The Casteist Legacy of Indian Classical Music



If you ever visited The Funambulist’s office, you may have noticed that we listen to a lot of classical music from the Indian Subcontinent. This devoted listening is problematized here by Avdhesh Babaria, who describes how the past and current structures of this music (all the way to its very instruments) are dominated by predatory casteist and anti-Muslim logics.

The origin of Indian classical music is attributed to Lord Brahma. Lord Brahma is one among the holy trinity in Hindu religion and he is the creator of the universe and all the realms. The Vedic scriptures suggest that he defeated the demon Tripura and created Mridangam, the pivotal percussion instrument in the classical music repertoire, from the blood-soaked earth. The sound of the mridangam was what created the Big Bang, and the first sound the universe produced was called Nada Brahma, or the eternally resounding impulse. When we read the scriptures further we can understand that Brahma passed on his musical abilities to Narad, who is often seen singing in praise of Lord Vishnu. Meanwhile, Saraswati is the Goddess of music, education, and knowledge. She is commonly portrayed as a “pure” lady, and most metaphors associated with her are about her whiteness and purity.

The Turkish invaders of the 12th century added Sufi poet Amir Khusroe to the list of innovators and trendsetters in Hindustani classical music. Khusroe contributed with a series of instruments that are now the backbone of the modern Hindustani music performance traditions. The most popular of the instruments are the tabla and sitar, which are now globally acclaimed as exceptionally delicate and dextrous instruments for play and performance. This was also a time when music was considered more than just a devotional tool. A form of improvisational singing called Khyal Gayaki was introduced and one can easily say that it is still a major part of any classical musical presentation today.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hindustani classical vocalist Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar began a Hindu nationalist movement seeking to reclaim music from Muslims. Music was traditionally taught in gharanas or lineages. When an artist would become unparalleled in skills and musical contributions, they would spearhead what we call a gharana and pupils would seek learning from such centers, which were no less than a musical university in their own regard. Paluskar started calling Islamic musical gharana “illiterate” and “debauched.” His arguments were based on the mythology that music was created by the learned Hindu sages. He even went on to notate music in order to show that Indian classical music is as sophisticated as white people’s music in the West.

The Hindu nationalist movement said that music needed “nation, notation, and religion.” Indian musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande traveled around north India after 1903 and met with numerous pandits and ustaads, and collected ragas (melodic frameworks) and talas (time cycles) from various gharanas. He transcribed these and devised a mildly successful written notation method. However, this was also partly to show their Carnatic counterparts whose music had remained fairly Hindu and devotional over time. Paluskar founded Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in an act of “reclaiming” music for the Hindus. He was praised by his colleagues for establishing the first of these in the “belly of the beast” —in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan. Another branch of this institution was founded in Delhi in 1939 by Padma Shri Pt. Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, who carried on the tradition led by Paluska.

The Hindu nationalist movement completely disregarded the authority of the gharanas and upon establishing such academies, Paluskar also reconnected Hindustani music to brahminical devotional practices.

The educational curriculum of Gandharva Mahavidhyala was designed around Hindu practices, for which schools would be closed on Hindu festivals, and Hindu prayers would be sung before each class. Students were told that they were undergoing a process of tapasya, a penance, and must endure in the service of the Goddess of music. This did not include Muslim students. The Hindu nationalist movement completely disregarded the authority of the gharanas and upon establishing such academies, Paluskar also reconnected Hindustani music to brahminical devotional practices. Their performances with overtly Hindu devotional shades brought perceived glory back to the music they previously accounted as that of the “illiterates” and “debauched.”

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Bonded Labor. / Artwork by Siddhesh Gautam for this issue (2021).

Even today, the classroom practices at these academies continue to be based on a model of the brahmanical idea of Guru Shishya Parampara (teacher-student tradition). The student must be completely submissive to the teacher and must not ask any questions. In this practice, a student is supposed to do anything a guru asks for. For example, in the scriptures, Eklavya, an extraordinary student of archery from the oppressed caste was asked to cut off and give away his thumb as payment to his guru for his services.

