Classification Systems, Social Hierarchies, and Gender: Examining Indian "Light-Classical" Music

By Ollikkala, Robert | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Classification Systems, Social Hierarchies, and Gender: Examining Indian "Light-Classical" Music


Ollikkala, Robert, Canadian University Music Review


In her introduction to the collection of essays, Musicology and Difference,1 which largely deals with power relationships in the Western musicological canon, Ruth Solie makes the point that classification systems in music involve, imply, and reinforce social hierarchies. She, along with a number of distinguished contributing scholars, highlights the connections between established musical categories and socio-cultural distinctions, particularly, issues of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and nationalism. This paper examines the same concerns as they relate to the "classical" music system and the associated socio-economic context in north India. It specifically focuses on a commonly acknowledged sub-category of the "classical" model, which is uncritically accepted by virtually all academics, performers, and aficionados, known as "light-classical" music. The genres of the "light-classical" category, although much loved, are consistently assumed to be less demanding derivatives, traditionally sung by women of "dubious virtue," of amale, sacred, classical model. Inherent in this widely accepted classification, and the associated implications, are dynamics similar to those that Solie and her peers address. These, for the most part, remain invisible to the participants; therein lies much of their power.

Two other books published within a year of Solie's, Bohlman and Bergeron's Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons2 and Citron's Gender and the Musical Canon,3 also demonstrate that classification systems form an integral component of a Western scholarly and musical canon that informs and guides mainstream scholarship. As such, these classification systems influence academic articles and books, dominate scholarly discussions and forums, and seem to largely guide, perhaps even control, the thought processes (and vision of realities and possibilities) of the majority of the best and most influential scholars. They help form a discourse that largely circumscribes what we know, and what is worth knowing. These classifications help delineate, to a large extent, where research will go in the future, what is worthy of attention (and hence, I assume, both funding and a "voice"), and, coincidentally, what is generally considered to be unworthy and/or forbidden knowledge. Much of the theoretical insight provided by the previously cited authors-Bohlman and Bergeron, Citron, and Sofie - concerning canonical formations in Western musicology, is equally relevant in the Indian context.4 But it is also interesting to note that, conversely, much of what I am going to say about Indian classical music, and the connected socio-cultural milieu, applies equally well to the Western classical canon.

The Hindustani (north Indian)5 musical canon, like its Western counterpart centred on classical music, is conceptualized somewhat as follows. Music is classified, by both scholars and native performers, as falling into four basic categories: (1) "classical"; (2) a derivative style known as "light classical"; (3) "folk/tribal"; and (4) "popular," which also includes film music. It is commonly acknowledged that the core tradition, the most prestigious, the most revered, and the most successfully publicized internationally, is the "classical." It is, in India, the musical arm of the so-called "Great Tradition." The term itself ("Great Tradition") was coined by Singer and Redfield in the 1950s,6 and its implications were developed at length by Singer in a famous book, When a Great Tradition Modernizes, that is now an essential component of the scholarly literature on South Asia.7 The Great Tradition model is now an established paradigm of South Asian scholarship. According to Robert Redfield and Milton Singer:

The most important cultural consequence of primary urbanization is the transformation of the Little Tradition into a Great Tradition. Embodied in "sacred books" or "classics," sanctified by a cult, expressed in monuments, sculpture, painting, and architecture, served by the other arts and sciences, the Great Tradition becomes the core culture of an indigenous civilization and a source, consciously examined, for defining its moral, legal, aesthetic, and other cultural norms. …

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