While the Kerala dance-drama kūṭiyāṭṭam focuses on weighty episodes from the venerable Indian epics, its performance affords a number of occasions for humor outside of the stock buffoon character of the vidūśaka, who provides narration in Malayalam and jokes directly with the audience.
Some comic moments are produced in the classical Sanskrit texts by the characters of maids, doctors, and so on, but other verbal and physical comedy has been interpolated into the tradition by the performers representing monkeys, demons, madmen, drunks, sweepers, soldiers, and gardeners.
This according to “Comic relief by non-vidūśaka characters in kūṭiyāṭṭam” by L.S. Rajagopalan, an article included in Living traditions of Nāṭyaśāstra (Dilli: New Bharatiya Book Corporation, 2002) pp. 123–127).
Below, an uncostumed kūṭiyāṭṭam dancer demonstrates some monkey moves.
Filed under Animals, Asia, Dance
The so-called model works (yangbanxi)—ten operas, four ballets, two symphonies, and two piano pieces—monopolized China’s theatrical and musical stages for a decade.
Repercussions of these works can be traced in recent Chinese rock, pop, and art music. Contrary to the popular assumption that the model works were characteristic products of Cultural Revolution ideology, they are manifestations of a hybrid taste that calls for the transformation of Chinese tradition according to foreign standards, a taste which has for more than a century determined compositional practice in China.
One of the earliest and best-known works, the collectively written jingju Zhi qu Weihu Shan (Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy), is an example; its traditional Chinese and European musical and dramatic elements illustrate how the particular forms taken by musical modernization during the Cultural Revolution were—except in their degree of semantic overdetermination—typical of compositional practice in today’s China.
This according to “Cultural Revolution model works and the politics of modernization in China: An analysis of Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy by Barbara Mittler (The world of music XLV/2  pp. 53–81).
Above, a still from the 1970 film; below, an excerpt.
BONUS: CCTV host Bi Fujian entertaining friends at the dinner table with a rendition of a scene using chopsticks for percussion.
BONUS BONUS: An updated version from a 2013 variety show (Star Wars Opera Night/Quanneng Xingzhang Xiqu zhi Ye) with the renowned singer Sun Nan.
The renowned Hindustani śahnāī player Bismillah Khan lived in Varanasi for all of his adult life, and never wanted to leave the city even for a day—for example, complicated negotiations were required to persuade him to travel to Eluru to receive a prestigious award.
An American patron once invited him to come and live in California, but he replied that he could not bring himself to leave his beloved house. When the patron offered to build him an identical house and create a similar neighborhood, Khan asked him whether he could also bring the Ganges River!
This according to “The legend that was Bismillah Khan” by Pappu Venugopala Rao (Sruti 264 [September 2006] pp. 20–21).
Today would have been Bismillah Khan’s 100th birthday! Below, a live performance; can anyone help us to date it?
Filed under Asia, Performers
In the eiri-kyōgenbon (illustrated editions of kabuki plot synopses) of the Genroku reign (1688–1704), evidence is found for the representation of exotic animals on the kabuki stage: tigers and elephants, regarded as Chinese animals, in plays of the Edo tradition, as fierce opponents of the protagonist; and peacocks in the Kamigata (Kyōto-Ōsaka) style, in kaichō scenes (the unveiling of a Buddhist image).
It is not clear whether stuffed prop animals were always used or if actors portrayed the animals; it seems certain that real animals were not used.
This according to “元禄歌舞伎に登場する動物” (Animals in Genroku kabuki) by 鎌倉 恵子 (Kamakura Keiko), an article included in Kabuki: Changes and prospects—International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Tōkyō: Tōkyō Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kenkyūjo/National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, 1998, pp. 135–47).
Above, Bandō Mitsugorō I as a samurai subduing a tiger; below, a modern-day kabuki dragon.
Gender wayang music of Bapak I Wayan Loceng from Sukawati, Bali: A musical biography, musical ethnography, and critical edition by Brita Renée Heimarck (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2015) is at once a memorial to I Wayan Loceng (1926–2006) and a tribute to his great musical genius.
This new critical edition documents nine compositions from the esteemed Balinese gender wayang repertoire. The music derives from the musical mastery of Loceng, arguably the most renowned gender wayang expert in Bali, who lived in the village of Sukawati.
This edition places the music within a historical, cultural, and biographical context and introduces a broad theoretical framework that contains a new definition for the discipline of ethnomusicology, and substantial discussion of the genres of musical biography, musical ethnography, and ethnomusicology of the individual.
