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In Search of Agency: South Indian Percussion in a Globalized India


South Indian classical (Karnatic) music and dance are essential representations of a globalized Indian identity and culture. They are emblematic of and perpetuate socio-cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity within nationalist and performance spaces. I examine the current performance space as a heritage tradition, revived and reclaimed in the 1940s-Nationalist Period.

My dissertation focuses on the performance of gender within Karnatic music from a postcolonial decolonized perspective. I examine musical performances where gender intersects with postcolonial realities. These performances represent moments of postcolonial experience as artists negotiate changing power relationships and perform socio-cultural expectations. The performance space provides new ways to examine and experience Karnatic percussion performance from a non-hegemonic, dominant perspective.

I use gender and postcolonial theory as broad theoretical constructs to frame my work and to explore unquestioned power dynamics within private and public performance spaces. Gender is a complex part of the patriarchal performance space. With increased diasporic presence and technological changes, the tradition and gendered performances have become cultural, globalized commodities.

Gendered negotiations within Karnatic percussion are essential to the examination of these patriarchal layers of conformity and tradition. Furthermore, women performers at the Chennai Margazhi music festival are instrumental to this promotion and dissemination. This festival provides performances which demonstrate the maintenance of gendered cultural ideologies in the face of change and globalization.

I examine gender through the body and performances of male and female percussionists. Percussion is one place where it is harder to negotiate and break through gendered norms. It is a male dominated instrument and there are few women who chose to learn, perform, and negotiate their gendered presence within these spaces. Furthermore, the limitations placed on female percussionists because of the Nationalist reforms affects how they choose to either exist within the patriarchal system or to create new musical niches. I read beneath layers of patriarchy, tradition, and nationalism to discuss power dynamics of dominance and submission. The exploration of women’s societal responses to and participation as a part of this musical system which stands within this patriarchal, hetero-normative framework will add a new dimension to feminist scholarship.

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