Kanav Gupta

Kiranmayi Indraganti
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Year 2017, pp.186, Rs.750


Kiranmayi Indraganti’s book Her Majestic Voice gives us a broad socio-cultural study of the evolution of South Indian women playback singers of the mid-twentieth century. The book presents this vast but relatively unexplored field through the lives and careers of four important women playback singers, namely: P. Bhanumati, Ravu Balasaraswati Devi, Jikki Krishnaveni and K. Jamuna Rani, apart from a study of Lata Mangeshkar, whose career and choices are often set as a benchmark of comparison. The book deals with rich archival material in the form of film magazines and reviews, state documents pertaining to films—like the Report of the Film Enquiry Committee (1951)—and interviews that the author has conducted with the various protagonists of this book through a period spanning over a decade. Clearly, this primary material covers a range of registers of language and aesthetics—bureaucratese, popular reviews and the anecdotal recollections of the singers themselves. As such, the approach to the field is varied both in terms of memory and in terms of perspective, and is comprehensive on the whole as the book offers a vivid picture of the evolution of the playback singing industry in South India. More specifically, after sketching the evolution of filmmaking and playback music, the book proceeds to show how this multilayered evolution enables the rise of women singers from the periphery of social respectability to the center of the larger process of film-making and marketing and indeed as a consequence of that, of socio-moral values itself. This long and chequered journey from social margins to the cultural center is undertaken on the lives and careers of various women artists, four of whom are analysed in this book. While the evolution of female playback singing has been enabled by several factors including the emergence of respectable subjects in film, improvements in recording technology, expansion of the market etc., it has also had numerous complex social paradoxes to tackle along the way. For instance, the first part of the book establishes rather convincingly how it is actually the ‘disembodied voice’ of the playback singer that actually allows her into the mainstream of the production process as well as into the fold of social respectability which was traditionally denied to the performing women, whose bodies were sexual entities being offered in the veneer of the art they practiced. While it does take into account the various enabling factors which saw the evolution ...

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