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Official Fellow: Chloe Alaghband-Zadeh (2013-2017) - Understanding t. humri

In a warm room in a guesthouse just outside Venice, a group of women sit in a circle. Most are on an assortment of rugs and cushions on the floor, while some of the older ones sit on chairs around the edges. Their teacher sits on a mattress at the front. She is singing t. humri-, a semi-classical vocal genre of North Indian classical music.

She sings one composition after another, pausing between each to explain the meaning of the lyrics. Her students listen intently. Their task is to decide which of these songs they would like to learn. As they listen, the students look around the room, making eye contact with each other and sharing their delight in what they are hearing. Occasionally, when they hear something especially beautiful, some of them comment out loud. One participant wipes tears from her eyes.

After nearly half an hour and a short discussion, a unanimous decision is reached: the students would like to learn ‘Holi- main khelungi-’, a t.humri in ra-g Sohini. Their teacher initially has some reservations because of the difficulty of the ra-g,
but soon affirms their choice, saying, ‘You should learn what you love!’ Then she gestures for them to take out their notebooks and starts to dictate the names of scale degrees. This is a snapshot of a vocal workshop I attended in June 2016, along with participants from the UK, Italy and India. Our teacher was Sunanda Sharma, a rising star in Indian classical music. All the students were women, ranging from people in their early twenties to senior citizens. Some were great musical enthusiasts and had known each other for years; others were newcomers to Indian classical music.

Conversation at the workshop flowed between English and Hindi, with occasional translations into Italian. During the lessons, talking about music and about life seamlessly intertwined with practice and instruction. Sharma shared memories of her own learning experiences and anecdotes about being a musician. Learning t.humri - gave rise to discussions about Hindu mythology, love, marriage, rural lifestyles in India, being a woman, and what it’s like to be separated from loved ones. These conversations shaped the ways we experienced the music, intensifying our emotional investments in what we were hearing and singing.

What is the relationship between the social life of music and its sounds, styles and structures? I am interested in music’s power to shape the social world, and in the ways that music takes on meaning in people’s lives. T. humri is a rich field in which to ask these questions: once sung and danced by courtesans in intimate concerts for elite male patrons, this genre is now a central component of contemporary North Indian classical music, enjoyed by audiences in India and internationally. As a result of this transformation, t.humri - now evokes diverse sets of meanings for musicians and music-lovers: some hear in t.humr?- sonic traces of the nowextinct courtesan tradition, while others invest the genre with ideas about Hindu spirituality, selfless love, nationalism, femininity or everyday life in an imagined Indian rural past. More than any other Indian classical genre, the meanings of t.humri-‘s music are constantly being renegotiated by singers and music-lovers.

During my Research Fellowship at Emmanuel, I have investigated t.humri- through both ethnographic research in India and also close analysis of the music. I show how it is enmeshed in broad social processes. Just as discussions of music and life intertwined with our singing at Sharma’s workshop in Italy, so, at a broader scale, the music of t.humri- intersects with ideologies and imagined histories. As my research has revealed, acts of making and listening to t.humri are about much more than simply finding pleasure in beautiful music; rather, they are central to people’s social identities, with the power to shape how they experience and navigate the social world.

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