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Activist Ethnomusicology and Marginalized Music of South Asia

Abstract and Keywords

Participant-activist engagement with marginal music brings the ethnomusicologist face to face with choice of subjects, self-reflexivity, and musical value, played out in local power politics. Using phenomenological methods and dialogical processes from two case studies of Tamil Dalit (former outcaste or untouchable) folk music from her fieldwork and filmmaking in India, the author argues that engagement with the meaning and value of marginalized South Asian music forces ethnomusicologists to deconstruct local hegemonies of musical style and ethnomusicology’s contributions to their perpetuation, in fieldwork, teaching content, and academic/community programming. The chapter examines methods (including filmmaking and participant activism) to approach contexts where the oppressed use music to assert identity and cultural politics of revaluation against local hierarchies of musical value that contribute to Dalit Action Theory: that is, politicized agency of the oppressed asserted through the arts, necessitating an activist ethnographic methodology focused on collaboration, dialogue, and reciprocity.

Keywords: participant-activist, dialogical, Dalit Action Theory, self-reflexivity, musical value, filmmaking, South Asia, agency, collaboration, folk music, India

Hearing and seeing marginal music through participant activism brings ethnomusicologists face to face with our choice of subjects, with self-reflexivity, and with musical value played out in local power politics. It also presents us with new methods such as ethnographic film, dialogical participation, and broader distribution and impact for our scholarship and its meaning. In this chapter I explore how South Asian activist ethnomusicology can contribute methodology and theory to the wider discipline. Focusing on dialogical processes from two case studies of Dalit (formerly “untouchable” or “outcaste”)1 folk music from my fieldwork and filmmaking in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I examine ways to approach local contexts where there are intense hierarchies of musical value and where oppressed communities use music to assert identity and cultural politics of revaluation through methods of participant activism that contribute to what I call Dalit Action Theory.

To conduct activist ethnomusicology in the context of South Asia generates theoretical perspectives of musical value within economies of musical style. It forces the ethnomusicologist to engage with the cultural politics (or meaningful action) of marginalized music and musicians in the South Asian geographic area of study in which, until the late twentieth century, scholarship had primarily focused on formal analysis of the elite classical styles of Karnatak and Hindustani music as sound objects.2 That is, the meaning of the music was interpreted within and not beyond the building blocks of musical performance. It exemplified the fetishization of the object of art and the genius individual artist whom ethnomusicology has typically worked against, especially within the academy. As in the visual arts, where it was thought that there must be an art object that can be preserved, in Western art music it is the composer and the score that are fixated upon as the primary objects of analytical importance and the determinants of meaning. This (p. 349) was the focus and methodological model adopted by early ethnomusicologists of South Asian music. In pre-1980s ethnomusicological field methods, knowledge was understood to lie in the object of the transcription or notation of the collected and recorded music. Such representation of sound then facilitated comparison across lived experience to understand origin and evolution (Titon, 2008: 25).

Since the mid-1980s, using phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches, the point of entry into the “life-world” (ibid.) of the music for ethnomusicologists has more often been the people, their context and the processes that evolve from sound making, the shared experience of performance, and the relationships that evolve through that fieldwork process, as well as music’s social cultural process of production, transmission, and reception. The moments of self-reflexivity that reveal transformation enter ethnomusicological ethnographies through close description of shared music making that may be poetic and polemic. Instead of a singular authoritative interpretive approach, we constitute meaning through “sympathetic listening” across multiple personal field relationships and perspectives (ibid.: 27, 29). Our goal is knowledge of people through agreement and lived experience, the analysis of which proceeds through interpretation of shared musical processes (ibid.: 27). These methods are common today in South Asian ethnomusicology. However, repercussions of the pre-1980s inclination toward the formal analysis of classical South Asian music included the reinforcement of long-standing local hierarchies of musical and social identity value that were further codified in the mid- to late twentieth century by postcolonial caste politics and academic choices.3

I assert that an alternative engagement with the meaning and value of marginalized South Asian music through the drumming and folk songs of untouchables, or Dalits, inherently changes the way we practice ethnomusicology in South Asia and impacts broader theories of applied ethnomusicology. Preminda Jacob (2009), art historian of Tamil visual culture, argues that methodology is determined by the content of study; it takes on the imprint of the theorist’s disciplinary focus. She draws from the work of Georges Did-Huberman (2003), who poetically described methodology and its impact on the fieldworker as tools in perpetual transformation:

From the tool kit to the hand that uses them, the tools themselves are being formed, that is to say, they appear less as entities than as plastic forms in perpetual transformation. Let us think rather of malleable tools, tools of wax that take on a different form, signification, and use value in each hand and on each material to be worked.

(Didi-Huberman, 2003: 38)

Thus, as we move from fetishizing the art/sound object of classical South Asian music produced by and for the elite, using a methodology of formal analysis, to a focus on the use of folk music by the lower castes and Dalits, to assert politics of identity what does this require of our fieldwork and ethnographic methodology? How does it effect the fieldworker, the subject, and the relationship between them? Do each of them also become malleable tools (re/trans)formed in the research process? Finally, what does the resulting theory that evolves from the data/experience look or sound like?

(p. 350) Most important, a focus on folk cultural contexts, expressions, and processes, as well as the lower castes who use and produce this culture (a shift in musical, contextual, and human subjects from earlier studies), forces us to recognize and deconstruct local hegemonies of musical style and our discipline’s contributions to the construction and perpetuation of them. This necessitates a self-reflexive, area-focused (South Asia) consciousness of our choices and stance.

I propose that studying the people and meaning behind marginalized music necessitates a participant-activist methodology, not only in fieldwork, but in teaching content and academic/community programming. In this chapter I use and theorize activist and advocate ethnomusicology, as opposed to applied or public sector, which I feel reflects a job description or title more than a method. I am concerned with the actions of advocacy and engagement in order to emphasize “energy directed toward socio-political concerns” (Dirksen, 2012: n.p.), “the uses of ethnomusicology towards solving concrete problems” (Harrison, 2012: 514), or the understanding of advocate ethnomusicology as “any use of ethnomusicological knowledge by the ethnomusicologist to increase the power of self-determination for a particular cultural group” (Patten, 2008: 90, in Harrison, 2012: 509). However, I ground such political action or engagement in the feminist perspective that the personal is the political. Further, I wish to bridge what Rebecca Dirksen calls the “[w]‌ell-fed false dichotomy between ‘pure research’ and ‘applied work,’ ” or the perceived juncture between the university and “real life” (2012: n.p.). Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that this split is a “mistaken dichotomy” based on a resistance to reflexively analyze the core, applied character of the discipline of folklore (1988: 141). The activism I examine here includes recognition of the role that ethnomusicologists play within the academy as “advocates” legitimizing the study of all music (not just Western art music) simply through our presence in the classroom and committee room every day, transmitting and representing our discipline.

Finally, the use of media such as participatory ethnographic film as a form of knowledge transmission (and production), and as an educational and consciousness-raising tool, not only opens the possibility to reach a wider audience for ethnomusicology, it also requires that the ethnographer and her resulting “texts” become a forum or conduit for her subject’s agency and message, while not erasing or denying the scholar’s own critical voice. Film provides an accessible medium and greater sensory experience for the audience to which the subjects communicate. It provides a fuller observation of the experiences of the marginalized, and a means to a more transparent lens into the relationship of the subjects with the ethnographer. Further, participant-action ethnographic film, in which cameras are put into the hands of the ethnographic and/or oppressed subjects, can provide a collaborative ethnographic production that is much less mediated by the scholar and potentially highly dialogical.

The shift in methods that result from a shift in subject (classical to folk music, elite to oppressed people) allows us to begin to see, hear, and experience South Asian music differently—from multiple perspectives, no longer as aesthetic objects that reflect the constructs of elite musicians, their values and culture. But instead, we can experience the perspective and creative processes of the oppressed majority and their music that asserts a vision, (p. 351) song, and beat of resistance and liberation. As scholars, we are invited to open ourselves to dance with the thinking, conscious, embodied, agentive Dalit singing her tune, refusing to be silent, but demanding to be heard and seen in a cultural politics of clashing musical styles.

