After class, students pose with instructors Vidya Dengle (front, center) and Kaley Mason (in red). (Photo courtesy Kaley Mason)

Follow the music

In India, College students find the artistic roots of a modern nation.

A daily ritual reminds undergraduates in the Civilization Abroad program that they are in India, not Chicago: before class, they slip off their shoes and leave them outside the seminar-room door. It’s November, but warm sun filters through gauzy orange curtains, and air-conditioning cools the floor beneath their feet.

Cheerful in a red tunic, Kaley Mason, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology, unloads books, a laptop, and a projector from his messenger bag. He has traveled from Chicago to the western city of Pune to teach Art Worlds: Sound, Images, Text—one of three required courses in the quarter-long South Asian Civilization program. Today’s class focuses on how India’s disparate regions became a nation, a historical process that Mason wants students to understand through the arts. “Let’s start with a musical example,” he says, playing an audio file of a man singing ardently in Bengali. “Does anyone know that song?”

A woman responds, “It’s the Indian national anthem.” Exactly, says Mason: it’s the first recorded version, made in 1911 by composer and poet Rabindranath Tagore nearly 40 years before India won independence.

“National anthems are one example of how an art world creates a nation—the most obvious way,” says Mason. “Can you think of other ways?” Students mention India’s flag, visual art, ceremonial copies of the constitution. “Where is the nation performed?” Mason prods. “What is the range of sites?” Sporting events, suggests a student. Others add presidential debates, television, radio, newspapers, and classrooms.

“Sociologists and anthropologists have argued that it’s really media and innovations in technology that enabled what we now call the modern nation-state,” says Mason. When radio and television spread through India, “new kinds of communities were possible, and one famous description of what a nation is—what it means to feel you belong to a nation—is an imagined community.”

Artists and celebrities play a vital role in “performing the nation” and helping citizens to feel unity, adds Mason. One student cites the Filipina singer Lea Salonga as an example. In and beyond India, the Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan has sufficient star power to mobilize the masses, says Mason. Such global media icons are “hypermobile,” with national and international connections that give their public positions impact: “We could call those people elites; we could also call them cosmopolitans.”

The day before the class had watched Balgandharva, a film about a famous male actor who played female roles in an era when women were not allowed to perform on stage. Recalling the film, Mason asks a final question: “How is the nation gendered?” Two-thirds of the 25 students in the Pune program are women, and one has a thoughtful response: “The concept of nation itself—as ‘Mother India’—is gendered female, but the power brokers of the nation are gendered male.”

Mason agrees: “India itself was imagined as a feminine body. In fact, artists visualized it by superimposing a woman’s figure—the figure of a goddess—over the map of India.” Yet Indian feminist scholars argue that the modern nation offers mixed blessings for women. Although they have gained access to education, says Mason, it was “a particular kind of education that taught them not to play a prominent role alongside men in the public sphere, but instead channeled them to supporting roles in society.”

In India, performing traditions have helped to construct both the private, domestic sphere and a modern, urban public sphere. Mason tells the class about Rija, a woman he met while doing ethnographic research in the state of Kerala. A hereditary musical performer from the Dalit group—the caste once considered untouchable—Rija became a classical music teacher and composer.

“People can use the arts as a medium and catalyst for social transformation,” says Mason. He plays a recording of Rija teaching her middle-class grade-school students a patriotic song that she composed. “This, too, is performing the nation.”

A female student asks whether Indian girls are taught music partly to increase their appeal on the marriage market. Yes, says Mason. The same is true of dance, a subject that graduate assistant Rumya Putcha, AB’03, PhD’11, studied for the dissertation she defended earlier in the fall.

To end the 90-minute class, Mason has students read excerpts from ethnographic sketches they have written about their first “encounters with difference” in India. The class adjourns and students gather outside—still barefoot—to continue the conversation over ginger cookies and fragrant chai.

Later that day, after a Hindi class and leisurely lunch break, Mason and the students board minivans leaving the Fergusson College neighborhood—the program’s home since 2006—for the University of Pune. The campus’s Centre for Performing Arts, known in Marathi as Lalit Kala Kendra, is sheltered by centuries-old banyan trees.

Vidya Dengle, a classical violinist and visual artist, joins her student, Rama Chobhe, to talk about how music passes orally from guru to disciple (shishya) according to Indian tradition (parampara). The College students crowd together on a brick-colored rug, facing the two women, who also sit cross-legged. As the room grows hot, a ceiling fan blows minimal relief.

“To become a proper Indian musician, you have to learn through a guru,” explains Dengle, lively and elegant in a sand-colored sari. Music students don’t pay for lessons but instead live and do household chores at a master’s home. “Even [sitar virtuoso] Ravi Shankar had to stay with his guru. This is how you become a performer.”

Dengle explains the raga, a basic melodic element of Indian classical music. She sings a few hypnotic examples with Chobhe playing along on violin. An electronic shruti box moans a low accompaniment.

The afternoon heat has melted some of the Chicago students against the back wall, but after the lecture they have questions. When Dengle sings, what do her hand movements mean? Has she ever composed a raga? What drives Indian music—is it composition, as with Western classical music, or improvisation, as in jazz?

A combination, she answers: “Our goal is to use improvisation to make music even more interesting and aesthetically beautiful.”

After the session, Dengle and the visitors gather outside in the dappled light for a group photo. “That was cool,” says one student as the minivans leave campus. “We should come back here and spend the day.”

Another student sighs in agreement: “I want her to be my guru.”



Art Worlds: Sound, Image, Text was second in a three-course sequence that the South Asian Civilization program offered in India last autumn quarter.

Ethnomusicologist Kaley Mason blended seminars with field trips to see performances, films, and visual art. His goal was to approach the interdisciplinary study of South Asia “through the prism of ‘art worlds’ … from Sanskrit treatises and courtly entertainment to Bollywood glamour and Indian Idol.”

Grades came from class participation, two ethnographic sketches, a group project, a midterm quiz, and a short essay. Required texts included Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction by Kim Knott (Oxford University Press, 1998); India and South Asia: A Short History by David Ludden (Oneworld, 2002); Music in South India by T. Viswanathan and Matthew Harp Allen (Oxford University Press, 2004); and The White Tiger, a novel by Aravind Adiga (Harper Collins, 2008).

University of Chicago historian Rochona Majumdar, PhD’03, taught the program’s kickoff course, State and Society in India. Anthropology senior lecturer Mark Lycett traveled with students to historic and archaeological sites in Mysore, Goa, Vijayanagara, and beyond for his course on history and place in South Asia. He also directs the program, which launched in Mumbai in winter 2002 and moved to Pune the following autumn.


For more lessons from India, see "Cultural Survival" in the winter issue of the Core.