Book Review: Peterson Indira and Soneji Devesh (eds.)’s “Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India” Reviewed by Archana Venkatesan

We republish here a review of Peterson Indira and Soneji Devesh (eds.)’s “Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India” that was written by Archana Venkatesan and which appeared on H-Asia (April, 2011).

Arts in South India

The edited volume Performing Pasts by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji concerns the place of the performing arts in the history of modern South India. It takes as its central argument that the invention and classicizing of the performing arts (specifically music and dance) was forged in the nexus of colonialism, nationalism, and regionalism and that an examination of the elite metropolitan discourses surrounding the performing arts reveals something significant about the workings of modernity in South Asia in general and South India in particular. Performing Pasts has a two-fold aim: to explore the interface between modernity and the performing arts in South India (p. 1), and in doing so, to fill the lacuna regarding a cultural and social history of South Indian music and dance. The ten essays in this volume engage with the complex manner in which issues both local (regionalism, language politics, caste) and national (gender, Victorian morality) were refracted in the remaking and reinvention of South Indian music and dance. While these essays center primarily on the elite, metropolitan discourses that emerged between the nineteenth until the mid-twentieth centuries from cultural hubs like Tanjavur and Madras, they successfully demonstrate the hybridity of traditions, performers, and pedagogical practices. Furthermore, the interpretive perspectives–textual, anthropological, historical–amply demonstrate the very hybridity that the authors seek to highlight. They enable the essays to “connect with each other in fruitful ways, and to illuminate issues related to the performing arts as ‘cultural performance’ in its multiple dimensions” (p. 4).

The volume’s comprehensive introduction jointly authored by Peterson and Soneji does more than just offer summaries of the articles or their methodological orientations. Rather, this introductory essay provides richly textured historical background and traverses the essays’ most significant arguments about the development of the performing arts in India. The brief stories of music and dance cultures are recounted against the backdrop of nationalist, Orientalist, and colonial impulses, and elegantly articulate how issues of identity, linguistic and caste politics, female sexuality, and the emergence of new centers of cultural, economic and political power, came together in the efforts to classicize, standardize, and sacralize South Indian music and dance. For instance, the nationalist project of Karnatak music was one which brought together Tamil and Telugu Brahmins of the new middle class, Orientalist scholars, and Theosophists. The impulses of the Dravidian movement and the push towards formulating a Tamil music, embodied in the Tamil Isai Sangam, occurred simultaneously. However, as the volume’s editors point out, the invention of Karnatak music was not solely a Brahmin project, patronized as it was (and continues to be) by the non-Brahmin elite. Similarly, music composition in Tamil was taken up Brahmins, non-Brahmins, Christians, and Muslims alike, while each claimed for themselves a distinctly Tamil identity. Claims such as the ones above are borne out by a number of essays in the volume, but two widely different ones suffice to make the point. Zoe Sherinian explores Tamil Protestant indigenization of thekirttanai form to resist the very elite structures of power that produced it. Matthew Allen Harp’s article examines the work of the Madras Music Academy in standardizing and textualizing music, particularly in its desire to articulate the structures of ragas and talas scientifically.

While literature on the history of music in India from the nineteenth century is just emerging, there is a huge amount of wide-ranging scholarship on the interventions and experiments with dance in the same period. Many of the articles in this volume build on this already existent scholarship–indeed many of the contributors have been instrumental in forging this body of research work–but do so in new and interesting ways. The essays on dance, specifically, Bharatanatyam, in this volume therefore do not simply rehearse the old arguments about the de-eroticizing of dance and the gradual erosion of ritual, economic, and performance rights of thedevadasi. Instead, the essays by Hari Krishnan, Janet O’Shea, Peterson, and Soneji offer us something new. Krishnan traces the textualization of dance repertoire and practice, exemplified by the innovations introduced by the Tanjavur Quartet (nineteenth century) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, identifying said impulse as a response to the potential loss of the repertoire by hereditary performers on account of the pressures of social reform. By taking up contemporary dance and choreographic practice in Chennai and Sri Lanka, particularly as it pertains to Tamil identity, O’Shea’s essay tackles the very manner in which dance is employed to reimagine a specific past for a specific (if global) community. Similarly, both Peterson’s essay and Soneji’s article concentrate on the central role of nostalgia and memory in constructing the past. While Peterson takes up the famous serialized Tamil novel Tillana Mohanambal (1956-57) by Kalaimani Kothamangalam Subbu to argue that the novel’s nostalgic celebration of the hereditary performance traditions of the temple-city of Tiruvarur offers an version of these traditions that stands in opposition to the elite or regionalist, Soneji plumbs his rich ethnographic work with the devadasis of coastal Andhra to demonstrate the key place of memory and performance in maintaining their identity. He takes us behind their closed-door private performances, undertaken solely for their pleasure, and in doing so allows the voices of these women to embody the very arguments that Kalaimani seeks to make in Tillana Mohanambal. This penultimate essay brings a number of the volume’s themes together and acts as a fitting and thought-provoking conclusion.