Transformative Musical Meaning/Action Grounded in the Political Assertion of Cultural Value by Dalits

Dalit is a self-chosen term of oppositional politics that is used by people throughout India (and in some other parts of South Asia or its diasporas) formerly referred to by the terms untouchable, outcaste, Harajin, or the contemporary term, scheduled caste.4 The term Dalit comes from Marathi, meaning ground, suppressed, or broken. As a single umbrella term, it undermines sub-jati (caste) differentiation and unifies people across identities of oppression including class, gender, race, and religion.5 The term Dalit was first applied in Western India to lower castes and outcastes in the nineteenth century by Jyotirao Phule, the Maharashtran activist and social reformer who worked for the rights of Shudras (lower castes), outcastes, and women (Mendelsohn and Vicziany, 1998: 4). The modern Dalit movement was started in the 1920s by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), whose work included challenging Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to prevent untouchables from having a separate electorate—that is, their own representation in India’s new democracy.6 The term was made popular again by the Dalit Panthers and in the Dalit literary movement of 1970s in the state of Maharashtra. Dalits also fall under the rubric of the “subaltern,” in that as a subject, the subaltern studies group of South Asian historians have studied them in a limited—some would argue, failed—sense (Bhagavan and Feldhaus, 2008). Dalits make up over 16 percent of the population of India (that is, 260 million). Untouchability was outlawed by Article 17 of the Indian Constitution in 1950. However, prejudice, discrimination, and violence continue as part of the daily experience of Dalits in India and its diasporas. Indeed, historian Dilip Menon calls caste violence “the central fault line of contemporary Indian society” (Menon, 2006: 1).

Dalit Action Theory is politicized agency of the oppressed, asserted through cultural expression, necessitating an activist methodology focused on collaboration, dialogue, and reciprocity. Its action is one of social justice for underrepresented and undervalued culture: an expression of the ideal of worthy intervention and a “guiding sense of social purpose” that has been at the heart of ethnomusicology, particularly applied ethnomusicology, since its inception (Sheehy 1992: 323; Titon, 1992: 316–317).7 In ethnomusicology, Dalit Action Theory evolves from political experience, engagement, and exchange; that is, dialogue between culture bearers, researchers, and other activists with whom they are engaged. I have developed this concept from anthropologist Sherry Ortner’s idea of subaltern practice theory (1996). While “practice” is a useful concept from performance studies, my emphasis on “action” broadens the concept of practice and performance to (p. 352) recognize a politicized agency of the oppressed, asserted through the arts and the ethnographer’s dialogical engagement with them. I am searching for a space between gender theorist Judith Butler’s distinction of performance and performativity that would articulate through expressive culture a blended, heightened, conscious “habit” of identity politics (Blacking, 1995: 218; Butler, 1990). Sheehy calls this “conscious practice”: the purpose and end game of applied ethnomusicology’s strategic action that goes beyond collecting knowledge for knowledge’s sake (1992: 323). A phenomenological approach, using examples below from dialogical fieldwork among outcastes of Tamil Nadu, will show how Dalits use music to assert value, power, and empowerment in society, and the means by which knowledge about that process is formulated and transmitted as the foundational lens for methods and theories of advocacy and activist ethnomusicology.

The Classical Ten Percent

In South Asian culture, one continues to find a hierarchy of musical value in which the classical court music and concert music—Hindustani and Karnatak, which are patronized by only about ten percent of the population—are considered of greater worth than other practices, including folk, popular (Bollywood or productions of the regional film industries), and some devotional music. This hierarchical value difference is justified in the following ways. The “classical” practices are theorized in vernacular and Sanskritic texts and thus are considered rooted in “ancient Hindu” culture, which predates the “foreign” cultural influences of Islam and Christianity. However, this essentially erases their influence, or the contribution of anything but upper caste Brahminical Hindu culture, to these “classical” forms of music.8 Furthermore, the powerful institutions of society (education, media, politics) and the elite (upper caste and class) people who control public discourse consider the classical practices more complex, virtuosic, meaningful, and literally cleaner (or purer) than these other genres, even those practices essential to village Hinduism.

What is as important to this study, however, is that this discourse of ancientness, purity, and essential greater value has been reinforced and codified, whether consciously or unconsciously, by Western ethnomusicologists. The results have been an uncritical impact on our knowledge about and support of the music of elite South Asians and, to a large degree, an erasure of our knowledge and support of the non-elite. In particular, we have ignored the music and culture of Dalits. However, I would also apply this erasure to lower-caste and class hereditary musicians, who also struggle to have the value of their music recognized (Terada, 2000). These musicians who play folk instruments in the village ritual economy, as well as those who play in Brahmin temples, are still believed to repollute themselves through performing drums like the Tamil frame drum called parai9 or aerophones such as the double reed nagaswaram. That is because such instrumental performance involves the polluting substances of animal skin or saliva. By maintaining hereditary occupational roles as performers within polluting contexts such as funerals, where the sounding of the instrument is ritually necessary and outcaste (p. 353) participation is demanded within village systems of kadamai or slave-like hereditary duty, their status remains low (Sherinian 2009, 2011).

Folk music scholar Jesudasan Rajasekaran described the dynamics of degradation and low status experienced by folk musicians whom he observed in the 1970s when he first began to study Tamil folk music:

The status of folk music and also musicians was very, very low. They are not even considered as people that they [the middle classes and castes] can move [with], they can go about and talk to or have any interaction with. Because, they are only used for occasions where they are required. That’s all. If it’s a karagam dancer, Mariamman festival comes, “ok we pick them up.” That is all. The rest of the time these people, they are just on the fringe. They are not very much part of the society, not like the Karnatak musicians, or any other light musicians, or temple musician. That’s another hierarchy that is in this thing. Just like in this community, the caste hierarchy is so strong, even [in] the music they have a hierarchy.

(J. Rajasekaran interview, February 15, 2009)

Rajasekaran’s analysis highlights a hegemony in Tamil culture that not only parallels, but (re)constructs and transmits a tangible coherence of structures of musical value as hierarchies of the social values of caste and class in South India (Feld, 1984: 406). An even more visceral expression of the coding of the musical value hierarchy in South India came from a Brahman Karnatak mrdangam (drum) artist who said that simply hearing folk music made him feel sick to his stomach (personal communication, Aaron Paige). Thus, the untouchablity and unseeability of low-caste musicians are extended to the sound of their instruments as unhearable.10

Unfortunately, this value hierarchy has also been reinforced, perpetuated, and codified in the West by the research and teaching choices of ethnomusicologists, including the standard material in world music textbooks (the majority of which focuses on analysis of classical Indian music). Ethnomusicologists have further supported this social hierarchy in the following three ways: (1) by not contextualizing the meaning of specific styles of music within South Asian culture, particularly in economies of caste and class; (2) by erasing the presence of folk and popular voices (who make up a numerical majority in the society) through the music we choose to research, teach, and program in our concert series; (3) by codifying style categories instead of recognizing the flow of cultural influence and exchange through their porus boundaries.

Orientalism and Neo-Orientalism in Ethnomusicology

There is a complex interactive fieldwork dynamic, with specific histories in both the Euro-American academy and the South Asian context, that needs to be deconstructed and scrutinized in order to understand how the more recent choice of subjects from the (p. 354) less valued communities potentially shifts our methodology. This deconstruction is necessary in order to address advocacy from the perspective of marginalized South Asian music and its cultural politics, and therefore to bring the music of lower caste, outcaste, poor, tribal, and rural people to the center of academic inquiry.

The Japanese historian and Pulizer Prize–winning author John Dower described the idea of value-free scholarship, or “research produced by a completely impartial and dispassionate researcher” (McLean, 2006), in which the field of Asian studies was immersed in the 1960s and 1970s, as the drowning of the academy in highly political and ideological modernization theory that indeed was not value free (Dower, 2004). This apolitical, anti-activist methodology, rooted in the surveillance culture of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, created great fear and purged scholars from Asian studies. David Price shows that social activist-anthropologists working for racial justice experienced a similar politics of sanitization and scrutiny by the FBI starting in the 1940s and 1950s (Price, 2004). In her discussion of the history of applied ethnomusicology and mid-twentieth-century interest in folk culture following the New Deal cultural documentation projects of the 1930s and the burgeoning folk revival movement, Rebecca Dirksen says that “McCarthyism and Cold War politics administered a heavy blow as the FBI investigated folk artists and supporters for alleged communist sympathies.” These included the “rigorous investigation” of Allen Lomax and Benjamin Botkin by the FBI (Dirksen, 2012: n.p.; Sheehy, 1992: 325).

