Padavali-kirtan : music, religious aesthetics, and nationalism in West Bengal’s cultural economy




Graves, Eben Morse

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This dissertation studies the devotional musical genre of padāvalī-kīrtan from the early twentieth century until the present in the Indian state of West Bengal. In particular, I study how the interrelated spheres of religious aesthetics, Bengali cultural nationalism, and the genre’s relationship with economic exchange impact the performative and discursive spheres of padāvalī-kīrtan. The textual repertoire of this genre draws from, and informs, the Hindu devotional practice of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, specifically focusing on the religious aesthetic concept of the “devotional mood” (bhakti-rasa). This connection with religious aesthetics further impacts the performance style of padāvalī-kīrtan, which uses a specific type of musical form with long meters and slow tempos to create padāvalīkīrtan’s ritual frame of performance. In addition to the influence of religious aesthetics, I investigate how the Bengali nationalist elite defined padāvalī-kīrtan as a symbol of Bengali cultural nationalism in the early twentieth century, and thus sought to overturn a sense of cultural loss experienced under colonial rule. This project re-emphasized the image of the religiously devout and musically skilled kīrtan musician as a way of distancing the genre from other Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava-influenced traditions that were in a state of ill repute at that time. The current phase of padāvalī-kīrtan performance that I study through performance-based and ethnographic analysis is defined by the rise of entrepreneurial and marketing strategies that musicians employ to find new audiences for padāvalī-kīrtan. This move to create new markets for kīrtan becomes an issue of contention with urban-based musicians, journalists, and cultural activists, and I study these debates surrounding padāvalī-kīrtan’s relationship with economic exchange through the theoretical lens of the cultural economy. I argue that the pejorative attitudes directed at present-day professional kīrtan musicians overlook the genre’s long history of adapting to shifting systems of patronage and financial support throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods.



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