SAC Director Carol Babiracki reflects on partnership with Mukund Nayak

Aug 25, 2017 | Rob Enslin

Carol BabirackiWhen Mukund Nayak found out he had won this year’s Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, he immediately called Carol Babiracki to offer his congratulations.

“No, no. The congratulations should go to you,” replied his longtime friend and colleague, who is an ethnomusicologist in the College of Arts and Sciences and the director of the South Asia Center in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “This award is for you, too.”

An associate professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories (AMH), Babiracki has known Nayak since 1981, when he was a low-paid state worker in what is now the East Indian state of Jharkhand. Since then, both have climbed the ranks of their respective professions, while mining the region’s millennia-old folk performance traditions.

That Nayak accepted the award on the eve of India’s 68th Republic Day in January gave citizens—and Babiracki—one more reason to celebrate. The award underscored, among other things, the role of traditional arts and culture in India’s march toward economic prosperity.

“Regional music lives on in India because it embodies a wide range of values pertaining to community, locality, rituals and gender,” says Babiracki, an A&S faculty member since 1999. “Regional performance is a bellwether of social and cultural identity-formation and of processes of change.”  

Arguably, no one is synonymous with Jharkhandi arts and culture more than Nayak, a 67-year-old singer, songwriter, drummer, dancer and political activist. He and Babiracki, a scholar-teacher of South Asian music and dance, have spent nearly four decades documenting the endangered or marginal performance traditions of East-Central India. Their current project concerns the traditional village musician caste of the Ghasi. 

Consigned to the lowest rung of the local caste hierarchy, Ghasis are usually poor and illiterate. Nayak is the exception to the latter. A polyglot fluent in English, he is one of only a few to have graduated from the village akhra (an outdoor, circular dancing ground) to the urban stage, while preserving his rural musical sensibilities.

“Mukund and I are capturing what’s left of these village traditions—their unwritten histories, their indigenous identities, their contributions to a pan-ethnic, regional musical lingua franca—for an upcoming book,” says Babiracki, the author of several other publications, as well as dozens of scholarly articles and chapters. “He learned his art as a child in the course of collective singing and dancing. One can hear these roots in his dense, edgy vocal style.”  

Read the full article on the College of Arts & Sciences website.