Sacred and Secular Musics

A Postcolonial Approach

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Virinder S. Kalra
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sacred and Secular Musics: A Postcolonial Approach, is a volume in a new series of Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music. One hopes that other volumes received closer proofreading, as this volume is marred by typos and technical errors, although such shortcomings do not reduce the value of the work. The author, Virinder S. Kalra, is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester, UK and a flute player and poet. His work combines musicology, South Asian Studies, postcolonial theory, and the study of religion. The book is a “long and complex journey from precolonial Punjab through English musical history via German classicisation and bhangra pop, [and] . . . is not possible to succinctly summarise” (161). Its aim is to bring three areas into dialogue: the complex puzzle [gorakh dhanda] of “religion, music and the notion of the classical in the subcontinent” (1). Punjab, with its post-partition distinction between secular India and Islamic Pakistan, is a fertile area to reveal the relation of music and the sacred, and the formation of the Classical in Europe and the “Clessicul” in India reflects “a bifurcation of India as a land steeped in religion and England as the pinnacle of secular, capitalist modernity” (44). (Kalra distinguishes Classical from shastri sangeet as “Clessicul,” “to better articulate its pronunciation by the musicians but also to deform it” [xii]). The discursive formations of both converge and diverge around religion: where “Classical music relies on the expulsion of God in Europe . . . Clessicul music is created through the arrival of God in colonial India” (47).

Kalra looks at dhrupad, a vocal form often defined as sacred, and immediately notes that it can be Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh (6). Looking further at qawwali, kirtan, dharmic geet, and popular folk music, Kalra considers both historical literature on music and religion, and also “secondary literature, interviews and performance analysis” (13). Noting that religion is read out of music-making in Europe but read into much of Indian music (14), he demonstrates the way in which kirtan and qawwali became Sikh and Muslim respectively, “despite similarity in audibility and performer overlap” (16).

Perhaps the heart of Kalra’s argument is that the failure of the secular project is represented in the way in which religiosity has been associated with music. Pre-partition North India is replete with “texts that mix languages, idiom and thought, representing the heterolinguistic and heteroreligious ambience” natural to the culture (75). Colonial agendas did great damage to that culture with the imposition of the monolingual, monoreligious model. The division of religious music into “Sikh” Gurbani kirtans and “Muslim” qawwals came about through a series of exclusions—of rababis (Muslim performers in Sikh gurdwaras), women, and the congregation—“necessary for the Clessicul to conjoin with religion” (95).

Although religious revivalists argue for a close relationship between raag—melodic mode—and text (84), no emotion can be reliably associated with any raag, and so “the specificity of music to a particular emotional state is dependent on the musician’s understanding” (85). Furthermore, “analysis of the resonance between text and sound quickly leads to a deconstruction of the idea [of] … a more ‘spiritual sound’” (100). Kalra concludes that there is a “complete absence of a link between musical style, lyrical content and religiosity” (116). It is, rather, in the relationship between performers, patrons, and audiences (124-127), recognized as “a delicate negotiation of . . . social relations,” that “the cusp of the sacred and the secular” resides (127). Trapping that negotiation in a homogenized, monoreligious model is “to contain the hetero-religious elements of the form and put it to the service of a repetition of colonial modernity” (127).

Category-defying religious figures like Gugga Pir, Sakhi Sarwar, Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath, and “portable” authors such as Bulleh Shah and Kabir, drive home Kalra’s point—religion is naturally heterogeneous, despite Western ethnographers who see it “through the lens of the hegemonic forms, Brahminism and Sharia Islam” (132). The bazurgs or elders of Sufi orders include men such as Nanak and Kabir (118) who are conventionally associated with Sikhism or Bhakti Hinduism. Religion as expressed through the music of the Punjab is as naturally heterogeneous and eclectic as the music itself: “musical evocation does not immediately lend itself to formal bounded religions” (133).

Academic study deploys “a humanities framework that takes religion as a transparent category,” a “one-dimensional view” (127) in which qawwali, although seen as quintessentially religious and intrinsically Islamic, and kirtan, although associated specifically with the Sikh tradition, betray the intrinsically heteroreligious nature of the medium. In both, rejection of “elements that do not neatly fit into the classification of ‘religious’ end up in the residual category of folk music” (129), in which “remnants of a heteroreligious music are audible” (134). This is “the same process by which Clessicul [and Classical] music maintains its distance” from other forms (135). Short biographies of many musicians bear out Kalra’s insistence on the fluidity and heteroreligiosity of music culture: musicians often have “a reverent attitude to both the Prophet Muhammad and the paraphernalia of gods and goddesses” (145, quoting Hardial Thuti). Here, divisions between Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and secular, like the division between sacred and secular, are “not so easy to hold onto without other props for support” (163)—props including the Indian State, secular colonial modernity, and theocracy.

Sacred and Secular Musics may not collapse the distinction between sacred and secular music (65), but it certainly problematizes it, showing it to be ineluctably embroiled in other political and cultural classifications. But it also shows that the sacrality of music, which resides in the interaction of patron, performer, and audience, is naturally heterogeneous, and does not reject the concept of “religion” as nothing but an empty ethnocentric construction of Western imperial power. One can still meaningfully be a “religious specialist” (128). It does all this engagingly, informatively, and convincingly. The twenty-five associated video and audio clips on YouTube are particularly appreciated (171).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bryan Rennie is the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Religion at Westminster College

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Virinder S. Kalra is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester, UK.


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