbhoy donated his body to the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine Donated Body Program for teaching and research.

He is survived by his wife, Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, daughters Nishat Jairazbhoy (Spacek), Angela (Jairazbhoy) Schurer, Judy (Jairazbhoy) Lewicki, son Paul Jairazbhoy, and godson Abdul Hamid Sidi.