As the editors Soneji and Peterson mention in their substantial introduction, the ten essays are divided thematically into four major sections. The first section of three essays, Lakshmi Subramanian, Krishnan, and Harp, reflects on the problematic issue of canons and canonization. As such, these three essays take up the process of textualization and standardization, with two of the essays specifically focused on music and the work of the Music Academy (Subramanian and Harp) that was founded in Chennai in 1928. The second section, “The Local and Global: Regional and National Pasts,” consists of two essays by Avanti Meduri and O’Shea. Meduri takes up the crucial work of Rukmini Arundale as “dance-historian” whose influential re-imagining of the stage as a visual representation of the triangular, symbiotic relationship between god, guru, and temple, enabled her to simultaneously historicize and spiritualize Bharatanatyam. Not coincidentally, her re-imaginings of stage and of dance took place at the same time as the scientific standardization projects undertaken by the members of the Madras Music Academy. By focusing on Chennai and Sri Lanka, and Bharatanatyam’s key role in expressing different pasts in India and in Sri Lanka, O’Shea explicates the local and global appeal of Bharatanatyam, and in particular its fluid and chimerical character. The three essays of Saskia Kersenboom, Amanda Weidman, and Peterson constitute the third section, entitled “Views from Within: Self Conscious Reflections on Tradition.” While Peterson’s essay’s centerpiece is a Tamil novel, Weidman examines the interventions of new technologies, particularly the phonograph and radio broadcasts, in reshaping musical pedagogical practices, and notions of the authentic transmission of repertoire from teacher to disciple. Kersenboom applies the emic Tamil categories of grammar and form to an analysis of the seminal Bhairavi varnam “Mohamana” to argue for the flexible, ever-changing nature of marabu (tradition). In particular, she argues that the text, particularly one such as “Mohamana,” constantly changes as it finds form and expression through embodied practice. The final section, “Identity, Community and Resistance: Imagining Alternatives to Tradition,” offers two essays by Soneji and Zoe Sherinian that take up the central place of performance in forging caste/gender identities, and as a means of articulating resistance to the dominant elite narratives.

One of Performing Pasts’ great strength is that it draws the reader’s attention both to important commonalities and divergences within South Asia and particularly with the traditions that concern the volume’s authors. Thus, for instance, we are drawn to attend to the difference in the interventions in the cultural spheres of literature and the visual arts and the performing arts. Whereas the former was directed more towards innovation and novelty, the thrust of the discourse surrounding the performing arts had to do with its antiquity and classicism (p. 5). Even so, the authors and the accompanying essays amply demonstrate that the reinvention of the performing arts in South India beginning in the nineteenth century was marked by adaptations and borrowing from Western practices and the introduction of all kinds of innovations. As Krishnan argues in his essay, these might take the shape of the move to standardize and textualize embodied practices as early as the late eighteenth century. In still other cases, it occurs under the influence of new instruments such as the violin or new technologies such as radio and phonograph (Weidman). Peterson and Soneji have organized the essays along four specific themes, but since these essays are so rich and textured, they lend themselves to being read with and against each other. For example, reading the essays on Bharatanatyam (or Karnatak music) together offers a nuanced portrait of the difficult and oftentimes painful history of Bharatanatyam, India’s iconic dance form. Similarly, one could read these essays with particular attention to sites of production, which are as varied as institutions like the Music Academy, cities such as Chennai, or erstwhile cultural centers such as Tanjavur, Tiruvarur, and coastal Andhra Pradesh. This last would be a particularly fruitful way of reading the essays in this volume, as one of its central arguments concerns the production and consumption of performance in multiple venues in multiple contexts–in temple, in courts, and in salons, suggesting a multiplicity and cosmopolitanism that was erased by nationalist discourses that located music and dance in the temple, thereby ensuring their persistent identification with the sacred.

Although the book title marks its territory as South India, the majority of the essays focus on Tamil Nadu and elite Hindu culture. Nonetheless the themes, theoretical approaches, work with multiple language sources (Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit, for example), and arguments about the manner in which texts and performance cultures travel (for instance from Tanjavur to coastal Andhra, or from Chennai to Sri Lanka), open up new avenues for consideration. Rather than an assemblage of essays representing various linguistic traditions of South India, the book is attentive to the significance of place (performance practices in Tanjavur may not be shared in Pudukkotai, although repertoires clearly traveled) and of the polyglot, cosmopolitan quality of various cultural centers such as Tanjavur, coastal Andhra Pradesh, or Chennai. For its ability to inspire discussion and further investigation, this thoroughly researched and cleanly edited volume is ideal for use in courses on Indian social and cultural history at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and is a welcome and important addition to the slow-growing resources on the important place of the performing arts in the Indian nationalist project.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:


Indira Peterson, Devesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi + 356 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-569084-2.


Citation: Archana Venkatesan. Review of Peterson, Indira; Soneji, Devesh, eds., Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2011.


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