The scrutiny and the ideology of value-free scholarship affected the choice by many ethnomusicologists to study classical music and culture in India over less valued forms of music in the mid-twentieth century. It also may have been the least threatening choice for American ethnomusicologists during the heightened tensions of the Cold War, with Pakistan politically aligned with the United States, and India with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, within the music academy, where most ethnomusicologists studied and taught, local struggles over musical value influenced the choice to work with elite Asian court music that could compete with the “sophistication” of Western classical music. This was not only a research choice; it extended to performance teaching, textbook content, and concert presentation. Mantle Hood’s concept of bimusicality (that one could be fluent in more than one musical system) and his development of this musicological method, derived from performance skills and music theory/analysis within ethnomusicology, further fueled the study of elite/court-based Javanese, Japanese, and South Asian music (Nettl, 2005: 50). Deborah Wong calls this “research through performance practice” (2008: 81). Drawing on work by Marc Perlman (2004), Wong suggests that the problem with Hood’s work was his authorial position and the lack of ethnographic, dialogical, or collaborative presence in his writing, so core to contemporary applied, activist ethnomusicology and, some theorists argue, all ethnomusicology (Harrison, 2012: 507–508):

His scholarship on gamelan music theory was profoundly shaped by his time and his own training. He spent years interacting with Javanese musicians and learning from them directly, but they are essentially not present in his analytical work; His scholarship on music theory is empirical, produced by a unitary interpretive subject (Hood) and is barely ethnographic.

(Wong 2008: 81)

(p. 355) In turn, the theoretical and musically complex nature of these practices molded ethnomusicological approaches and methods of interaction with “classical” Asian music. Indeed, Nettl argues that more Western audiences were inclined to embrace Asian elite (while foreign) practices as “music” and further that they might even like, let alone appreciate, them for their complexity (Nettl, 2005: 50). The easy embrace of Asian classical music through introducing gamelan ensembles in the Western academy, bringing “A-grade” artists and academics from Bali and India to teach in Ph.D. programs, and their mentorship of Western students as “disciples” further supported the acceptance of ethnomusicology within music departments that were still committed to the Eurocentrism manifest in the “value-free” ideology of virtuosity and perfection of the Western musical canon.11 The study of elite court and temple cultures of Asia, with their comparably complex written theoretical and notation systems, more easily validated and facilitated the study of non-Western music in general during the early years of the discipline (1950s). However, this Eurocentric hegemony was not new. It had its roots in Western music and academic studies tainted by the colonialism and racism of the nineteenth century, as well as the orientalism of the eighteenth century.

The focus on elite court cultures of Asia by ethnomusicologists is an example of the continuation of Indology and eighteenth-century orientalism, which historian Thomas Trautmann (1997) calls “Indomania.” Trautmann focuses on Sir William Jones, known primarily for his assertion that Sanskrit was a civilized European proto-language, in some respects surpassing Latin and Greek in the development of its grammatical system (1997: 39). In 1784 Jones also wrote Indic ethnomusicology’s foundational “Brahmin-musical-centric” (my words) texts with his treatises on Indian classical music, entitled On the Musical Modes of the Hindus. Trautmann’s form of eighteenth-century orientalism can also be seen in the encouragement of Indian Christian converts by the German Lutheran missionaries in South India to use the elite Karnatak genre of kīrttaṉai as the basis for an indigenous hymnody as early as 1714.12 It was not until the height of imperial colonialism in the mid-nineteenth century that the Eurocentric brand of orientalism Trautmann calls “Indophobia” was more prevalent in British India. In South India its musical traces were perpetuated primarily by British missionaries, including the promotion among converts of four-part harmonic Western hymnody in English over the earlier modal and odd-meter based indigenous genre of Christian kīrttaṉai encouraged by the German Lutherans (Sherinian 2007, 2014).

Indomania for the elite practices continued among music scholars and their local informants, usually Brahmins in the nineteenth century. For example, Augustus Willard wrote one of the earliest English treatises on Hindustani music in 1834. This was followed in 1914 by A. H. Fox Strangways’s early prototype of comparative musicology, The Music of Hindustan, and the work of two twentieth-century Protestant missionaries: Emmons White, who published Appreciating India’s Music in 1957, and H. A. Popley, who drew on the earlier work of Fox Strangways and Captain Day to write The Music of India in 1921. White also worked closely with contemporary Brahmin Karnatak theorist P. Sambamoorthy and, in the 1970s, Karnatak ethnomusicologist John Higgins. These missionary and civil servant scholars wrote detailed analyses of the classical raga systems, as well as detailed transcriptions in Western notation from first-hand experience (p. 356) through personal study with a local, typically Brahmin, teacher. While these works contain subtle traces of ethnocentricm, rationalistic comparison, generalization, paternalism, and the impetus to scientifically codify structural procedures and performance practice, they generally were written with a great respect and appreciation for the Karnatak and Hindustani systems. The goal (particularly of Fox Strangways and Popley)—to scientifically and practically “know” the classical systems, particularly of melody—however, strongly contributed to the later methodological focus on music’s structure and theory within South Asian ethnomusicology. Further, this focus was devoid of any real sociopolitical analysis of the culturally powerful Brahmin, or upper caste, elite hereditary music communities that produced or patronized these forms of music and the theories about them. This lack, in turn, extended the production of uncritical colonial knowledge past the mid-twentieth century, landing us in the middle of contemporary Hindu fundamentalist cultural politics.13

In his analysis of the contemporary Hindu fundamentalist movement in The Saffron Wave, historian Thomas Hanson shows how “the Brahminical high scriptural tradition that… produced the bulk of Sanskrit texts [was] regarded as the classical center of the Aryan-Vedic high civilization” (1999: 65). He argues that the concept of a single classical Hinduism organized around a central high culture and extending across the subcontinent as a “great tradition” was a production of colonial knowledge. Furthermore, this codification and elevation of Brahminical practices into a Hindu tradition took place with “the active assistance and help of Brahminical western-educated strata, especially in Madras and Bengal where the colonial administration began” (ibid.: 66). The concept of the unity of Hindu culture puts the classical practices at the center, with devalued folk music at the margins, paralleling the geography of most villages, where outcastes, considered spiritually dangerous and impure, are confined to ghettos on the wastelands at the boundaries of the village (Mines, 2010: 226, 232).

Partha Chatterjee describes the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as more concerned about defending and promoting a unified Indian culture than the religion of Hinduism. He defines the BJP’s construct of Indian culture as an authentic ideal, fundamentally unified, ancient, and continuous. Furthermore, he says, the attempts to describe this unified ideal by nationalists “have been largely textual, searching ancient works of religion, philosophy and law written for the most part in Sanskrit. The older the texts, the stronger the claim to belong to the origins of Indian culture and hence to its continuous authenticity” (2003: 1). To counter these claims of cultural unity, and to show the great diversity of practices in India, many of which counter orthodox Hindu practices, Chatterjee cites a recent vast study by the Anthropological Survey of India. He finds that in 4,635 distinct communities, 80 percent of the population eat fish or meat, racial hybridity is the norm, one-half of all men and one-quarter of all women drink, most are allowed to smoke, and the strong regard for lineage and ancestry “is a trait that belongs only to the upper castes” (ibid.).14

Chatterjee furthermore says that while the cultural nationalists may recognize diversity within India, they argue that there is a fundamental cultural unity that cannot be found in the day-to-day practices of the people because those practices have been (p. 357) corrupted by many influences (often constructed as foreign, Muslim, or Christian). They hope to promote this political ideology in order to uphold the national cultural ideal and maintain power in the hands of the upper caste Hindus (ibid.).

In order to understand the dynamics and politics of advocacy in South Asian ethnomusicology, we must confront the local sociopolitical identity of musical style, as well as the contribution of colonial dynamics and scholarship to the construction or reification of these hierarchies. A self-reflexive approach will help us understand our inherent role as advocates or perhaps contemporary Indomaniacs, which ethnomusicologists have played for non-Western music and musicians within the music academy since the founding of the discipline in the 1950s—and in South Asia for over 200 years. Then we must decide the degree to which we were, and continue to be, conscious of the elite or marginalized subjects of our advocacy.

Methods that focus on formal analysis of musical systems (such as raga and tala) help us maintain distance from the “disorientation” of the embodied, often sensually extreme fieldwork experience. It keeps the academic project in a comfort zone away from the “domains of the body, the spiritual, the ‘mystical,’ ‘the exotic,’ and the ‘primitive’ ” (Hahn, 2006: 92). Our methods of fieldwork as disciples of classical music gurus have led to extreme levels of embodied (particularly technical) knowledge from which South Asian ethnomusicologists have been able to make great contributions to the understanding of the systematic theory and performance practice of these forms of music, for example, the work of Slawek (1987) and Miner (1993) on the history of sitar, Nelson (1991) on the mrdangam drum, and T. Viswanathan (1974) on Karnatak raga improvisation. However, the literature has lacked that self-reflexive mirror that would necessitate greater representation and understanding of the sociopolitical context and processes from which the music evolves and gains its meaning. To generate a new method of South Asian activist ethnomusicology through better understanding the music/dance that have been overlooked in South Asia, I turn to Dalit Action Theory.

