Stanford music scholar explores how Indian traditional folk music fuses the devotional with the political

In the first-ever ethnography of Hindu nationalism and music, Stanford music Professor Anna Schultz examines an Indian performance medium embedded with nationalist political messages.

Mark Nye kirtankar performs a devotional song in the Marathi language

A kirtankar performs a devotional song in the Marathi language in the western Indian city of Pune, in Maharashtra state.

What happens when religious folk songs are used for political purposes?

Stanford ethnomusicologist Anna Schultz explores this question in her latest publication, Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance.

For centuries people in India have gathered in temples or on pilgrimages to hear kirtan, a form of Indian folk music that praises the divine. Schultz has studied a particular form of kirtan known as rastriya (or nationalist) kirtan performed in Marathi, a language from the western part of India. 

This genre of singing and performance combines music, storytelling and performance with a specific intent: to instill in its listeners a devotion to the nation.

"Kirtankars [performers of kirtan] are not saying 'nationalism is devotion,''' Schultz pointed out, "but through performance, they use signs in finely attuned ways to bring politics and religion together so that they are just one tightly bound unit of meaning."

According to Schultz, rastriya kirtan played a pivotal role in political reform in India's history. It grew popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drawing crowds of spectators and inspiring masses to resist British colonial rule.

A scholar of South Asian music, Schultz is the first in her field to attempt to map out the ways in which rastriya kirtan performers use devotion to achieve ends that are simultaneously nationalist and religious. 

"It's just as important to think about how nationalism is communicated as it is to think about what the content of the communication is," she said.

Using a historical and ethnographic lens, Schultz uncovered some of the traits of the musical form that allow it to effectively meld the political with the devotional.

Because kirtankars represent the divine Hindu sage Narad, their nationalist messages are infused with a spiritual weight. Further, rastriya kirtans are always transmitted from a sacred space known as "Narad's mat." The highly localized events also use the language of a specific region, in this case, Marathi, to manipulate public opinion.

Schultz observed that the kirtankar's method of performance works because "audience members don't even feel that anything is being brought together; it feels like the natural state of things."

Persuasive lyrics

During the colonial period in India, some of the lyrics in songs that would have otherwise been about saints or epic heroes were replaced with tales of the brave deeds of contemporary political leaders who would then be framed as saints.

For instance, Schultz cited the kirtankar Gadge Baba who "enjoined listeners to stop making offerings to clay idols and to regard [Mahatma] Gandhi as a god because of his service to the nation."

This example sheds light on kirtankars as not only teaching about the nature of political structure or national identity, but also persuading people to feel emotionally attached to the nation.  

After India's independence in 1947, when partition was imposed between India and Pakistan, Schultz explained, such kirtan inevitably took on a different tone since there was no British ruler to vilify.

She offered as an example a kirtan about Shivaji, a 17th-century Hindu king. If a kirtan of this kind was performed before independence, the role of the enemy Muslim conqueror, Afzal Khan, would represent British forces. However, the same character in a more recent rastriya kirtan performance signifies contemporary Indian Muslims.

 "The opposition is posited as one between 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' rather than between 'native' and 'foreigner,'" Schultz explained.

An enduring art form

Schultz first heard kirtan performed 22 years ago while she was an undergraduate living and studying in Pune, a city in western India. 

"I was impressed by the emotion and the nature of the participation and the skills with which a kirtankar could hold a crowd," she said.

The field research for her book project took her back to Pune, where she worked closely with kirtan texts from the mid-19th century, when kirtan was first published in Marathi.

Along with newspaper articles and public addresses as sources, she collected oral histories with kirtankars and their families. She also spent time attending contemporary kirtan performances and studying with a kirtan teacher. Drawing on this research, she carefully charted how rastriya kirtan evolved over time and met specific needs during different historical periods.

Although national and local politics have continued to change in India over the decades, Schultz said she found it remarkable that rastriya kirtan has endured as a cultural art form.

 "The kirtankars may be influenced by specific current events or engaged in local civic issues, but the kirtan doesn't seem to wane whether or not a specific political party has power," Schultz noted.

 "This art form offers a type of nationalism you are not going to find if you're only looking at party politics," Schultz said. "It has a life beyond party politics. What truly fascinates me about the endurance of the form is that an entire political world can live outside the literal political sphere."

Schultz's next project evolved out of her work on kirtan and has already taken her back to India.  She's researching the devotional music produced by the Bene Israel, a community of Marathi-speaking Jews in India. The Bene Israel used Marathi kirtan to teach women and children about Jewish scriptures. Schultz plans to examine how kirtan played a role in the construction of the Jewish identity in India and in Israel.

Her developing work in India meets her broader goal as an ethnomusicologist – to engender a greater sensitivity to where politics happens and how it happens, and to better understand how the emotional power of music is cultivated in religious contexts.

Corrie Goldman, humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,