This idea of complete submission often puts students, especially women, into complete vulnerability. The #MeToo cases that surfaced in 2020 from the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal against the three founding brothers of the institution displayed exactly the kind of vulnerability that women students are faced with once they oblige to partake in the Guru Shishya method of knowledge acquisition. It is common knowledge amidst this culture that students must appease their gurus and be more than just a teacher’s pet to learn from these types of institutions. Some gurus also make it mandatory for their students to live in the guru’s home if they want to learn from them. One particular student from the institution even came forward without hiding her identity. Despite media coverage (including the BBC), there is still no justice or any reparations for the abuse and violence experienced by survivors. The accused gurus all denied the allegations that included serious charges of rape and molestation. In the aftermath, numerous other students also came forward anonymously to share their stories, yet it was brushed under the carpet by mainstream media. This exhibits the socio-political status of these so-called music classes and how they are almost beyond the reach of the law. Sayings like “Guru Devo Bhavah” (“Guru is God”) become a frightening reality during such events.

There is much callous behavior that can be noticed from the classical music community at large when they consider these cases as mere fodder for gossip. Very few musicians came forward to offer words in solidarity, or to even condemn such cases. Just like many other issues involving oppressed victims, these cases fizzled out after the perpetrator died of old age. Nonetheless, there were a larger number of musicians, men in particular, who in fact labelled the victims as those who wanted to “disgrace” their “pious” music world. Influential women from the industry were either silenced or happily chose to play the role of enablers by keeping mum. These behaviors are absolutely common in the Subcontinent to protect a so-called “upper-caste” perpetrator, who almost exclusively controls and represents these fields of arts and beyond.

If we break it down a bit — if you take the myths, the emotional aspects, and the personal examples out of it — what is it really that we treasure about this system? Is it even a system to begin with? One may have a wonderful relationship with their teacher, but that doesn’t reflect upon the way the parampara operates. Systems do not function based on the quality of the individual within that system. But are we to forget that wonderful learning happens across the globe in so many other forms of art, where people are not spending eight hours in the guru’s house and are vulnerable to exploitation? Transformative learning exists across the globe where there is an emotional bond between the teacher and the student, and that is a reality not unique to the gurus. The non-verbal communication of learning, the after-hours discussions are not unique to the parampara. Therefore if you look at the system, it is unfortunately made up of unequal power and abuse within this minuscule ecology, where contacts matter and one whisper is carried from one end of Mumbai to the other end of Kolkata. If you are a young girl learning from such a guru, you are not just seeking to learn, but you also want to get opportunities and build networks, and you end up completely at the disposal of the guru without any protection or recourse.

The instrument makers often come from marginalized castes that are regarded as “Untouchables” by the upper-caste, which vaguely means that these people will pollute the “caste purity” of the upper-caste if they touch them.

Another facet of caste exclusivity is also present in the peripheral businesses of the classical world. The instrument makers often come from marginalized castes that are regarded as “Untouchables” by the upper-caste, which vaguely means that these people will pollute the “caste purity” of the upper-caste if they touch them. The mridangam percussion is made from the skin of a particular portion of a cow’s body. It is considered blasphemous in Hinduism to butcher a cow, so much so that some Indian states have even criminalized the act of butchering altogether. The Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955 was implemented in the north Indian state on January 6, 1956, with amendments made in 1958, 1961, 1979, and 2002. The central government had later banned cow slaughter in May, 2017, following which self-proclaimed vigilantes, who call themselves “cow protectors,” lynched and murdered numerous people in the name of protecting cows. The victims are almost always from Muslim or Dalit backgrounds and the perpetrators are even glorified by government officials as protectors of the religion. These vigilantes are encouraged, openly felicitated, and even draped with the national flag in an attempt. to normalize these lynchings as an act of nation-building. With a heavy silence on these issues, certain sections of musicians defend their needs and preferences by stating that their instrument has been made from a cow that died a natural death. This is a complete lie because anyone familiar with the process of making the instrument can attest to the fact that it cannot be made using a carcass. Such an exercise in hypocrisy maintains the hegemony of the caste elite while inflicting structural harm on those engaged in “menial” professions.

Other instruments like sarangi, tabla, pakhawaj also require animal skin as an integral part in their production. Even wooden instruments use animal fat to glue pieces together. Therefore the upper-caste musician’s embrace of the idea of fringe instrument makers who use “vegan” products in their instruments has nothing to do with sustainability and everything to do with maintaining their caste purity. These so-called politically woke voices would often talk about new artificial skins that can replace animal skins on instruments, but none of them would actually use it because they want to sound as good as the greats who use traditional instruments. Hence, the guru who teaches one to love one’s instrument also subtly imparts the knowledge of practicing discrimination towards their makers. The Dalit mridangam makers still live their life oppressed under this graded system of caste inequality while a brahmin mridangam player easily move up the ladder with absolutely no social hindrance thanks to their brahminical entitlements such as a being a guru or even simply put, as “Bhudev” or “God on Earth.”