Dalit Action Theory on the Ground

Transformative musical action is woven into encounters with politics of cultural value. Key to this action and its meaning is dialogical field engagement, disorientation, and reorientation through reflection. Dislocation when in the field and relocation in the academic world (or vice versa) are also often factors whether one is literally far away from the field site or not (Babiracki, 2008: 168). However, in his study of heavy metal music, Harry Berger describes a critical dialogical process through engaged interpretation with metal performers after a period of ethnomusicological data gathering (interviews and participant observation) (Berger, 2008: 74). This is methodology for theoretical interpretation that crosses the perceived dichotomy between academy and field site, engaging the subjects of research in the production of knowledge through, in Berger’s case, dialoguing with the metal heads about Marxist critiques of their music and the politics (p. 358) of music, which in turn resulted in a range of collaborative interpretive insights that supported the agentive voice of the subjects (see case study below and Sherinian, 2005).

In this way, Dalit Action Theory in ethnomusicology evolves out of data and experience derived from political engagement, participant-action, and exchange of music and ideas between members of the music culture and ethnomusicologists, as well as other activists with whom the people are engaged. Knowledge production is dialogically shared. The goal of the experience and cultural understanding is transformative musical meaning/action, grounded in the assertion through performance of a politics of cultural value, resistance, and identity. Key to this action in the field experience is transformation through cultural and musical disorientation (Hahn, 2006; Wong, 2008), which we can perhaps call a subaltern praxis of reversal, reorientation through reflection and interpretation (Freire, 1984 [1970]), and, as Berger has shown, critical dialogical engagement (Berger, 2008).

Using two case studies of Dalit folk music from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I will show how music makers/producers use music to assert value, resistance, and empowerment in society. My focus is to demonstrate how theories of advocacy and activist ethnomusicology evolve from data and experience attained through using an activist ethnomusicological methodology focused on collaboration, dialogue, reciprocity, and mutual transformation in relationship, shared music making/composition/performance knowledge building, and theologizing.

Case Studies from the Dalit Movement: The Subaltern Sing (and Drum!)

Both of the following case studies engage with Tamil Dalits and the cultural politics of Dalit liberation through music. I began writing this chapter with the intention of using the phrase “subaltern action theory,” drawing on subaltern as a universal, academic designation that can encompass the experience and politics of people such as Dalits throughout South Asia and its diasporas.15 Antonio Gramsci first applied “subaltern” to those groups excluded from politics, who thus lacked a voice of political representation or participation in the production of history or culture, as the elite understood this process. This included those of “low rank,” the proletariat, workers, peasants, and those suffering under the hegemony of ruling elite classes such as Mussolini’s Fascist Party (El Habib Louai, 2012: 5).16 I am further influenced by feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner’s (1996) feminist practice theory focused on gender and power. She theorizes the role that female/subaltern agency can play and how this agency is both constructed and enacted (Ortner, 1996: 16).

The subaltern studies group in South Asian history, especially as exemplified by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), uses Marxist and feminist analysis to understand workers and women, drawing on Gramsci’s notion of the proletariat and those of low rank in their use of the term subaltern. From her analysis of early (p. 359) twentieth-century Indian women’s lack of access to the public sphere, Spivak asks the question, “Can the subaltern speak?” She was specifically concerned with the experience of women subjugated by sati (or widow immolation), which was primarily middle class and elite women, being solely represented in the writing of British colonials and elite Indians. She also describes subaltern self-representation in scholarship and media as “anonymous and mute.”

Those marginalized in today’s South Asia similarly have little access to voicing their concerns or representing their identities in mainstream media and to globally networked, or cosmopolitan audiences. So, how can the subaltern speak for themselves, especially without reinscribing their subordinate position in society? I assert and, as I once discussed with Dr. Spivak, attempt to understand the self-representation of many marginal people in India by suggesting that “Can the subaltern speak?” is the wrong question. For those oppressed by caste, class, and often gender, the means of protest communication in South Asia is rarely public speech. It is more often song and performance; that is, the subaltern sing and drum their subjectivity (Sundar, 2007: 160–162).17 As a method for ethnomusicology (and political science), one must listen for the resistive expression of Dalits not as speech, but as music. My primary critique of Spivak’s use, and in turn my evolution from the phrase “subaltern practice theory” to “Dalit Action Theory,” is the lack of recognition that Dalits or any oppressed peoples inherently have agency. This is the case in South Asia because many upper-caste historians who theorize the “subaltern” have not studied (done fieldwork with), understood, or recognized the contemporary medium from which Dalits communicate. Dalit Action Theory in the medium of folk music instead redirects and answers the question, “Can the subaltern speak?”

By reorienting and answering this question with a focus on the Dalit action of musical performance and protest, I shift from the limits of a category of identity such as subaltern (which implies a population below some other identity)18 or even the term oppressed, to behavior, or the action of Dalit culture. Because of the daily forms of danger and humiliation that Dalits must resist to survive, they may not speak (in the public sphere or from a political platform) at all. I assert that the Dalit mode of action is to sing and drum their resistance and liberation, using accessible tools of identity such as those evolved from village folk culture that inherently empower them in their own cultural resources (language, nonverbal musical style, instruments, etc.).19 Further, as I show in the following case studies, Dalits re-sound their empowerment through Dalit musico-theology, through reclaiming the polluted status of their parai frame drum, and through interrogating their internalized castism.

Thus, by choosing the term Dalit Action Theory, I allow my theory to evolve from my data and the terminology of local activists across South Asia. The following ethnographic case studies explore and define how Dalits act and what actions can be contained within this term and then applied theoretically more universally. I found that Dalits often act in a unified way across differences (caste, class, and gender); they are more often intersectional. While it is commonly asserted that the liberation of women is at the center of caste liberation (Devasahayam, 1997), Dalit culture encourages acting in an expansive, inclusive, and improvisatory way, as is reflected in the ability to change (p. 360) the lyrics, tunes, rhythms, and other elements, of folk songs (as a medium of action), in order to meet the particular sociopolitical needs of the moment (Appavoo, in Sherinian, 2014). Dalits often act in a loving welcoming way toward those who might hold power over them, while maintaining their integrity of self-understanding and definition (see case of Amulraj below). This exemplifies Sherry Ortner’s model of “serious games”: “culturally organized social episodes in which players retain some degree of agency… actors play with skill, intention, wit, knowledge, intelligence” (Prieto, 1998: 12).

I draw my concept of action from Sherry Ortner, who emphasizes in her book Making Gender the role of practice in social change. Ortner reacts against practice theory as reproduction in the mode of Bourdieu and Giddens (Ortner, 1996: 17), while she continues to argue against the separation of reproduction and transformation. She also avoids the loop of structures constructing subjects, or vice versa. Ortner instead argues for subaltern practice theory that “look(s) for the slippages in reproduction, the erosion of long-standing patterns, the moments of disorder and outright resistance” (ibid.). In her case study of the Hawaiian women’s cultural coup that overthrew local gender arrangements, she emphasizes “the disjunctions in, rather than the coherence of the structure,… the creativity of the women within the limits of their traditional politics,… (and) the transformations rather than the continuities that ensued” (1996: 18). Thus, her emphasis lies on “incompleteness, instability, and change” in systems and people (ibid.).

I am interested in the sort of agency from the oppressed that emerges not only from a dynamic cultural context, but also with cultural material such as music, to create change. This is radical action, that goes to the root, often internally, to address core issues of power and hierarchy that affect oppressed communities: the power of the communal arts to radically transform the self in relation to society or one’s context. This is negotiation between the constructed ideological forces and the place where real people work out the messiness on the ground to create change. This practice framework has a conscious intent of radical action through the arts for change. Human action not only constructs the arts and individual identity in relation to them, but also transforms them, potentially liberating the actor. The actor inherently shows his or her skill through the arts, manipulating folk song lyrics, tune, rhythm, instruments, and meanings to create an internal, community-based dialogue intended to create action for change.

This action is radical in its disorientation, in the way that it pushes the external limits of habitus (Ortner, 1996: 11). Dalits reverse power structures (Appavoo, in Sherinian, 2014). In village religious practice, Dalits radically transform, from the inside, the internalized roots of the shame of untouchability. The parai drum evokes trance states that enable Dalits to make themselves anew. Dalit Action Theory, then, is centered in the power of the arts, the music-dance-narrative, to (re)produce society and history through the intentional action of agents, specifically oppressed agents. Dalits understand the larger forces working against them and are actively—not simply—surviving, and resisting, through daily musical action.

