Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology

Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology

Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology

Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology

Synopsis

Zoe C. Sherinian shows how Christian Dalits (once known as untouchables or outcastes) in southern India have employed music to protest social oppression and as a vehicle of liberation. Her focus is on the life and theology of a charismatic composer and leader, Reverend J. Theophilus Appavoo, who drew on Tamil folk music to create a distinctive form of indigenized Christian music. Appavoo composed songs and liturgy infused with messages linking Christian theology with critiques of social inequality. Sherinian traces the history of Christian music in India and introduces us to a community of Tamil Dalit Christian villagers, seminary students, activists, and theologians who have been inspired by Appavoo's music to work for social justice. Multimedia components available online include video and audio recordings of musical performances, religious services, and community rituals.

Excerpt

This book is an ethnomusicological ethnography of the creation, transmission, and recreation of Tamil folk music as Dalit liberation theology in India and beyond. The focus of its narrative is a heterogeneous community of poor Tamil Christian villagers, lay workers, seminary students, activists, theologians, and artists, inspired by the personality and music of a theologian/composer they call Paraṭṭai Annan (“big brother with messy hair”). This is an apt description and pen name for the Rev. Dr. James Theophilus Appavoo (1940–2005), the central trickster figure in this story. Paraṭṭai and a network of other Dalit or anti-caste actors are essential nodes in the transmission process that make up the contemporary reform movement for liturgical and theological change within the mainline Protestant Church of South India (CSI) in the state of Tamil Nadu. This movement is a grass-roots manifestation of cultural and theological agency by Dalits (or former untouchables, those oppressed by caste hierarchy from birth). While it borrows ideas from Latin American liberation theology, this movement’s indigenous roots lay in the Indian social gospel missions of the nineteenth century and the secular/social equality Dravidian language movement of the early twentieth century (Bate 2009, 44). Further, this Christian cultural movement takes a strong dose of intellectual inspiration from the leader of the modern Dalit movement, Dr. Bhimrao Ramjee Ambedkar, the foundational thinker who has influenced the contemporary Tamil Dalit Liberation Movement of the late twentieth century (Larbeer 2003).

This is a story about so called “untouchable outcastes,” those who are most socially, politically, culturally, and religiously marginalized in India through the hierarchy of caste in society and through its continued practice in the Tamil Christian churches over the last 500 years. In the last two centuries a significant number of lower- and outcastes were motivated to convert to Christianity as a means to escape at least the philosophical discourse of caste. Yet, it has only been in the last three decades that Christian outcastes, through the transformative power of Tamil folk music are changing the liturgical and political culture of the Tamil mainline churches and in the process transforming their identities . . .

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