Re-Presenting Dalit Feminist Politics through Dialogical Musical Ethnography

By Sherinian, Zoe C. | Women & Music, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Re-Presenting Dalit Feminist Politics through Dialogical Musical Ethnography


Sherinian, Zoe C., Women & Music


CONDUCTING FIELDWORK AMONG SUBaltern populations in South India, I have come to define ethnomusicological fieldwork as an experience of dialogical exchange of music and its values. When feminist and Dalit (formerly so-called untouchable) politics are the central practice of the music culture studied, critical dialogue leading to social change by all actors, including the fieldworker, is expected and must be taken into account in the ethnographic process. (1) Jeff Titon defines ethnomusicological fieldwork as playing music with other individuals and the "field" as that shared experience. (2) This paper explores the negotiation of political ideas and the critique of musical practice as an inherent part of sharing music and creating an intersubjective musical understanding with my Indian collaborators in my study of Dalit liberation theology in Tamil folk music. I define fieldwork as a means to the creation of social change and the field as those relationships that reveal or negotiate the shared values that contributed to that change.

Sharing with my Indian colleagues my feminist analysis of the performance practice of their music was an essential step toward gaining their trust in me as an activist, not just a scholar. The resulting rapport enabled my colleagues to relate to me their understandings of Indian caste and gender politics and thus the meaning of their music's relation to it. In the process of sharing my feminist analysis of women's roles in performance at the seminary where I conducted my ethnography I affected the practice of the music. This brought me face-to-face with the question, Should fieldwork and ethnography be a means to social and musical change? If so, how does the ethnographer theorize this process? I argue that while ethical dilemmas will undoubtedly present themselves through this method of engagement, I have balanced them by a focus in my writing on the agency expressed by my colleagues in this negotiation. I found that those with whom I had a political affinity engaged with the analysis and then consciously chose to change their teaching practice as a result. Those with whom I lacked this affinity chose not to engage with the criticism and continued to practice as before.

Since 1993 my ethnomusicological fieldwork in South India has focused on the indigenization of Tamil Christian music. (3) Tamils are the primary ethnic and language group of Tamil Nadu, the southeasternmost state of India. Christians make up 6 percent of this population (almost 3 million people), with the first Tamils converting to Protestant Christianity at the turn of the eighteenth century. My original study of Tamil Protestant Christians is an ethnography of the production and transmission of Christian music at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (NTS) in Madurai. While I focus on the transmission of liberation theology in folk music, the study also includes a survey of the history and range of indigenous musical styles, including karnatak (classical), film, and folk, used by the community. At TTS I participated in daily chapel worship, seminars, music classes, recording sessions, and political events while doing intensive interviews about the production and transmission of Christian music. My participation as a student of music and theology engaged me in the politics of liberation theology, caste, feminism, and various social movements that are at the heart of the mission of this seminary and its recent musical productions.

Through experiencing the musical theology of the Reverend James Theophilus Appavoo (b. 1940) at TTS I encountered a language, musical style, content, performance, and transmission practice alternative to that used in mainstream liturgies of the Church of South India (CSI). Appavoo is a middle-class Dalit (politicized out-caste) who grew up in an urban area and only turned away from classical music to folk music as a possible means of transmitting liberation theology when he, as a priest, observed firsthand the oppression of rural Dalits.

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