The church in India constructs Christian identity and theology as well as the practice of music. But, through indigenizing Christian music in styles such as folk music that allow for slippages in reproduction and active resistance to dominant ideology, practitioners (p. 361) are able to change lyrics and other musical aspects and, therefore, theology (Sherinian, 2014). Using folk music, Dalit Christians are able to change Christian theology and their associated social identities “from below.” With such a musical system, song texts have no authors, hymnbook committees have no control, and there is a built-in “lack of totalization of ‘structure’ itself.… Hegemonies are always ‘partial’… there are always sites [or sounds]… of alternative practice and perspective available, and these may become bases of resistance and transformation” (Ortner, 1996: 18). Folk music in Indian culture is one such site of alternative practice, particularly with the influence of culture broker theologians like Rev. J. T. Appavoo (1940–2005), who was a significant node in a network of change that encouraged this alternative practice of folk music as theology.20

Actors as agents with desires and intentions are embedded within games, dramas, stories, and, I would also assert, musical systems and structures with sound and movement. Furthermore, such perspectives inherently recognize, in agency, alternatives—the possibility of doing things differently. As Ortner says, “there are [always] other ways of doing the game of life, even if those alternatives are not immediately available or not subjectively desirable. What is important is that they exist, and thus always prevent closure” (Ortner, 1996: 19). They are understood as possible. They give hope and encourage persistence of action by the oppressed. This is consciousness.

Christianizing “Dalit”

In the early 1980s, Christians throughout India, but particularly in the South, began to embrace the term Dalit as a form of identity and to apply it to the creation of a liberation theology that addressed caste as well as class and gender inequalities. This “Dalit Theology” had its roots in the Social Gospel movement of the mid- to late nineteenth century,21 the Ambedkar movement, Marxist and labor movements, and the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement in South India (Devasahayam, 1997; Webster, 1992). It also led to the development of a body of literature on Dalit theology.

The academic roots of the Dalit theology movement began at the United Theological College, Bangalore, in April 1981, with a lecture entitled “Towards a Sudra Theology” by A. P. Nirmal. Kottapalli Wilson used the term Dalit in 1982 in his book The Twice Alienated Culture of Dalit Christians. In 1984, the Church of South India Dalit Bishop M. Azariah (the first Dalit Bishop in the CSI Madras Diocese, who served in 1990–1999) was the first Protestant Church leader to use the phrase “Dalit Theology” in international discourse, with the intent of bringing global concern to the plights of Dalits.22 One of the most striking problems for Christian Dalits is that the Indian government does not afford them the same degree of compensation (quotas in government jobs and educational seats) as nominally Hindu Dalits.23 In 1994, Bishop Azariah led a march to Delhi to fight for compensatory rights—affirmative action and quotas in education and government jobs—for Christian Dalits equal to those offered to “Hindu” Dalits. Dalit Christians have also been actively involved in the international struggle for Dalit human rights and recognition of (p. 362) caste discrimination. More recently, many Dalit Christians, including the young women parai drummers of the Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu (The Sakthi Folk Cultural Centre), participated in political demonstrations as performer/activists at the 2001 United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, and the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai.

Case One: Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Theology

It was this milieu of activism and musico-theology into which I stepped in 1993 to begin my doctoral fieldwork on the indigenization of Tamil Christian music—only to become disoriented and transformed. In this section I describe how the introduction of folk music by theologians and a folk music process of re-creation of Christian music and theology by Dalit villagers since the 1980s are examples of Ortner’s subaltern practice theory, specifically through the reformation of sociomusical identity (Ortner, 1996: 17).

Tomie Hahn articulates how an ethnomusicologist can experience disorientation in fieldwork in the process of discovering the transformative moments that lead to cultural understanding or reorientation (Hahn, 2006). I conducted my dissertation fieldwork at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS) in Madurai, India, in 1993–1994. My original intent had been to study the use of Indian classical Karnatak music by Christians. However, in my first engagement with Rev. Theophilus Appavoo (1940–2005) and his Dalit Christian folk music, I experienced embodied disorientation that critically challenged my understanding of what was significant theologically, musically, and politically in the seminary community.

In Appavoo’s first morning chapel service that I observed in the early months of my fieldwork, I was taken aback by the way he arranged the community in the chapel space, mixing women and men in a circle instead of segregated on two sides. Furthermore, he called forth women students to dialogue with him during his sermon, and he used lively participatory folk songs where typically light (film-music style) or classical Christian music was the norm. This experience not only moved me intellectually and musically, but politically (Blacking, 1995: 213–214).24 The direct and metaphorical ideology of the lyrics and the folk musical style fully engaged my progressive (feminist, socialist, and queer) political values and moved me to commit my project to a greater understanding of the expression and transmission of Appavoo’s Dalit Liberation theology through music. I chose to embrace the folk style of this Christian music, the participatory experience of the gender-integrated space, the experience of collaborative music making, and the politics of liberation that these performance practice values articulated. It was not only an academic decision, but also an embodied political one, in the feminist sense of the personal being the political. John Blacking’s analysis of the Christian music of the South African Venda people, which applied a folk model of musical performance integrating worship, music, politics, and social life, is a useful comparison:

(p. 363) The significance of musical freedom in the context of religious worship becomes apparent, and the difficulty of explaining nonverbal action with concepts derived from other modeling system dissolves in the face of a system that relates feeling and bodily experiences to material realities without any sense of contradiction.

(Blacking, 1995: 221)

This initial observational experience in the TTS chapel brought me into Appavoo’s sphere and familial community as a student and critical partner in dialogue about music production, style, and transmission in the seminary.

Above I describe Harry Berger’s use of critical dialogue in fieldwork and interpretation with particular attention to the “ethics of voice in fieldwork… and the role of power in expressive culture” (Berger, 2008: 74–75). One of my most embodied transformative field experiences at TTS involved a dialogue about vocal style and a folk process of shared production of theology from below through the adaptation or change of lyrics. The result of this embodied experience and interpretive process was a multifaceted understanding of caste and gender politics through recognition of the agency (voice) and stances of all involved in the negotiation of meaning (Berger 2009). Specifically, the analysis of musical style showed both nonverbal and verbal elements of song expressing the agentive voices of the doubly oppressed: Dalit women.

While learning to perform and lead the classical South Indian Karnatak style, sung liturgy at TTS, I acutely experienced the hegemony of male vocal range. That is, the performance practice of this congregational style liturgy at the seminary required women to sing very high because the keynote, or sruti, was determined by a male vocal range, usually a sruti of C or D, in a setting in which men and women sing in octave unison. Male instrumental leaders habitually chose the most accessible sruti for them (males) to both sing and play on a harmonium keyboard. Thus in order to sing in octaves, the women had to push their range up from the Karnatak music norm of F1 to begin at c2 (middle C) and stretch to g3 (or higher, an octave and a half above. For the majority of the women (including me), the musical result was a strained, thin, often squeaking female timbre, very typical of Indian film music since the late 1940s. My initial analysis and embodied response in my own discomfort of singing that high was that these women were constrained by what I termed a male vocal hegemony. I shared this musical and gendered analysis with Rev. Appavoo, helping him understand my embodied musical experience (Sherinian, 2005).25 The following was his response:

I think real research should create some action. So if I do some research that should create something, some change in what we call the subjects of research. As you have been doing. You are doing that, because you always remind us about the women,… you know the women’s perspective…. So this should be research of a person who is committed to humanity in general. All my articles and everything are connected with that kind of thing. It’s not just research for the sake of getting a degree.

(interview, Madurai, July 1994)

(p. 364) However, while Appavoo supported my analysis and potential influence on, or “interventions” in, the realm of performance in the seminary (Titon, 1992: 316), through dialogue with the young women singers, I determined that many of them preferred and strove to sing high with a nasal timbre, as a vocalized film music aesthetic that constructed a modern, sophisticated Indian femininity. Appavoo ultimately recognized this perspective, but concluded that this vocal expression was not “liberating,” as an oral symbol of modernity and sophistication, which simultaneously reinforced a domesticated, virginal, and constrained femininity for adult women (Sundar, 2007: 147–148, 169).26

Further engagement with Appavoo’s own compositional processes, on the other hand, not only created change in his community, or the “subjects” of my research, but in the ethnographer (myself). This manifested through Appavoo’s style of dialogical engagement with students and with me. It included praxis, reflection, and change of his compositions, a collaborative process to make them more accessible and theologically relevant and thus as liberating as possible. For example, when teaching his own songs, Appavoo remained open and listened for feedback about lyrics and musical sound from students at the seminary. While I was doing fieldwork with Appavoo’s choir, the women spontaneously replaced the lyric that addressed God as Appa (father) with Amma (mother) in a rehearsal of his song “Manasamātta” (Change of Heart). He thoughtfully broadened the way he addressed God to make it more inclusive of a theological construction as mother as well as father, by switching the term every other refrain (see Sherinian, 2014: Chapter 4, for full analysis of this song and a sound example). This is indicative of Appavoo’s embrace of a folk music process. In South Asian classical music, on the other hand, the student is passive, never asking questions of the guru, but simply practicing and patiently waiting for the guru to decide if the student is ready to receive more. It is a role that demands an inherently “uncritical nature” (Groesbeck, 2001: 1; Nettl, 2005: 156–157).

