Instrumental bodies : constructing, curating, and consuming artisans' labors in transnational sitar making

Kharod, Aruna
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From the 1800s onwards, sitar makers and affiliated artisans have shaped transnational cultural, political, and material exchanges of sitar making and music through their labors and roles as economic and cultural agents. However, historical representations that perpetuate Western European and Indian social, labor, and economic theories decontextualize, pathologize, and portray sitar making—alongside other forms of Indian hereditary artisanship—as incompatible with modern economic systems. Representing sitar makers as anachronistic intensifies their political and socioeconomic precarities as largely invisible artisans whose labors sustain vibrant worlds of sitar music in and beyond India. In this dissertation, I argue that five intersecting domains of discourse and practice render invisible sitar-making labors in transnational settings: 1) Indian and Western European social and economic theories of Indian hereditary artisanship; 2) colonial-era portraiture and museum curation of sitars and hereditary Indian artisans; 3) the opposition of constructs of labor and craft in sitar makers’ self-representation and literature on Indian artisanship; 4) leisure musical consumption in diasporic settings; and 5) Indian political policies on handicraft. I uncover connections between these five domains through historiographic and ethnographic research in museums, archives, and with sitar makers in India and the United States. Case studies from this research uncover sitar-making artisans’ roles as dynamic sociopolitical and cultural agents who adapt to and harness changing economic, political, and virtual infrastructures. Theoretically speaking, I draw upon interdisciplinary perspectives from critical organology, South Asian studies, economic and labor theory, and material culture studies to reveal how sitar makers navigate unpredictable material, political, social, and economic conditions. This historically grounded perspective counters contemporary cultural representations that erase or underplay the role of sitar makers in shaping the proliferation and cultural exchange of Hindustani music in India and its diasporas. It also reasserts the importance of historical, sociopolitical, and economic contexts in applications of material culture and ethnomusicological studies. By tracing how sitar makers engage, resist, leverage, and subvert historical processes and narratives through exercising their sociopolitical agencies, this dissertation establishes sitar makers’ roles as instrumental agents of musical and artisanal production.