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When “Unheard Sound” (Re)Sounds: Affective Listening, Ethical Affects, and Embodied Experience in Sikh Sabad Kīrtan

  • Author(s): Kaur, Inderjit
  • Advisor(s): Wade, Bonnie C.
  • et al.

In Sikh religious practice, listening to sung sacred poetry (sabad kīrtan) is the chief means of worship and a central part of everyday life for Sikhs around the world. While it is the sacred-text (sabad) that is held as primary and inviolable, and music is regarded as secondary and flexible, it is the musical rendering of sabad that is the most widely practiced worship activity. In this dissertation I explore the combined role of sabad and music in the lived experience of congregants participating in sabad kīrtan. Based on ethnographic research, I propose that sabad kīrtan listening is a primarily affective practice that also constitutes an epistemic site where ethicality is experienced as embodied sensation rather than as mentalist reasoning; that sabad kīrtan occasions are listening ecologies where affect becomes imbued with ethicality. My investigation explores how music heightens those ethically-imbued affective experiences—that is, the ways in which music works on the sensorium to deepen such sensations. I focus on three types of sensations that I found to be particularly intensified among congregants in different kīrtan occasions, namely feelings of affection, and of awe, and the experience of aura. I analyze the role of musical sound from the three main contemporary musical genres of sabad kīrtan – the most popular “light” genre, the fast growing AKJ (Akhand Kīrtani Jatha) genre, and the historical, in revival, “classical” genre. Thus, highlighting the contributions of diverse musical means in rich experiences among congregants, I critique the objectification of musical sound in recent scholarship on sabad kīrtan, and the binarized authenticity discourses among a few Sikh musicians as well as scholars focused on the classical genre. I argue that the multifaceted affective work of musical sound is contextual even within a tradition, i.e., in its different musical sub-collectivities. Shifting the focus from musicians to listeners, I draw attention to the crucial interpretive work of reception in the representation of traditions and assessment of change over time, proposing what I term “multiple authenticities in motion.”

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