Play it Again Saraswathi: Gramophone, Religion and Devotional Music in Colonial South India

Part of book or chapter of book English OPEN
Hughes, Stephen (2014)
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Subject: 200 | 5300 | 1550

This paper considers brief period in the late 1920s and early 1930s when south Indian gramophone industry explicitly drew upon the power, magic and divinity of Hindu musical traditions. I will argue that music recording companies drew upon a Hindu theology of sound as a way of mediating their commercial enterprises and recording technology for new and rapidly expanding south Indian audiences. For at least a decade from the late 1920s into the 1930s the local gramophone trade, through their choice of music recordings, advertising, and record catalogues, enacted a conspicuous articulation of media technology as religious practice. At precisely the moment when the gramophone was becoming a mass phenomenon in the south its commercial success was predicated upon a religious address, which sought to imbed the recorded music and its public within a spiritual devotion to music. In particular the Hindu goddess of music, Saraswathi, became a key trope for representing both the recording technology and commercial institutions of the rapidly growing gramophone industry. South Indian gramophone companies tried to mark their musical recordings as part of a Hindu vernacular. In this sense the mechanical reproduction and commercial exploitation of religious songs was represented as continuous with other forms of popular religion. This was not just a matter of traditional religious practices being captured by modern media technologies. Nor was this a rupture of religious tradition and a negation of sacred art. This was a more complex encounter. The gramophone worked to save, protect and promote religious traditions, while displacing and changing them at the same time. The gramophone was embedded within a religious repertoire in such a way as to embrace, domesticate, and harness its technology as a kind of Hinduism. Yet the material inscription and commercial circulation of Hindu musical practices also helped reorganize access and availability of religious music performance in both private and public settings. The gramophone not only built upon and extended the vernacular experience of Hinduism, it also enabled a new set of constraints and possibilities for a addressing a new media public.
  • References (8)

    e 4 R 1 . a  6 ib e r m 3. Explicitly inspired by the work of John Ruskin and William Morris in England,

    20 years later in Weimar Germany. Coomaraswamy's criticism, however, crucially

    Indian art against its erosion under colonial rule. 4. On this point regarding Coomaraswamy and the primacy of voice, see Weidman

    2006, 256-260. 5. When referring to the record company, I  use their own transliterated spelling

    the now more common spelling “Saraswati.” 6. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967) was a very infl uential fi gure who

    Karnatik music concerts (Subramanian 2008, 47-56). 7. Th e technical aspects of an early recording session are described in great detail by

    temporary studio (Th e Hindu, Sept. 27, 1932, p. 7). 8. For more discussion of this booklet and the image, see Weidman (2006, 264-266).

    as the classical Karnatik composer Tyagaraja and the devadasis as housewives. 9. I am indebted to James Benson for his translation from Sanskrit.

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