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Singing Religious Poetry in North India: Text / Music / Performance

Symposium — Singing Religious Poetry in North India: Text / Music / Performance
Five scholars and two Artists explore poetry, music, society, history

Chair and commentator:
Anna Schultz is Associate Professor in Stanford’s Dept. of Music. Her book Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance and Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) explores rastriya ("nationalist") kirtan, a form of Indian folk music from western India that combines music, storytelling, and performance with a specific intent: to instill in its listeners a devotion to the nation. 

Kirin Narayan, who was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for many years, is currently Professor in the School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific. The author of numerous books and articles, she has most recently completed Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2016). As a young girl visiting the Himalayas, she first heard Kangra women singing together. Returning as an anthropologist, she became fascinated with how they spoke of singing as a form of enrichment, bringing feelings of accomplishment, companionship, happiness, and even good health—all benefits of the “everyday creativity” she explores in this book. Part ethnography, part musical discovery, part poetry, part memoir, and part unforgettable portraits of creative individuals, this unique work brings this remote region in North India alive in sight and sound while celebrating the incredible powers of music in our lives. Narayan portrays Kangra songs about difficulties in the lives of goddesses and female saints as a path to well-being. Like the intricate geometries of mandalu patterns drawn in courtyards, well-crafted songs offer a variety of meaningful benefits: they provide a way of making something of value; a means of establishing a community of shared pleasure and skill; a path through hardships and limitations; and an arena of renewed possibility.

Sukanya Chakrabarti received her PhD from Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies in 2016. Her dissertation--Performing [as] Bauls: Renegotiating ‘Folk’ Identities Through the Lens of Performance—studies the identities, histories, poetry, music, and performative metamorphoses of the Bauls of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Bauls are associated with a religious tradition that goes against the grain of conventional religious institutions, with Hindu, Muslim, and anti-sectarian roots, and practices that include singing songs from a profound tradition of mystical poetry. Often a solo singer plays instruments and dances while singing. In the twentieth century, partly through the attention of Rabindranath Tagore, Bauls became celebrated as artists and exemplars of Bengali religious culture. Gradually they have been embraced as performers, nationally and internationally, and their relation to their own art, religion, and socio-economic lives has transformed in fascinating ways.

Vivek Virani received his PhD from UCLA’s Department of Music in 2016 and is now Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology and Music Theory at University of North Texas.  His dissertation Find the True Country: Devotional Music and the Self in India’s National Culture, based on fieldwork with Kabir and nirgun singers of Madhya Pradesh, studies the singers’ social roles, their songs’ musical structures, and the expansion of their religious, artistic, and professional locations from local to regional, national, and international. 

Linda Hess is Senior Lecturer in Stanford’s Department of Religious Studies, where she has taught for 21 years. Of her many publications on Kabir, Tulsidas, and performance of bhakti texts, the most recent is Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, and New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2015). The book explores the meanings of orality, the relation between fixed and fluid Kabir texts, the interweaving of poetry and music, the lives of singers, their social and religious settings, and their local/global presence. It also examines political and spiritual interpretations of Kabir, from rural to cosmopolitan settings.



Saturday, April 15, 2017. 03:00 PM




Center for South Asia, Department of Religious Studies, Department of Music, Department of Theater & Performance Studies, Stanford Humanities Center