Music is inseparable from the social world it’s borne out of, a world in which our tastes are entirely political. Think of hip hop and its roots in the 1970s block parties across Brooklyn and the Bronx, when the music was a contested site to hash out the meanings of multiculturalism amongst African Americans, Puerto Ricans and the children of immigrants from other Caribbean countries. At the same time, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, spiky-haired youngsters thumped out punk music from angsty garages to reject authoritarianism, commodity culture, and conformity. But to speak of classical music in the same breath as rock bands and rap artists might seem strange, because classical music seems tied to tradition and conservatism and a reticence for social change. For a politics of resistance, we might think of Pussy Riot or Riot Grrrl as better suited, or Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar, Rise Against and Rage Against the Machine.
In a forthcoming essay titled “Singing with Practical Intent”, I tell the story of how some Indian classical singers engage in a politics of resistance. I describe how the political ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) threatens to crumble the pluralist and syncretic tenets of India’s classical arts and cultural traditions. I draw lessons in activism from musicians like T. M. Krishna, who, despite facing aggressive campaigns from adherents of Hindutva to shut down his concerts, continues to sing “songs on Jesus in Malayalam and Allah in Tamil, verses by 12th-century philosopher Basava and 21st-century author Perumal Murugan, and bhajans by anti-colonialist Gandhi and poet-sant Tukaram.”
When the Hindutva movement seeks to construct a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation-state) by stripping India of its secular foundations, the demands placed upon India’s classical arts and cultural traditions is that they separate along ethno-religious communal lines. “Singing with Practical Intent” searches for a musician’s response to and rejection of such a political project. It is about classical musicians unburdening themselves from the demands of separatism and joining instead with projects for social justice.
The essay is part of an anthology I co-edited with the poet Erena Shingade. (A lecture version of the essay was recorded by The Physics Room, here, as Episode 43 of the podcast Art, Not Science.) The anthology is titled Past the Tower, Under the Tree: Twelve Stories of Learning in Community. It’s published by GLORIA Books and designed by Katie Kerr. It includes contributions by Edith Amituanai, Catherine Delahunty, Mohan Dutta, Dominic Hoey, Areez Katki, Emily Parr, Daniel Michael Satele, Kahurangiariki Smith, Mokonui-a-rangi Smith, Richard von Sturmer, and Terri Te Tau.
The anthology offers a portrait of twelve artists and activists crafting a life in community. From street theatre to rap, from the tattoo hut to the meditation hall, each contributor offers a window into unexpected contexts and rich forms of practice. In these contributions that span love letters to tributes to appeals, readers are invited to reimagine the meaning of teaching and learning, and to recover a promise in that process: the possibility of a fuller education, where craft and companionship go together. You can order a copy of the book here.
For this edition of THINKING OUT LOUD, I want to share two songs by doyens of India’s classical arts and cultural traditions. India has distinct streams of classical music, and the selections nod to two each. The first track is by a performer from the northern tradition of Hindustani music, and the second is by a singer of the southern Carnatic music. The soundtracks function as two examples of Indian classical music at the interface of political resistance.