Eben Graves, Yale University
Are You All Coming to the Esplanade?”: Padāvalī-Kīrtan and Political Society
The language of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava padāvalī-kīrtan songs would seem to be devoid of a political register. Focusing on the erotic līlās (“divine episodes”) of Radha and Krishna, the song texts of this musical style lack explicit reference to the contemporary social issues of their period. Nevertheless, beginning in the late nineteenth century the Bengali nationalist elite (bhadralok) began to define the devotional practice of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava kīrtan as a medium of protest. Anti-colonial activists such as Sishir Kumar Ghosh (1840-1911) reframed the kīrtan performances of the sixteenth-century leader Caitanya as a form of grass roots political demonstration. Colonial-era definitions of the link between kīrtan and social protest have remained central to moments of political mobilization until the present day, and in this paper I discuss one such event: the West Bengal and All-India Kīrtan and Bhakti-Gīti Artists’ Forum organized in Kolkata in 2012. The forum presented a set of demands requesting the government to provide financial support for poverty-stricken devotional singers and to create centers for devotional music instruction. The process of mobilizing support for this cause was articulated in speeches that echoed earlier conflations of devotional music with Bengali cultural nationalism. A frequent refrain at the conference questioned how the state failed to adequately support musicians who through their songs were “performing” the Bengali nation. In this paper I view this forum in terms of Partha Chatterjee’s concept of the “political society” to consider how disparate groups of musicians gain political traction as they “invest their collective identity with a moral content” (2004). In so doing, I study how kīrtan musicians interpret devotional music as a form of social protest. In the final analysis, I consider the contentious and temporary nature of the political society that devotional musicians forge to protest government policy in West Bengal.
Bio: Eben Graves earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin with a dissertation studying padāvalī-kīrtan, a genre of Hindu devotional song from eastern India. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, he is teaching courses on music in South Asia and working on a research project entitled “Sacred Songs in Shrinking Markets: Religious Aesthetics, Temporal Organization, and Padāvalī-Kīrtan in West Bengal.” The research project will culminate in a book manuscript that studies how padāvalī-kīrtan musicians who perform in a long-duration style have had to adapt a musical form to the shrinking time limitations of both urban commercial media and competitive performance venues. He is also a performer of various regional musics of Bengal, and his research on performance in India spans thirteen years.