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  • The Third Stream:Oḍiśī Music, Regional Nationalism, and the Concept of "Classical"
  • David Dennen (bio)

Like the Saraswati River that formed the "triveni" along with the Ganga and the Yamuna, Odissi was a distinct stream of music like the Carnatic and Hindustani. It evolved from the ritualistic music of the Jagannath temple of Puri, and the 12th century saint-poet Jayadev was a prominent practitioner of it. However, during the time of Mughal and British rules, it was marginalized like the Saraswati River that vanished later.

(Oḍiśī vocalist Damodar Hota, quoted in Chakra 2007)


As India has modernized, detached itself from colonial rule, and become a nation in the modern understanding of the term, Indians have attempted to demarcate for themselves—and for the international community—a set of unique, "national" art traditions. Integral to this identity forming process has been the defining of serious music traditions, and, owing to India's long interaction with Western cultural concepts, these traditions have been labeled "classical." Yet India does not represent anything like a homogeneous nation-state; while at times it may appear as a unified political entity, it may also be seen as a collective of many small—mostly linguistically defined—nations1 that now find themselves with a stake in creating a federal-national identity. In such a context the privileging of certain musics as classical, over others that may be labeled folk or regional, can be contentious.

The notion of "classical," in its now worldwide usage, typically implies a certain notion of music as serious, developed, old—as something representative of the finest and most distinctive, or "other," of a culture. This is not music of the masses, but of an educated elite, often with aristocratic and spiritual overtones. In India there are two widely recognized genres of classical music—musical styles which are representative, to both Indians and foreigners, of music most Indian: Hindusthānī and Karṇāṭakī2 music. The classicization of musics in India, beginning in the 19th century, was largely a middle- and upper-class Hindu-Brahmin project, and thus a substantial portion of the population was absent from the [End Page 149] discussions. The questions of why certain musics were defined as classical in India, what classical means in India, and what this meant for the groups left out of the classicizing process has not begun to be extensively explored by scholars until recently. Some early examples were provided by Neuman (1980) and Powers (1980), but more specific and comprehensive work has been done in the last few years by Bakhle (2005), Subramanian (2006), and Weidman (2006).

The canonization of Hindusthānī and Karṇāṭakī music has been contested, but with seemingly few effects, since the beginning of the process in the mid-19th century; but virtually all ethnomusicological work on art music in India, including the works just cited, focuses on one of the two accepted forms of such music. Still left largely undiscussed are the musics at the borders of these traditions, musics that do not fit so easily into accepted musical categories—musics, for example, that may be considered classical by smaller groups within India, though they are not recognized as such by Indians (and non-Indians) at large. What is the place of such music within the cultural politics of India?

The present article is concerned with one such type of music3—Oḍiśī classical music (Oḍiśī saṅgīta), as it is known to its practitioners and audience.4 Outsiders who know of it typically consider it a regional, perhaps folk, music rather than, strictly speaking, a classical music; its adherents, however, adamantly defend it as a third "stream" of Indian classical music, positioning it explicitly in relation to the two more commonly recognized streams of Hindusthānī and Karṇāṭakī Few scholarly sources exist on this music by non-Oriyas. It receives the briefest of mentions in Powers's and Katz's New Grove Dictionary entry on Indian music (2001, 156). The two most substantial nonlocal treatments of it (which are still rather brief) available in English that I am aware of are in Subhadra Chaudhary's Time Measure and Compositional Types in...


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