EOL 8 Encyclopedia Review

The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 5.
South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent,
ed. Alison Arnold.

New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000. v, 1077 pp. Includes compact disc, index, 12 maps, illustrations, glossary, guide to publications. $250 (USA), $375 (Canada).

"Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists."

Vikram Sheth’s celebrated stanza seems to point at this attractive compilation of ethnomusicological research on South Asian music even more than at his own substantial novel, A Suitable Boy: not even two kilos. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 5 is a generous two-and-a-half kilos of solid scholarship. This formidable piece of work should be every ethnomusicology student’s pillow-book, were there not the likely risk of spraining one’s neck as well.

A combined effort of sixty-eight authors from fourteen different countries, the origin of the contributors reflects the overwhelming interest South Asian music has been enjoying among American ethnomusicologists: Forty of the authors are from, or based in the United States, with only six based in South Asia. This disparity should not mislead us. Scholarship on Indian music and dance began almost eighteen hundred years ago, and continuing respect and interest have produced a massive body of literature in Sanskrit and vernacular languages, mostly on the two great traditions of Hindustani and Karnatak music.

Increasing Western interest in Indian music during the past two hundred years has resulted in a multitude of international authors, different approaches and diversified publications. Since the 1960s, Western ethnomusicologists have accumulated an impressive amount of degree theses on many aspects of South Asian music.  In India and its neighbour countries, relevant publications in English and local languages abound.

Editor Alison Arnold took exemplary care in presenting this impressive extract of our present knowledge about South Asian music and dance in a way appealing both to scholars and to a much broader audience searching information on: music making and music theory, musicians and dancers, performers and audiences, musical transmission, mass media, and many other topics. In accordance with the concept underlying each volume of this encyclopedia, the matter has been organised in three parts.

Part 1 introduces the region of South Asia as a whole, first in an overview profile of its geography, society, cultures, religions, and history and then examining the history of musical scholarship.

cassette sleeve, Tamil filmsongsPart 2 focuses on issues and processes general to South Asia as a whole and encompasses: the two great traditions of classical music, music in religion and ritual, musical material culture, social organization, learning and transmission, music in theatre and dance, mass media (Figure 1: cassette sleeve of Tamil filmsongs) and contemporary musical exchange and music in the South Asian diaspora (U.K., North America, Trinidad, Martinique, Guyana, Réunion, Fiji, South Africa).

Music-making in Afghanistan

Part 3 examines the following music regions of South Asia and the Himalayas: Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Mithila, Kashmir, Nepal, Tibetan diaspora in South Asia, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Goa, Pakistan, Afghanistan (Figure 2: music-making in Afghanistan), Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Each chapter is followed by a select bibliography. The articles combine the meticulous precision you would expect from an encyclopedia (see for example "Theoretical Terms and Concepts in the Hindustani Raga Tradition" by Richard Widdess), with the aim of being comprehensive.

Besides glossary and index, the appendix includes three chapters providing the reader with guides to publications, recordings, films and videos. The book has twelve maps and numerous black-and–white photos and musical examples. The generous and very clear layout, the enhanced captions of key phrases and the sensible structering and highlighting of sub-chapters all add to the visual joy.

A compact disk inserted in the back cover contains thirty-four tracks of examples of recorded music, some of them extremely rare and fascinating; for example, a beautifully processed (noise-reduced) copy from an extremely hard to come by 78-r.p.m. disk, published by the Gramophone Company of India in the 1930s–1940s, presenting Ahmedjan Thirakwa’s peshkar in tintal – a revelation even to the specialist ( Audio 1).

Being a product of a Western academic discipline, ethnomusicology, this excellent encyclopedia also illustrates certain limits. Reference to relevant publications in vernacular languages has been excluded to a large extent--the reason being no doubt problematic accessibility but mentioning them could have been a first step.

Another limit, not only of this wonderfully rich publication but of ethnomusicological research in South Asia in general, is reflected by the (necessarily?) superficial treatment of many local ethnic groups of the subcontinent. In India alone, more than thirty million people live in tribal communities, the so-called Adivasi. Their fascinating and extremely varied cultures have contributed so much to what now is the dominating Hindu culture. Their lifestyle may be a thing of the past soon, as more and more highways cross tribal territory, more villages become electrified, and more huge dams force these people into urban slums. Their music and dances should be systematically documented before it is too late. Sharing in the traditional life of Adivasi people can be a most rewarding experience, as it may alter one’s perception of human life altogether. Audio 2: Brief excerpt from spirit possession chant, Mina Adivasi "tribe" of Rajasthan

Much scholarship has focused on the centre of South Asia and on issues relating to the great traditions, omitting the periphery where change tends to happen at a slower pace and many ancient aspects are still part of daily life. 

For example, the Himalayan belt is one of the culturally most diversified and fascinating fields for ethnomusicological study.

Figure 3: Damai musicians playing sahanai in the Kathmandu Valley
3. Damai musicians playing shanai in the Kathmandu Valley

Figure 4: Dge-lugs-pa monks in Ladakh
Audio 3: Ritual music and chant from Ladakh

4. Dge-lugs-pa monks in Ladakh

Our knowledge about these musical cultures shows many painful gaps. For example, in this encyclopedia of 1077 pages, the arguably most complex musical culture of the entire Himalayas, that of the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, receives only a single page of coverage. Quite a few musical cultures of Nepal have not been documented at all. This situation may improve, as Kathmandu University recently opened the only university music department in South Asia offering fully-fledged courses in ethnomusicology. The musical traditions of Bhutan appear too elusive to receive more than a few general remarks. They have overlooked Jigme Drukpa, a Bhutanese versatile musician with an M.Phil. in ethnomusicology from the University of Bergen who has already produced a thesis on the Bhutanese dra-nyen lute and will hopefully carry out further research in the musical traditions of his country.

The northeastern area of India (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland), which is particularly rich in diverse ethnic groups, has not been covered at all in this publication – except for a few dance traditions. Students of ethnomusicology, please prick up your ears! These are important topics awaiting systematic study and the results should be included in the next edition of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music.

How much would I have loved to carry this wonderful book in my backpack thirty years ago when travelling to South Asia in search of inspiring music! Never mind two-and-a-half kilos, if they can give so much relevant information and are such a joy to read. If you cannot afford to buy it, pinch it!

[Review Editor's note: He's just kidding. Please don't pinch it.]

Gert-Matthias Wegner

review | EOL 8 | email author | editor

released 11 December 2002