Appavoo did not immediately recognize his own gendered limitations until the women’s side of the choir boldly sang back to him their perspective that “God is Mother!” He did not understand my gendered experience of singing the Karnatak liturgy until I shared that the vocal range chosen for me by the male harmonium player, who used it to primarily accompany men, strained my performance/range. In turn, I did not understand the class perspective of the urban Dalit women until another Indian woman friend lent the perspective that while I felt limited by this high vocal range, perhaps the young Dalit women who sang this repertoire in their upper range experienced its thin timbre as an urban sophisticated voice, like that of film stars, and provided them modern, urban, middle-class status through musical emulation. When Appavoo recognized that my strained experience as a women vocalist did not fit his own folk and feminist ideology of accessibility for his music, he consciously scrutinized the starting pitches (or vocal range level) for his compositions, adjusting them to better accommodate women in performance. Others in the seminary who did not share these feminist values, on the other hand, ignored us. Until ethnomusicologists begin to practice an activist methodology and fieldwork space that allows dialogue between multiple perspectives or stances, that challenges the constructionist authority of a white academic, of a male theology professor, of a rising middle-class Dalit female student, and that acknowledges that we ethnomusicologists inherently intervene, we can only achieve a limited understanding of culture.

(p. 365) The re-creative flexibility and transmission process (production, reception, and reproduction) of folk music in the Tamil Dalit Christian context provided the lived experience of people as the experience of creating empowering theology.27 This included the dialogical and interpretive process of participatory-action that evolved from the lived experience and practice of conducting fieldwork through embodying and negotiating not only politicized lyrics, but nonverbal, culturally coded elements like musical timbre and range (Blacking, 1995: 199–200).

Rev. Appavoo, in turn, put the responsibility back on us, his students, to transmit his theological and political message through engagement with village and town congregations and to nurture these songs in a feedback process that could potentially lead to further theological recreation, particularly by the village Dalit people for whom the music was intended. After inviting me into his family circle and calling me his daughter, he named me Parattai Kural (Parattai’s voice),28 bringing to consciousness an identity of being more than a scholar, but also an activist with whom he was willing to trust and share his music. Through this trust and familial closeness, he placed a responsibility on me to spread his message of the praxis of Dalit musico-theology at a more global level.

All of these dialogical field engagements and experiences dislodged, redefined, and reoriented the traditional guru-disciple relationship that I, like so many of my colleagues in South Asian ethnomusicology, had come to expect, particularly within a Karnatak or Hindustani elite musical context. It was the shift to a folk music milieu and a liberation theology production, transmission, and reception process that facilitated this reorientation.29

Jeff Titon describes the particular process of self-reflexivity and transformation for ethnomusicologists as located in the shared experience of playing music together in cross-cultural relationships (Sherinian, 2005, 1; Titon, 2008 [1997]). My engagement in hearing, studying, and performing Tamil Christian folk music, and my participation in the daily rituals of shared eating and in a dialogue of shared values with the community members who gathered around the musico-theology and person of Rev. Theophilus Appavoo created the place from which I locate my participation and self-transformation in my study and activism.

Case Two: Drumming Dalit Documentary Film

In his book Global Soundscapes (2008), Mark Slobin essentially asks, “What does music do for film?” I want to extend this question to ask, “What can film do for music as advocacy?” The documentary film, This Is a Music: Reclaiming an Untouchable Drum, which I shot in India in 2008–2009 and released in 2011, is an example of ethnomusicological advocacy that is inherently polemic. The title This Is a Music came from one of my nine parai frame drumming teachers, Amulraj, as he asserted the value of his drum, usually considered polluting, as music (ida oru isai, or “this is a music,” in Tamil).

tyagu (field assistant/translator): To what extent do you accept those who think of you in such a degrading way? To what extent do you accept their views?

amulraj: We won’t get angry if they speak that way. Those who have learned the profession won’t get angry. We won’t get angry (shakes his head). We will call them and say, “Come here man, this is a music! You can’t understand this (shakes hand and gestures a throw). It doesn’t get through your thick head! That is why you are speaking like this. Go ask people like yourself, but who have traveled, ‘what are our abilities?’ Don’t simply go around talking like scum.” We will call them and tell them these things. But we won’t get angry with them. (Smiles and shakes his head “no”).

(interview, Amulraj, Munaivendri, Tamil Nadu September 7, 2008)

In the Indian musical economy, where the hierarchy of musical value parallels the caste hierarchy, “polluted” outcaste musicians playing polluting folk music struggle for respect against assertions of degradedness and lack of musicality (personal communication, Rajasekaran, 2009). Thus, Amulraj’s assertion that his parai instrument, commonly thought of by middle-caste villagers and upper-caste musicians as degraded, “is a music” is a passionate, radical critique of the cultural ramifications of caste hierarchy. By providing Amulraj and his troupe an opportunity through film to voice their agency against this cultural devaluation and to share their ongoing experience of castism in the Indian village in their struggle to become professionalized musicians (laborers), my academic work as a scholar filmmaker embraces this polemic stance. However, my position to support Amulraj’s assertions are grounded in traditional ethnomusicological methods—that is, well documented, “hard,” systematic musical analysis of the music’s structure and performance practice using my informant’s own terms (analytical perspectives and metaphors that perhaps do not get through the thick heads of Amul’s middle- and upper-caste oppressors). These were gained from spending four months of participatory fieldwork learning to play the parai with the members of Kurinji Malar: embodying its rhythms, its structure, its dance, and its meanings.30

As significant as formal analysis, however, my film focuses on the negotiation of the parai’s ritual value in funerals and village Hinduism, where its sound and sounding is the means to call the deity, analogous to the use of Sanskrit slokas in Brahminical Hinduism (personal communication, John Jayaharan, 2009), and the means to take the soul to heaven (surgam) (personal communication, Rajasekaran, 2009). Further, we observed how in the contemporary urban folk festival context, parai performance has become a source of Non-Brahmin, Tamil cultural identity and entertainment. Finally, within the Dalit civil rights movement in Tamil Nadu, the parai drummer has become a cultural icon for empowerment and the drum “a weapon for liberation.”

Making this documentary film was experiential and progressive within the discipline of ethnomusicology, as its process and results were highly dialogic, self-reflexive, multivocal, and transformative. Having nine teachers instead of one, as Tomie Hahn (2008) has argued, “disoriented” my fieldwork expectations in Munaivendri village. It changed the nature of the guru-student relationship I had grown to expect in the South Asian context. This multivocality of teaching techniques lent itself further to a dialogical engagement throughout the fieldwork and filming process. My teachers challenged (p. 367) my discourse and interpretations, the critical process of which I document in the film narrative. I allowed myself to be vulnerable (to turn the camera on both my subjects and myself, the ethnographer), to show the dialogical process of coming to understand the following: (1) the drummer’s worldview (and how it was different from perspectives of middle-class Dalit activists, which I had adopted); (2) how they experienced caste discrimination as musicians; (3) how they experienced the term parai (as “a bitter taste on their tongue,” or a word that was hard to swallow, as it reminded them of their degraded caste name, Paraiyar); and (4) how they would ultimately negotiate a balance between building their self-esteem that resulted from their more positive reception at the Chennai Sangamam urban folk festival with the limitations of their necessary economic engagements with upper-caste patrons in their home village context.31

sashi (cinematographer: What do you think about parai?

zoe (ethnographer/director): The instrument.

tyagu (field assistant): You see, the object. The instrument… what do you think about that instrument. What is its meaning to you?

amulraj (drummer/teacher): You mean drumset?

tyagu: Parai?

amulraj: (strongly assertive tone) you mean about drumset! That is honorable (kouravamana) work (velai). There is no need for us to ask for alms (pitchai) from anybody. It is beautiful work. It is super work. It is not that this is being done as hereditary (parambaram) habit (parakam). Of course it was done as a hereditary habit [duty], but we are not following them (in that way). Music Illaiyaraja [famous Dalit film music producer] is beating, right? Can we simply go and talk about him that way? But, when it comes to learning the profession, no one will acquire it that easily. This profession will come quickly only to the one who created it. [he likely means Paraiyars who are thought to have this ability “in their blood”]. When it comes to beating a single beat… if you ask who can learn it quickly, it comes only to us.