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Beat Against Brahmanism. / Artwork by Siddhesh Gautam for this issue (2021).

A specific type of discrimination is also exhibited by performer musicians towards the accompanist musicians. Male performers often think it is taboo to have female accompanists — some of them would outright deny performing when such a situation arises. The organizers would comply with this and arrange for a male accompanist instead of confronting the artist. A musician accompanying a dance recital in Kathak would be seen in a diminished role, even if performing a solo.

The academic discourse in the Indian classical world is astonishingly unique. While one can understand Western classical music theory as a profound literature of information on not only European culture, but also their outlook on world music, the Indian counterpart is comparatively a straightforward study of music that is performed by brahmins to appease their deities. The scriptures mention that education (not just musical) is a right only to be exercised by Brahmins. These canonical rules shunt the overall growth of music as an art form and turn it into an expression of brahmin tribalism or plain casteism. While Western music can range from études and solo performances to huge ensembles and symphonies, the Indian music format is suitable for solo performances only. The concept of harmony is nearly absent in Indian music — musical notes playing simultaneously or polyphony is almost an alien concept. When the singer performs a raga, he is not accompanied by any instrument melodically except for a drone. Chords and chord changes or functional harmonic structures are just not part of the system. There are no counter-melodies to support melodies. A few forms of music like thumris exist, which sometimes have supporting melodic instruments. However, the classical industry fondly recognizes this form as “semi-classical” or “light classical,” thus not giving them a proper status within the repertoire.

What is more important to the gurus and pandits of this genre is to propagate the pseudo-scientific myths from their so-called 5,000-year-old history as music theory. A common piece of education that every classical student has to memorize is that if one can perform Raga Megh with absolute devotion, it will produce rain! Wow! Where were these ragas when the motherland was going through agonizing spells of droughts? Some other accounts state that if a performer can present Raga Deepak with the utmost sincerity, a lamp will light up on its own. All these superficial myths are cemented by fictional cinema like Baiju Bawra (1952) where classical musician Tansen is depicted as having such magical abilities. In an overtly ethno-religious country with a literacy rate of just about 20%, these stories can work like a charm on the viewers. If a performer does not bear a certain surname, it is socially difficult and borderline blasphemous for them to learn or perform this elated music. The Indian classical world has examples of people taking up brahminical surnames for themselves so that they do not have to face the troubles of navigating these toxic, casteist music spaces. However, this act of changing surnames is not just limited to music; people sometimes have to do it just to rent an apartment in the city!

After independence from colonial powers, when Indian cinema was just taking its first steps, artists then took up the work of furthering art merely as a form of Hindu nationalist propaganda.

After independence from colonial powers, when Indian cinema was just taking its first steps, artists then took up the work of furthering art merely as a form of Hindu nationalist propaganda. Dadasaheb Phalke, who is considered to be the father of Indian cinema, took to the task of producing musicals exclusively based on Hindu mythology. With extensive use of classical-based music, his films were extremely popular amongst the privileged castes of society. Folk music would be looked down upon by these stalwarts as the music of the savages, and they would often depict folk music in the cinema by associating it with “uncivilized” people. Sometimes they would even use blackface on the actors and actresses in the film if they were to be associated with folk culture and lower castes. And now, since the last few years, the film and music industry have instead found a way of appropriating folk music to encash its aesthetics and to dilute its rich history by erasing its real creators and indigenous lineages.

All the classical music avenues are considered godly and a Dalit would always continue being labeled a “polluter,” despite being talented. With time, casteism has evolved as well: some professional music institutions would not mind teaching the classical art to the oppressed castes. However, the social structures will always make it impossible for these artists to grow and thrive. “Indian classical music,” therefore, appears to be a misnomer for something that is exclusively designed for and by the brahmins to extend their supremacist ideology within the domain of art and culture. How can the private property of the oppressors be circulated and celebrated as some form of ancient national treasure? ■