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Setting the Norm for Research


Keshav Desiraju

FROM THE TANJORE COURT TO THE MADRAS MUSIC ACADEMY: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF MUSIC IN SOUTH INDIA
By Lakshmi Subramanian
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 196, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 8 August 2006

This is a long awaited book. Finally we have a history of a musical tradition written by a historian with a cultivated ear. There have been accounts, often extremely interesting, by persons of deep musical involvement but no sense of historical method. Rangaramanuja Iyengar’s History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music comes immediately to mind. At the other extreme I can think of at least one book, C.S. Lakshmi’s The Singer and the Song which for all its attempts at bringing feminist rigour to its analysis of women singers and their situation displays a grievous ignorance of any aspect of music or musical performance. Lakshmi Subramanian’s great strength is that she brings a close understanding and appreciation of the classical music of South India to her study of the social and historical context of the period 1800-1940, and the ways in which this context influenced the development of the form. It is not that she has discovered the art form because of her interest as a historian in the times she has written about; on the contrary her sense of the form informs her understanding of societal trends.   What this means for the book is that it sternly rejects the fanciful and muddled speculation that goes into writing about Indian music, or the tendency to elevate anecdote, and often gossip, to high theory. A great deal of writing on Carnatic music makes illogical and unhelpful assumptions as for instance that all musical development was divinely inspired. Such arguments lead nowhere and deny both the possibilities of human achievement or the inevitability of historical trends. In Lakshmi Subramanian’s hands people and events are grounded in their times. The discussion begins with the Tanjore Court. It is still ambiguous as to what exactly it was that drove the Maratha Kings of Tanjore. The Tamil speaking rulers of nearby Pudukottai or Ramanathapuram, for instance, had no such known interest, whereas the Marathi speaking rulers of Tanjore had a range of cultural and literary interests. Tanjore, and the neighbouring region around the Kaveri, was the heart of the musical tradition, and the Maratha rulers did much by way of consolidation and documentation. In time, the tradition spread outwards encouraged by the growth of printing and of local journalism, the growth of towns and of a semi-urban middle class and the arrival of a new class of patrons and rasikas. Above ...


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