tyagu: Do others think about drumset as low (kizha)? If they think of it as low how do you accept that?

amulraj: Those few others who do not know about this profession, and those who do not know anything of the world, and those who have not gone anywhere [literally outside] and have no knowledge about other places, think of this profession as polluted (asingama). Those who have moved away from this place to town and have roamed there would not think of it as polluted. Those who have lived only here, having never been away [traveled], would think “these guys… what they do is definitely polluted. What they do is a bad/mistaken work [tappana tolil].” Those who have traveled in four directions would think, “this guy… Beautiful profession! Keen interest!” And, those who know that whatever function it is, only drumset leads the way [literally stand at the front] will not think of it as degraded. Even then, if somebody thinks, “What, drumset! This guy is still (mindlessly) beating kottu and roaming around.” We would respond “what man, have you (ni—informal you) ever traveled around the world?” In this way we have also questioned them and answered with details.… Similarly, anyone who has traveled all the four directions would not think that way. They have said, “It is his profession, sir we cannot beat like him! You see this guy beating, see whether you can beat like that, sir.” I have heard this being said with my own ears. (interview, Amulraj, Munaivendri September 7, 2008)

(p. 368) In her attempt to negotiate agency within practice theory, Sherry Ortner begins by “retaining an active intentional subject without falling into some form of free agency and voluntarism” (1996: 19). She argues for a method that embraces “the unit of practice” as the serious game or structures of agency, not the “agent” (ibid.: 13, 19). This allows us to keep the hopeful and persistent action of agents as well as structures in mind. To remember to hear how agents are “skilled and intense strategizers who constantly stretch the game even as they enact it, and the simultaneous fact that players are defined and constructed (though never wholly contained) by the game” (ibid.: 20).

Amulraj’s identity may still be constructed as Paraiayar, or untouchable jati, by his upper-caste village neighbors, but his movement as a musician outside the ideological, geographical, and discursive limitations of the village allows him to negotiate this, to redefine himself in relation to other forces that show the greater humanity of his music and person. He intentionally talked back to us, the ethnographers who used the reclaimed, ancient term parai of the Dalit activists and folk festival organizers, to name his drum/ensemble. He instead assertively favored an English term “drumset” that had more neutral, but valued status in his mind as middle class. He justified this with his claim to an indigenous cosmopolitanism, to a worldliness and understanding of the ruptures in the caste system possible outside his village and region, and the value and agency of his music to help create these.

How was this field encounter mutually transformative? Through my relationship with Kurinji Malar as their student, their advocate, and their friend, these nine drummers became brothers to me. While I was already invested in regional Dalit politics, I came to understand their local village processes, their economic and social context, their sociopolitical reality—which is not mine, which I can step out of without having to take any real responsibility or without it having an impact on my daily life. However, I was further transformed into an activist filmmaker through a relationship of affinity with their situation. I, in turn, created the opportunity for Kurinji Malar to attend the Chennai Sangamam festival through drawing on my contacts with Catholic organizers and other academic activists to get the group invited to the festival, based partly on the fact that I was making a documentary about them.32 But, the drummers then took this opportunity and ran with it. The networking they pursued with other musicians and organizers at the festival (which I had nothing to do with), along with their professionalism and enthusiasm in performance, led to multiple opportunities that took them twice to national and international events in Delhi, as well as to several other regional festivals. Ethnomusicologists in academia have always networked to create these sort of opportunities for our teachers/informants, though one might argue that I was acting more like a public sector or applied ethnomusicologist who works in community festival organizing. Ethnomusicologists need to reconsider that, whether creating opportunities for our informants while in the field or producing world music concert series for a school of music, this is musical activism: that ethnomusicologists are all activists and advocates, and the process of becoming so can be transformative of our work, our scholarship, and ourselves as people.

(p. 369) The ethnomusicological method of musical immersion in contexts that bring us face to face with performers, typically as our teachers or collaborators, who produce musical sound, concepts about it, and its cultural meaning, is participant activism. We are not only immersed in contexts, but in relationships of shared music making and dialogues of knowledge production. When we bring these processes into our written or audiovisual ethnographies and are conscious or honest about our roles as actors in the field, we are practicing self-reflexivity.

I have shown that if one works in a context in which the value of the music and musicians are intensely hierarchical and one is focused on those at the margins/bottom, we cannot do our subjects justice unless we engage with the local (and potentially global) politics of value. Thus, in order to participate in critical dialogue with subaltern or Dalit collaborators (to change the way we practice South Asian ethnomusicology), we need more conscious tools and theories that engage us as actors in the field, not passive musical mimetics who primarily produce or translate structural analysis of musical systems. The South Asian musical context in which the value and meaning of caste, class, and gender are still fought over and negotiated everyday, through mediums like folk music and performance, offers Dalit Action Theory for ethnomusicology and cultural studies. This is knowledge production as transformative aesthetic action through embodied disorientation, dialogical processes of praxis, reflection, and critical interpretation, woven in and out of encounters with the politics of cultural value, where oppressed groups use the arts to assert identity and (re)valued agency.

While doing fieldwork, many ethnomusicologists come face to face with the reality of political power dynamics with which our informants struggle. However, for those of us who work in the Western music academy, whether the “world” music we study is elite, popular, or Dalit, and whether or not we consider ourselves “activist/advocate ethnomusicologists,” we are still forced to engage with the politics of musical value in these institutions. Applying the perspectives of Dalit Action Theory in our academic departmental contexts may also be a means to the growth and survival of our discipline.


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                                                                                                                                                            (1.) Dalit is a term of oppositional politics that can be described as anti-caste. It is an umbrella term that is inclusive of those formerly called outcaste, untouchable, or harajin. It is also a term meaning “oppressed,” used by some activists to include lower castes, the poor, and women.

                                                                                                                                                            (2.) Art historian of Tamil media culture Preminda Jacob (2009: 4) argues that the ephemeral and collaborative nature of the production in the Tamil film industry and political banners and cutouts, “almost wholly precluded them from serious consideration by art historians… The discipline of art history conventionally requires an object that can be collected and preserved and, in the case of contemporary works, clearly attributed in its authorship to a particular individual” (Jacob, 2009: 4).

                                                                                                                                                            (3.) This includes the reassertion of upper-caste and Brahmin identities through solidification and narrowed control of Karnatak music by urban Brahmins, particularly in Madras/Chennai. This happened through the shift in production control away from the regional courts and kingly patrons to the sabbhas or music clubs of the urban areas after the 1860s, but also through institutions like the Madras Music Academy and All India Radio (see Lakshmi Subramanian, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                            (4.) The term harajin, (meaning “children of God”) was applied to untouchables by Mahatma Gandhi. While many common, politicized outcastes still use the term harajin, Dalit activists have extensively critiqued it as patronizing. Some of this is based on the general critique of Gandhi by Dr. Ambedkar, the acknowledged twentieth-century leader of the untouchable movement. Ambedkar critiqued Gandhi for upholding the varna system in his ideology and for using strategies such as threatening a fast-unto-death if Ambedkar did not relinquish his goal of achieving a separate electorate or representation for Dalits in India’s parliamentary system, which was already available for other minorities. This is extensively documented in the Pune (or Poona) Pact of September of 1932. (See for Dr. Ambedkar’s 1955 BBC Interview).

                                                                                                                                                            (5.) In common use, however, Dalit has often problematically been conflated or used in practice as a simple replacement for outcaste jati terms such as Paraiyar or Chakkliyar. Yet, its meaning in such application still carries a sense of political consciousness of oppression and a rejection of the term untouchable or specific caste/jati names thought of as derogatory.

                                                                                                                                                            (6.) In 1924, Dr. Ambedkar founded the organization Bahiskrit Hitakarini Sabha (Outcastes Welfare Association), with the intention of working for the liberation of the outcastes, or untouchables. His goals included the eradication of illiteracy, economic development, and nonviolent action against caste-based discrimination, such as denial of temple entry. (Goldy George, Salam Bhimrao! Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in India: A Reflection). (accessed October 6, 2013).

                                                                                                                                                            (7.) Daniel Sheehy (1992: 324) describes this worthy purpose of ethnomusicology as seeing “opportunities for a better life for others through the use of musical knowledge, and then immediately to begin devising cultural strategies to achieve those ends.”

                                                                                                                                                            (8.) The discourse of a golden age of Hinduism disregards the presence of Christianity in Kerala from possibly the first (if not, certainly the fourth) century and the important patronage and cultural influence of Islam, Sufism, and Muslim hereditary performers in Hindustani music (Qureshi, 1991).

