From the Director's Desk
-Carol Babiracki, Associate Professor of Music History and Cultures
My first semester as director has been enlightening, hectic, and satisfying. All of us involved with the Center owe a big “vote of thanks” to out-going director Susan S. Wadley for shepherding the Center so successfully for so many decades (yes, decades!). I add to that my own sincere thanks to both her and our Associate Director and Outreach Coordinator, Emera Bridger Wilson, for generously smoothing the way for me. If only political transitions were so seamless!
As I write this from my veranda in a poor, crowded basti of Ranchi city in Jharkhand, my thoughts return to sustainability, a recurring theme at the Center this past year. I’m not just talking about clean water and air (both in short supply in this basti), but of deeper currents of creativity and community. I thought about it as I sat with friends through an interminable Christmas mass at a small church a few nights ago. The priests and most of the worshippers were adivasis (“tribal” people), and I wondered how these locally rooted people sustain their belief in a distant, pink-faced baby savior, not to mention the animated Santa Claus singing incessantly at the door of the church. Once the austere rituals were over, I began to understand. Christians and their non-Christian friends spilled into courtyards and streets, setting off firecrackers and dancing all night. Everyone loves a good Jharkhand festival.
Missing in most of the celebrations, though, was live music, which has been replaced by recorded pop songs. Across India, hereditary local musicians, like the residents of my current neighborhood, struggle to sustain their traditional livelihoods against a modernity that increasingly sees them as irrelevant and socially marginal. Guests of the Center shared similar stories throughout this past year. Nautanki (page 3) director Dr. Devendra Sharma has responded with his play Mission Suhani, dressing contemporary issues in traditional music and dance to appeal to a new, diasporic audience. Merasis (page 7) from Jaisalmer shared their innovative projects to help hereditary musicians navigate the contemporary music industry. [As I write, my research partner, Mukund Nayak, and his troupe are on their way to Delhi for a performance at Sangeet Natak Akademi.] For all such success stories, there are many more of musicians who have had to abandon their deep, complex knowledge systems in order to survive.
A couple of days ago, a reporter asked what had attracted me to Jharkhand’s music and dance. I might have said the graceful dances, layered song texts, or complicated drumming patterns. But it was really the participatory social environment, the community created by the musicians. They have been the chroniclers, philosophers, and the very identity of this region for hundreds of years. Whether their fragile position is a result, reflection, or cause of social fragmentation (likely all three), their silence is Jharkhand’s loss.