The book also introduces pertinent scholarly perspectives, offers biographical information pertaining to Loceng, delineates the cultural concepts and contexts for performance and background of the shadow play tradition in Bali, and clarifies key aspects of the music itself.
Above and below, I Wayan Loceng in action.
The importance of birds and bird song in Afghan culture is embedded in Afghanistan’s two official languages—Dari and Pashto—in which the nightingale, a central poetic symbol, occurs in texts sung by urban and rural singers.
The songs of particular birds are associated with calls to prayer, and mullahs confirm that birdsong is regarded within Sufism as a form of religious singing; birds are welcomed at Sufi shrines, where feeding them is considered an act of piety.
Sometimes caged birds are brought to musical performances in Herāt, and when they are stirred to sing by hearing music their sounds are heard as an integral and treasured part of the performance.
This according to “Afghan perceptions of birdsong” by John Baily (The world of music XXXIX/2  pp. 51–59).
Above, an Afghan dove with a friend; below, feeding the doves in Mazār-i-Sharīf.
Filed under Animals, Asia
Natesan Ramani performed his debut seven decades ago. He has spent six decades as a soloist, five decades as a globetrotting star, four decades as a top-ranked performer and teacher, three decades as an academic, and two decades as an elder of the Karnatak music community.
This according to “N. Ramani: A front-rank flutist” by Manna Srinivasan (Sruti 223 [April 2003] pp. 21–29)—except that we have added one decade to each category in honor of his 80th birthday!
Below, Ramani performs Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar’s Mahā Gaṇapati, a song in praise of the elephant-headed god also known as Ganesh.
In West Bengali tradition, a person known as a patua travels around the countryside to entertain with sung narratives illustrated with painted scrolls. The patua’s audiences are usually poor and illiterate, lacking access to televisions and films as well as to written entertainments.
Increasingly, however, patuas are finding that their scrolls are viewed as valuable folk art, and that their storytelling skills are in demand among the urban intellectual elite as a means of selling these illustrations, which thereby take on a new, passive function.
This according to “From oral tradition to folk art: Reevaluating Bengali scroll paintings” by Beatrix Hauser (Asian ethnology LXI/1  pp. 105–122). Below, a patua demonstrates her art.
BONUS: A more modern example of the patua’s skills used to raise ecological awareness, with English subtitles.
Related article: Bhāgavata purāṇa as performance
A week-long festival centered on stories about the deity Kṛṣṇa is held in the hamlet of Naluna, Garhwal district, Northern India; this practice (known as a saptāh) is primarily a product of an elite Hindu community of the North Indian Plain.
Two loci of power are salient: the village deity representing local authority, and the text-as-artifact of the Bhāgavata purāṇa, the metonymy of the authority of the recently imported cultural practice.
The local community comprises modern subjects and empowered agents, accounting for the nature of the interaction between the village deity and the sacred text, and the new cultural synthesis that emerges.
This according to “Village deity and sacred text: Power relations and cultural synthesis as an oral performance of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa in a Garhwal community” by McComas Taylor (Asian ethnology LXX  pp. 197–221).
Above and below, the saptāh in Naluna.
Filed under Asia, Literature
C. Saraswati Bai (1874–1974) began studying Karnatak music at the age of 6, and by the time she was 9 her exceptional talent was so evident that the harikathā guru Tiruvaiyaru Krishnachar took her under his wing.
By the age of 11 she was gaining local notoriety, and as it became clear that she was contemplating a professional career the established performers of this male-dominated genre moved to undermine her, effectively blackmailing performance venues into refusing to engage her. Saraswati persevered, and public support for her grew; at last, those who had sought to squelch her career relented and tried to make amends.
In early 1911 she embarked on a highly successful tour of India and Sri Lanka, and by the age of 22 she had become one of the most acclaimed harikathā performers of the time.
From 1913 through the 1930s Saraswati traveled almost continually, performing standing up for six to seven hours in a different town each night. She recorded nine successful records for Odeon, and often performed on the radio; she was also in great demand for performances at weddings. At the height of her career she earned 2000 rupees each night, more than any other harikathā performer at that time.
From the 1940s until the early 1960s Saraswati performed less and less, due partly to a decline in audiences with the advent of sound films, and partly to the intense physical demands of traveling and performing. She took a keen interest in developing cultural organizations, and was an ardent supporter of Gandhi.
This according to “C. Saraswati Bai” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing as Sriram V; Sruti 262 [July 2006] pp. 21–31 and 263 [August 2006] pp. 17–38). Below, one of her Odeon recordings.