The past decade has seen a radical expansion of themes and areas of critical inquiry related to the performing arts of southern India. Caste and the question of Dalit-Bahujan histories, histories of colonial capitalism and mercantile communities (Muslim/Christian/Hindu) in South India and its diaspora, transoceanic flows of cultural forms, and questions around cultural nationalism, today’s majoritarian politics, and the post-Hindutva public sphere, have been at the heart of many of these important interventions. The scholars invited to this conference work across a range of disciplines (Anthropology, Ethnomusicology, History, History of Science, Religious Studies, and Sociology), and yet their work comes together in its important regional focus and its commitment to the production of socio-political critique and commentary. This conference hopes to de-center earlier nationalist-inflected histories about the arts in South India, and bridge new thinking on performance across diverse forms of knowledge and critical methods.

The work being presented at this conference ranges from analyses of raga-based songs about indentured labor in colonial Mauritius, to nineteenth-century Islamic devotional songs in Tamil and Arabi-Malayalam, to questions around the policing, censorship, and appropriation of Tamil Dalit musical forms in today’s Chennai. Framed around six conceptual and thematic axes, this conference maps some of the complex negotiations and slippages that have led us to the impoverished mainstream histories and forms of cultural amnesia that seem to be endemic to the practice and discourse around the performing arts of South India today. Moving beyond analysis limited to nationalist and colonial frames and elite (so-called “classical”) performance practices, this conference foregrounds the timely issues of caste, community, and the idea of the South Indian performing arts as sites of social, cultural, and economic capital-making.