Reflections on Slawek

“Engrossed Minds, Embodied Moods and Liberated Spirits in Two Musical Traditions of India.” -Stephen Slawek

A quick note: There are no citations here because this is only a quick reflection on an article that intrigued me. This is not meant to be a scholarly paper.
Here is the link for this article:
In Stephen Slawek’s article, “Engrossed Minds, Embodied Moods and Liberated Spirits in Two Musical Traditions of India.” he attempts to explain a few ideas regarding Indian classical music: (1) he demonstrates the absence or avoidance of “spirituality” in scholarly engaged articulations on Indian music, (2) he discusses how seemingly disparate modes of Indian music making (i.e., classical and folk), are in fact much more connected than previous scholarly writings have presented them before, and (3) he concludes through a comparison and analysis of Abhinavagupta’s 11th century rasa theory to anthropology theorists Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Csordas, and Marurice Merleau-Ponty, by asserting that indigenous versions of cultural theory will provide, especially in the case of Indian music, a more illuminating and gratifying conclusion of why things are the way things are.

From reading this article I had the feeling he is not satisfied with the way that ethnomusicology has engaged with local theories of cultural development. Granted, this article was written 14 years ago (1995), and I do not know what the significance of this article actually was on scholarly engagement of indigenous theory, but I do know that many ethnomusicologists today constantly engage in what is known as local theory, which, is exactly what he claims has been overlooked by many within western Indian musicological engagements. Slawek posits that the reason behind this is because many scholars felt the need to distance themselves from ideas that emerged from Indian music in the 60s–ideas that spawned cliches about Indian music providing spiritual enlightenment (and ultimately culminating in new age movements that are so popular today). To this, I agree with him, but I also feel that he left out a very obvious reason why so many have not concentrated on the spirituality behind ICM (Indian classical music).

Throughout recent histories of India and Indian music scholars have pointed out the need to include Muslim heavy narratives of Indian music because of previous Hindu dominated trajectories of history. Consequently, many ethnomusicological studies on ICM came out of this awareness and proceeded to tell the stories of the Muslim lineages of ICM and how they related to ideas of Hindu nationalism. In this light, I disagree with Slawek in his assessment of why scholars have avoided discussion of spirituality, although I certainly agree with him that they have.

Slawek’s second main point in this article illustrates how ideas of ICM and Indian devotional folk music are much more connected through strains of spirituality than previously portrayed. What struck me, was again, his lack of a Muslim voice in his arguments. From north India, ICM, has been apart of Muslim traditions and practices for centuries, and for most of the gharana instrumentalists alive today, their forefathers were raised among courtly entertainers who had little or no business in the kinds of “spiritual” affairs Slawek discusses. I do not mean to bash or discount Slawek’s conclusions here, rather, I mean for this to be a discussion of how complex ideas of India’s history (or perhaps any one’s history) really are. Through this article Slawek insinuates that there is only one trajectory of Indian history, which, in my opinion, is an extreme oversimplification.

In the conclusion of this article–its strong point–Slawek successfully demonstrates the ways that Abhinavagupta’s theoretical treatise on rasaactually provide more of an illuminating conclusion than leading anthropologist’s theories do. But what this conclusion lacks, is a further discussion of the politics of his own choice to focus on a Hindu treatise for a musical tradition that has been essentially dominated (except for the past 150 years) by Muslims.

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