                                                                                                                                                            (9.) The etymology of the term parai is “to speak or announce,” reflecting the occupation of parai drummers as those who announce village ritual and social occasions by playing the semiotically coded patterns of their drum. The term parai is found in Tamil Sangam literature written between the 2nd century b.c.e. and 2nd century c.e.

                                                                                                                                                            (10.) In my previous work I have shown that this value hierarchy extends beyond Hinduism to the music and theological resources of other religious communities in South India, including the Christians (Sherinian, 2007, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                            (11.) The best-known Ph.D. programs in ethnomusicology that were early integrators of Asian ensembles and teachers in their curriculum and faculty include UCLA, Wesleyan, University of Michigan, and University of Washington.

                                                                                                                                                            (12.) In the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Halle, Germany, I located a small collection of kīrttaṉai dated 1714 that included ragas, talas, and three part kriti form, put together in a pamphlet for schoolchildren of the Tranquebar mission in Tamil Nadu. It was against this upper-caste repertoire and the values that it carried that Theophilus Appavoo would create his Dalit liberation theology in folk music in the 1980s.

                                                                                                                                                            (13.) The exceptions to this were Regula Qureshi’s (1991 and earlier) work on the erasure of the oral contribution of poor, illiterate Muslim hereditary practitioners of Hindustani music and the Marxist work on the music industry by Peter Manuel (1993). The work since the 1990s of Matthew Allen (1997, 1998), Yoshitaka Terada (2000), Amanda Weidman (2006), Richard Wolf (2009), Douglas Knight (2010), Lakshmi Subramanian (2011), Devesh Soneji (2012), and Anna Schultz (2013) has finally begun to fill in the critical perspective and the sociopolitics needed to understand the production of classical music by upper- and middle-caste Indians.

                                                                                                                                                            (14.) This counters the stereotype perpetuated by orthodox Hindus that Indian society is Hindu, the majority of people are vegetarians who further follow the orthodox strictures that one should neither drink nor smoke, and that there is very little intercaste or love marriage.

                                                                                                                                                            (15.) I do not mean to associate Dalit with something that is somehow “sub” or below anything else. It is not a disempowered position but an empowered, counter expression of opposition to the caste system or to hegemonic systems of power.

                                                                                                                                                            (16.) Louai, El Habib, “Retracing the Concept of the Subaltern from Gramsci to Spivak: Historical Developments and New Applications,” African Journal of History and Culture 4(1): 4–8, January 2012, 10.5897/AJHC11.020ISSN 2141-6672 (accessed October 1, 2013).

                                                                                                                                                            (17.) Pavitra Sundar, citing Rahaja (2003), similarly asserts in her discussion of film singer Lata Mangeshkar that “[i]‌n many parts of India, singing is a crucial mode of female participation in the public sphere” (2007: 162), and that indeed music is “the means by which women enter the nation” (ibid.: 161). Sundar qualifies this, saying that women’s presence in the public sphere, at least in the film Lagaan, is “non-threatening as they are allowed to participate only in song. The narrative makes no room for female aggression” (ibid.).

                                                                                                                                                            (18.) I am grateful to the Dalit filmmaker-activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan for helping me see the point that Dalits are not “sub” or below anything.

                                                                                                                                                            (19.) In his important article on music, politics, and Christianity (1981), John Blacking showed the significance of nonverbal, folk modeling systems to influence social action, especially in oppressive contexts like South Africa’s apartheid system, where the speech of the majority black population was severely repressed and restricted (reprinted in Blacking 1995: 199, edited by Byron).

                                                                                                                                                            (20.) Rev. Dr. J. T. Appavoo was my teacher. My publication Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014) is an ethnomusicological biography of his life and theology as music.

                                                                                                                                                            (21.) The Dalit theology movement is a local movement with over one hundred years of roots in India. It was not directly influenced by the South American movement, though its thinkers read liberation theology works by Paulo Freire and Gustavo Gutierrez.

                                                                                                                                                            (22.) Other important publications include Towards a Dalit Theology by M. E. Prabhakar (1988), Xavier Irundayaraj (1990), Reader in Dalit Theology by Arvind Nirmal (1991), Indigenous People: Dalits by James Massey (1994), and Christianity and Dalits by Sathianathan Clarke (1998), and the recent anthology that includes chapters by Dalit faculty from TTS and the Chennai Diocese, Frontiers of Dalit Theology, edited by V. Devasahayam (1997). Frontiers of Dalit Theology includes two articles by Theophilus Appavoo, “Dalit Way of Theological Expression,” and “Communication for Dalit Liberation.”

                                                                                                                                                            (23.) Many lower-caste and Dalit activists, such as the author Kancha Ilaiah, who wrote Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture, and Political Economy (1994), reject being called Hindu and having been appropriated into the Hindu fold. They argue that their religious practice, deities, and origins are completely different from Brahmanical Hinduism. Most unpoliticized lower-caste people, on the other hand, simply accept the term Hindu as applied to them by the social and political system.

                                                                                                                                                            (24.) See John Blacking’s (1995) work on music and politics within the South African (Venda) churches, specifically his discussion of the form of liberation theology called Black Theology and his stress on the importance of musical style, that is, how people of different denominations sang to mark political associations and consciousness in a process of adaptation or inculturation of European Christianity (specifically hymnody) to African culture (1995: 218).

                                                                                                                                                            (25.) For a full analysis of this incident in my ethnographic experience, see my article “Re-presenting Dalit Feminist Politics Through Dialogical Musical Ethnography” in Women and Music 9 (2005): 1–12.

                                                                                                                                                            (26.) Pavitra Sundar argues that three generations of Indians knew the “virginally pure” shrill falsetto timbre of the iconic film music figure of Lata Mangeshkar as the “quintessential and ideal voice” of a modern, middle-class, national, Indian femininity (2007: 145, 147–148). Drawing on Barthes’s (1977) theory of the “grain of the voice” or “corporeality of voice,” Sundar focuses on a method of using “vocality in theories of the body… demonstrating how vocal music works to embody and disembody the nation” (ibid.: 146). She describes this as “materiality of music” and the “audible body” (ibid.: 164) grounded in its sociohistorical context (ibid.: 163). She concludes that Mangeshkar’s “desexualized vocal style helped contain the dangerous visual and aural presence of female bodies in public” (ibid.: 149). While it is not a particularly transgressive presence, but a domesticated agency limited to “sexually modest, upper-caste, and middle-class Hindu women” as they contribute to patriarchal nationalist goals (ibid.: 164, 168–169).

                                                                                                                                                            (27.) Harris Berger asserts that “the object of study is not music sound or music structure, it is pieces, performance, sounds, or structures in the lived experience of social persons” (Berger, 2008: 70). Furthermore, he argues that ethnomusicology’s proper object is not the reification of texts, but “practices of production and reception” (ibid.: 65).

                                                                                                                                                            (28.) Rev. Appavoo’s Tamil folk pen name was Parattai Annan, or “big brother with messy hair.” He used this anonymous identification in the publication of his songs to encourage people to change the lyrics or music as they saw fit to their sociopolitical context.

                                                                                                                                                            (29.) Advocacy was inherently present in my commitment to share Appavoo’s Dalit liberation songs and liturgy with the world. Our mutual enthusiasm to get this message to a global academic and theological audience brought him to my academic milieu in the United States on lecture tour. Tragically, on this tour in 2005, he became sick, and after seven weeks of hospitalization with congestive heart failure, died—a completely transformative experience for me.

                                                                                                                                                            (30.) This is an oral system of drumming based in mnemonics with a clear theoretical organization. There is a relationship between the kinesthetics of the dance patterns, the drum mnemonics, and folk tune genres. Most contemporary performances have a systematic drumming and dance organization of a circle-line-circle over the course of 20 minutes. I learned and recorded on videotape 35 different named beats (adis) from these men, all but one of whom have less then a fourth grade education. Further, I interviewed them about their teaching methods, and videotaped and analyzed hours of our lessons.

                                                                                                                                                            (31.) See the film trailer for This Is a Music: Reclaiming an Untouchable Drum for more contextualized detail.

                                                                                                                                                            (32.) Besides a general ethical stance of practicing my responsibility to “give back” to this group of very poor and illiterate musicians who had become my teachers, I understood this as an “intervention” and a potentially significant boost in their career trajectory and professionalization (Titon, 1992: 316–317). However, I fully embraced Sheehy’s notion that securing Kurinji Malar an invitation to participate in the Chennai Sangamam folk festival would and ultimately did provide them increased financial opportunities, and enhanced self-esteem through contact outside the caste-infected economy of their local area—a strategic practice with a worthy purpose (Sheehy, 1992: 324).