Category Archives: Asia

Girija Devi and ṭhumrī

 

In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.

“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”

“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”

“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”

Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).

Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.

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Lady Jing and cultural heritage

 

Created between 1960 and 1961, Escorting Lady Jing a thousand li (千里送京娘) is a kunqu masterpiece that continuously entertains audiences and stimulates discussions on Chinese opera, gender, and politics.

A mid-twentieth century dramatization of a traditional story, the opera narrates a journey in which the young Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Northern Song empire, escorts the beautiful Lady Jing home, falls in love with her along the way, leaves her to realize his heroic dreams, and vows to return to marry her in the future. Theatrically, the opera makes Chinese men and women ask how they should choose between desire and duty, realizing their personally, socially, and politically enforced gendered roles and values.

Having been performed over five decades, the opera and its performance practices and meanings have evolved, generating changing discussions and interpretations. Its recent performances, for example, underscore sustainability issues of kunqu as a genre of Intangible Cultural Heritage, thereby opening audiences’ ears, eyes, and minds to their Chinese cultures, identities, and politics.

This according to “Escorting Lady Jing home: A journey of Chinese opera, gender, and politics” by Joseph Sui Ching Lam (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 114–39). Above the original 1961 production; below, an excerpt from a more recent televised version.

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Çudamani and postmodernism

 

Çudamani, a sekaa (a communal club under the auspices of a ward) and a sanggar (a more tightly governed and broader arts organization) in the Balinese village of Pengosekan, is committed to studying and teaching Balinese music and dance; it is also a transnational arts phenomenon.

Çudamani is first a traditional sekaa, in the sense that it is committed to its local community, and one of the main missions of the troupe is to ngayah, or perform voluntary performance service at temple festivals. The original troupe was initiated in the late 1990s; today, the organization includes at least four different sub-groups (including children’s clubs).

The group is postmodern because of the transnational basis, the neotraditionalism, the mixing of new and traditional musics and the play of genre, the fluidity of local and global identities, and the fact that the troupe seems to defy preconceived notions of sekaa or sanggar and to transcend some principles upon which such organizations have been established. While its international notoriety distinguishes this group from most others, Çudamani’s global participation and embrace of neotraditionalism illuminates growing trends within Bali and provides a case study of circulating, 21st-century ideation on cultural representation and the role of the arts.

This according to “Between traditionalism and postmodernism: The Balinese performing arts institution Çudamani” by David D. Harnish, an essay included in Performing arts in postmodern Bali: Changing interpretations, founding traditions (Aaachen: Shaker Verlag, 2013, pp. 257–77).

Below, a performance in 2018.

 

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Kathak’s multiple roots

 

Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.

The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.

An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.

This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.

BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.

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Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî, Ottoman woman composer

 

Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.

Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.

This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.

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RILM Editor wins Outstanding Dissertation Award

Former RILM Editor Woo Shingkwan (胡成筠) has just won the International Musicological Society’s 2018 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The ceremonial music of Zhu Zaiyu.

Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611) was a mathematician, physicist, music theorist, choreographer, and composer; he is particularly remembered today for creating the theory of 12-tone equal temperament.

Congratulations to our former colleague! Above, a page from the dissertation.

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Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

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T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, film star

 

The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!

In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:

“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”

The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.

This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).

Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.

BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!

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Karinding Attack’s heavy metal bamboo

Karinding Attack is a group from Bandung, West Java, that performs original songs, covers international death metal hits, and engages in collaborations with musicians who specialize in other genres—all to the accompaniment of Sundanese bamboo musical instruments that were virtually extinct only 20 years ago.

After the Sundanese people’s embrace of a hegemonic modernity in the 20th century relegated these instruments to obscurity, their efflorescence represents an alternative modernity in which, instead of adopting disdain for their own past as the primitive Other against which European hegemonic modernity is constructed, Sundanese people construct their own history against which to articulate a coherent Sundanese modernity.

This according to “Heavy metal bamboo: How archaic bamboo instruments became modern in Bandung, Indonesia” by Henry Spiller, an essay included in Studies on a global history of music: A Balzan musicology project (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, pp. 241–55).

Below, Karinding Attack covers Sepultura’s Refuse/Resist.

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Balasaraswati and bharata nāṭyam

T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.

Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.

This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).

Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.

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