Performed Belongings: Challenging Displacement through South India's Classical Performing Arts



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All over the world, the performing arts constitute a means of communal and individual identity expression, and serve as a platform for societies to exhibit their perceived triumphs, as well as explicitly or implicitly challenge different forms of oppression and address socio-political instability. In this paper, I explore two specific communities – nationalist musicians and music connoisseurs of 20th century Madras, South India, and the Tamil-speaking diasporic community in today’s Massachusetts – to argue that each of these groups uses Karnatic music and Bharatanatyam, the classical performing arts of South India, to challenge different forms of socio-political displacement. By analyzing archival materials from Tamil Nadu’s archives, I demonstrate how the nationalists of 20th century India strove to ‘historicize,’ standardize, and adapt elements of Karnatic music and Bharatanatyam in order to present these art forms, and resultantly, themselves, as products of a ‘civilized,’ and modern Indian state. By doing so, they challenged psychological displacement arising from a patronizing colonial regime whose debilitating discourses consistently devalued and criticized Indian culture as being ‘inferior.’ Critically, in attempting to transcend displacement and find a sense of belonging within their own home, South India’s nationalists facilitated the marginalization of the region’s hereditary performing communities. These artists, whose sustained involvement in these arts had, for the centuries preceding nationalist activity, contributed to the dynamic fluidity and vibrancy of Karnatic music’s and Bharatanatyam’s pre-nationalist predecessors, were themselves displaced from the modern stage. In the Boston area’s Tamil diasporic community, displacement takes on a slightly different form; people’s notions of being ‘out of place’ come from physical migration from India, the homeland, to the United States, the host society. What follows for many people is perhaps psychological displacement, wherein they find themselves struggling to answer the question, “where is home?” My ethnographic field work in this community reveals that these diasporic members engage with Karnatic music and Bharatanatyam in order to constitute themselves as individuals who can withstand the displacement of diasporic liminality; through music and dance, they are able to incorporate elements from both their homeland and their host society, and thereby find a sense of belonging between and within their two cultural and geographical contexts. Ultimately, this project explores communities’ attempts to challenge, overcome, and even accommodate displacement in their lives, through their engagement with music and dance. It serves to showcase the creative and powerful ways that people choose to address the ever-relevant human need to belong, to find their place in space and time, and exist in relation to a larger community of similar individuals.



South India, Karnatic Music, Bharatanatyam, Tamil diaspora, Ethnomusicology, Indian Nationalism