Sunday, December 14, 2008

Looted Gardens: Shubha Mudgal and Reconstructed Memory

In mid October 2008, the great Indian classic and popular vocalist and peace activist Shubha Mudgal held an extraordinary MusicUnitesUs residency at Brandeis University (organized by Professors Judy Eissenberg and Harleen Singh, who both serve on the Cultural Production faculty committee.) Shubha held a series of remarkable workshops on topics ranging from gender, music and the sacred to the cultural politics of Bollywood music.

One of her first events (on Wednesday, October 15, 2008) was a dazzling session on women and art at the Women’s Study Research Center, which may be viewed on the WGBH website at:

or heard via MP3 audio at:

After a brief introduction, the session begins with Shubha giving a painfully beautiful performance of a song composed during the colonial period by a woman singer, responding to Gandhi’s request for women to create and perform liberation songs throughout India. If I heard the translation correctly, the lyrics state: “Strip the gardens of India of every flower that they contain, you can loot as much as you like, it doesn't concern us, since in this land of abundance, we will always have enough, and we will lay down our lives for our freedom”

I take the gendered wording of the song to be highly suggestive. Women, custodians of flowers and gardens, offer up these charges in the struggle against British colonialism. Is the implication that the mothers of India are, by metaphorical extension, also offering up their biological children in the struggle? Is there even as sense here in which the landscape of India is being figured as a feminine, abundant maternal body, committed to enduring the ravages of the occupying colonial power? Does the female singer in effect offer up her own (stigmatized) body as well as Mother India in the struggle?

The current performance of the song emerges out a process of cultural excavation and re-imagining. As Shubha explains, no written score of the original work exists; Anish, a member of her troupe, thus reconstructed the song from fragments and composed a new score for it. More than six decades after India’s independence, what does it now mean to reconstruct and re-perform this song? Given Shubha Mudgal’s deep commitment to transcending conventional national political boundaries--through intimate, artistic connections among all the women of Indus valley civilizations--the present-day performance of the song would seem to summon up the collective body of South Asian women and all their gardens. (This is presumably intensified by the song’s integrative use of many languages of the region, including Urdu.) Though "looted" through decades of communalism and war, this collective trans-national South Asian body ephemerally manifests itself in musical form, as a tangible reminder of a lost unity, for all of those separated by the chasms of class, gender, nation and cycles of violence.

Later in the recorded session, Ulka Anjaria (also a Cultural Production faculty member) briefly returns the conversation to the song, which she reads as a deeply subversive articulation of the Nation from its most stigmatized margins. She suggests that rather than conform to Gandhi’s call for women courtesans to return to the “respectable” fold, the voice of the singer adamantly maintains its marginal gendered position, while daring to characterize the entire nation.

MusicUnitesUs will continue these conversations in Spring 2009 through a series of video conferences between Brandeis clases and Shubha Mudghal in India. For updates, see the MusicUnitesUs website.

I do hope we’ll have a a chance, among many other things, to discuss further this remarkable reconstructed song of looted gardens and ever-abundant flowers.

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