Since being listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010, Kalbelia dance from Rājasthān is now generally conceptualized as an ancient tradition from India. However, this same dance practice, also known as a form of “Indian Gypsy” or “snake charmers’” folk dance, appears to have originated as recently as the 1980s.
Ethnographic research with Kalbelia dancers’ families has elucidated how this inventive dance practice was formed to fit into national and transnational narratives with the aim of commercializing it globally and of generating a new, lucrative livelihood for these Kalbelia families. As a new cultural product of Rājasthāni fusion, the dance finds itself at the crossroads of commercial tourism and political folklorism and is grounded in the neo-Orientalist discourses of romanticism and exoticism.
This according to “Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan: Invented gypsy form or traditional snake charmers’ folk dance?” by Ayla Joncheere (Dance research journal XLIX/1 [April 2017] pp. 37–54).
Below, a performance from the archives of the Asian Music Circuit.
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.
Filed under Asia, Performers
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.
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!
Filed under Asia, Performers
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.
As a small child, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan proved able to reproduce songs after hearing them once, and she could recognize individual rāgas when she was three years old.
As word of this talented child spread, a neighbor arranged for her to study Karnatak music. She gave her first full-length concert when she was 11; the next year she performed on All India Radio, and soon she had a contract for regular broadcasts.
While she enjoyed a successful career, she never pushed for stardom—she was content to earn the respect of her colleagues and maintain an unstressful schedule as a performer and teacher. One of the pioneering career women in Karnatak music, she also demonstrated the possibility of leading a full family life at the same time.
This according to “Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan: A lifetime of music” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Sruti 266 [November 2006] pp. 33–45).
Today would have been Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan’s 90th birthday! Below, a recording from her heyday.
Filed under Asia, Performers
Konakkoḷ is an important part of the Karnatak music curriculum in South India. The unique aspect of this pedagogical tool is that it is also a performance medium on its own. Classical concerts in India have featured a konakkoḷ soloist performing a vocal percussion solo in the same way that a jazz concert may feature a drum solo.
Konakkoḷ is appealing in its beauty and allows students to express their musical rhythms in performance tempo (even when it is very fast). This relates directly to how music is felt internally by a performer and is precisely why it is of great use in Western music education.
This according to “South Indian konnakkol in Western musicianship teaching” by Tony Tek Kay Makarome (Malaysian music journal V/1  pp. 37–52). Above, Trichy R. Thayumanavar, a renowned konakkoḷ performer; below, a demonstration.
In a 1995 interview, Palghat R. Raghu recalled how he became a disciple of the legendary Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer.
“I was born in Rangoon. My grandfather was a self-made musician and in the locality he was known as Rangoon Radhakrishna Iyer. I was fond of drumming on biscuit tins for rhythm. [A relative] who came to our house presented me with a small mṛdaṅgam. It was a slow progress.”
“[A friend] suggested that I should have the guidance of Palghat Mani Iyer. So we shifted to Palghat. But Mani Iyer did not accept me as a disciple at our first meeting. My grandfather told him beseechingly, ‘We want to entrust Raghu in your hands. The boy is eager to learn from you.’ There was no encouraging response from Mani Iyer.”
“Two or three days we visited his house expecting a favorable reply; but no word of acceptance from Mani Iyer. It was here I found the hand of God coming to my rescue. One day when we were waiting in Mani Iyer’s residence, a close friend of his came there with a vessel of halwa and gave a piece to me and told Mani Iyer ‘Mani, this boy plays exceedingly well. I have heard him.’ That settled it. Mani Iyer asked me to come every day for lessons.”
Quoted in “Challenges brought out his best” by S.V. Krishnamurthy, an article included in The Hindu speaks on music (Chennai: Kasturi & Sons, 1999, pp. 245–47).
Today would have been Palghat Raghu’s 90th birthday! Above and below, the master in his element.
Filed under Asia, Performers
After a chance encounter with a colleague who had studied Indian music, Nancy Lesh decided to spend a summer holiday in India. Having been trained in Western classical music for 12 years, she had assumed that Indian music was “less refined”—but she fell deeply for Hindustani music, and began training in dhrupad, transferring the vocal style to her cello.
Eventually she began to study with the renowned Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, modeling her playing on the rudra vīṇā, the only instrument on which dhrupad is played. “Sixteen years later,” she says, I realize that this music is just beginning to mature within me.”
This according to “Hindustani music on cello” by S. Sankaranarayanan (Sruti 179 [August 1999] pp. 39–41). Below, a performance from 2013.
For many Indian hijras—a casteless and classless queer minority—badhais (ritualistic music and dance) are the only available means of revenue aside from sex work and bar dance; this has been the practical reality for hijras for nearly two centuries of legal persecution.
While the current reality does not bode well for the continuation of hijra badhais as we once knew them, newly emerging transgender ensembles like Mumbai’s Dancing Queens are introducing new possibilities for hijra performativity and empowerment.
Established within a reconstituted urban Indian context, new adaptive strategies are predicated on the exchange of devalued ways of encoding hijra difference for updated, modern ones based upon the distinctly LGBTIQ discourse of pehchān (acknowledgement of the self, or identity). The Dancing Queens’s staging of pehchān empowers hijras through a global transgender lexicon while simultaneously renewing particular preexisting performance repertoires of homo-sociality.
This according to “The Dancing Queens: Negotiating hijra pehchān from India’s streets onto the global stage” by Jeff Roy (Ethnomusicology review XX  pp. 69–91). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above and below, the Dancing Queens in action.
BONUS: Ready for more? Here’s a full performance.