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Associate Professor, Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Date & Time

Thursday Thu, 25 Jan 2024


7, 4th Main Road, Domlur II Stage
Bengaluru, Karnataka 560 071 India


This talk examines the inaudible yet polyphonic pasts of modern South Indian raga-based music by exploring the complex history of Islamic musical production in Tamil-speaking South India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Drawing on an unexplored archive of Tamil songbooks, music manuals, devotional materials, and other print ephemera, it follows the highly flexible genres that populate the Tamil Islamic sonic landscape: the Tamil kirttana, padam, chindu, javali, and the hybrid musical munajattu, and analyzes these in relation to highly localized Tamil Sufi devotional cultures on the one hand, as well as formal, canonical traditions of Tamil Islamic literary production on the other. Most centrally, however, in moving through the dense and labyrinthine archive of Tamil Muslim musical production and dissemination, this work argues for the restoration of Muslim creative and agentive forces into our historical scripts for modern South Indian raga-based music.

It is important that we read these instantiations of musical abundance against monolithic narratives about the “cultural insularity” of the arts of South India, and also against narratives about Muslim cultural impoverishment associated with the supposed interdictions around music in modern South Asian Islam.

A Q&A session with the speaker will follow.

Image Credits:
Thumbnail: The dargah that venerates the Sufi saint Kattubava, understood to be the grandson of Shahul Hamid of Nagore. This dargah, known as Kattubava Pallivasal, just outside Pudukkottai, is the inspiration for sets of songs in the kirttana and chindu genres produced in the early twentieth century.

Header: A folio from an Arwi (araputtamil) manuscript of songs in the Tamil kirttana genre by the poet and musician Muhammadu Abdulla Lebbai Alim (1870-1962) of Kayalpattinam. His kirttana compositions were later published under the title Kirttana Ranjitam in Madras in 1909.


Davesh Soneji

Associate Professor, Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Davesh Soneji, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of South Asia Studies, holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. His research focuses on the intersections of social and cultural history, religion, and anthropology, particularly in South India. Over the past two decades, he has explored topics such as religion, performing arts, gender, class, caste, and colonialism. Notably, his work on the social history of professional female artists in Tamil and Telugu-speaking South India, presented in Unfinished Gestures, earned him the 2013 Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize from The Association for Asian Studies.

Soneji has held positions as a Visiting Professor in India and Paris and previously taught at McGill University in Montreal. His recent research delves into the history of music in modern South India, covering diverse subjects like Tamil Islamic music, Tamil Catholic music, Marathi kīrtan, Tamil theatre music, and transoceanic sonic histories of the Tamil diaspora. This ongoing research will be featured in his forthcoming monograph, Unbounded Tunes: Genealogies of Musical Pluralism in Modern South India. Additionally, he is editing a volume of essays on caste, community, and the performing arts, and co-editing The Routledge Handbook of Indian Music with Anna Morcom. Currently, for the 2023-24 academic year, he is serving as a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University’s Institute for Sacred Music.