Theses Doctoral

Confusion in the Karnatic Capital: Fusion in Chennai, India

Higgins, Nicholas Andreas

This dissertation examines how a contested musical practice makes the problems of modernity in India audible. In particular, I look at the relationship between South Indian "fusion" musicians and India's recent economic and cultural growth attributed to the economic reforms of 1991. Fusion is the local name for a musical practice that combines South Indian classical music with elements from rock, jazz, and world music. During thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the South Indian city of Chennai between 2006-8, I attended countless concerts, interviewed dozens of people involved with musical production, and performed with musicians. I observed how musicians and audiences perpetuated the idea that fusion was contested and I documented the local debates that often expressed a deep uncertainty and ambiguity about the legitimacy of fusion. What can a contested musical practice reveal about the recent economic and cultural changes in contemporary urban India? Fusion is contested because its multiple and contradicting histories, definitions, and opinions make it a unique musical problem in Chennai. This problem is further complicated when the explicit intension of fusion as musical mixing is also understood as an example of persistent debates of cultural mixing that are so crucial to India's colonial history and postcolonial present. In this dissertation, I show how fusion triggers debates that provide a unique constellation of irresolvable tensions that help situate contemporary, urban, South Indian musicians within the changing relations between India and the West. The contestation about fusion has led to a lacuna of critical scholarship that this dissertation remedies. I argue that rather than being a reason to overlook fusion, fusion's contestation loads it with meaning and makes it a rich, unexamined site of expressive culture. It provides a unique domain to understand how musicians in Chennai represent the always-changing relations of India and the West through their discourse about music and musical sound.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Washburne, Christopher J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013