Critical acclaim for “The Goddess Mariyamman in Music and in Sociology of Religion”

Excerpt from the review in Ethnomusicology
by Prof. David B. Reck (Amherst College)

“The authors of this interesting monograph are ethnomusicologist and veena player Pia Srinivasan Buonomo and the eminent Indologist S.A.Srinivasan. Each brings to the topic a unique perspective. The focus of their study is a cinema song with a verse in praise of the (low-caste) village goddess Mariyamman, and the ascendancy of this song into the repertoire of an eminent classical Carnatic music singer, Madurai Somasundaram, (…) and its acceptance by his mostly Brahmanic, cultivated, high-art audience (…)

Buonomo provides us with a full transcription of both versions of the song in Western staff notation, detailed musical analysis, and a substantial background information. As a scholar/performer she is also “street-wise”, and the many anecdotal comments add color and depth to the total picture of the song and its transformation (…)

S.A.Srinivasan’s contribution to the monograph is in several reflective essays examining the questions posed by the appearance of a low-caste [*] folk goddess Mariyamman in the lyrics of a song initially addressed to high forms of the archetypal mother goddess… All in all, Buonomo’s and Srinivasan’s monograph makes fascinating and provocative reading for Indologists, ethnomusicologists, or those interested in the processes of the migration of things musical from low status to high, or vice versa.”

The full review by is found in the print edition of Ethnomusicology (Winter 2005, pp 132-133)

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

Excerpt from the review in The World of Music 46(1) 2004
by Prof. Matthew Allen

Associate Professor of Music, Coordinator of Asian Studies (Wheaton College)

“This engaging volume will reward the attention of those interested in the history of the relationship between popular film music and classical Carnatic music in South India, and of students of Hinduism interested in the changing articulation between high and low caste worship practices (…)

The co-author Pia Srinivasan Buonomo contributes insightful musicological analysis of the performances to the narrative, which are supplemented by detailed transcription in staff notation. S.A.Srinivasan offers remarks in the form of “a graded description of riddles” (…) on the sociology of the worship of Mariyamman as manifest in the song texts and their reception (…)

This thought-provoking book constitutes an important contribution toward the study of the interstices – musical and social – where different registers in Indian society and art meet. It is enthusiastically recommended to the reader already somewhat conversant with the terminology and practices of Indian music, and open to a narrative as playful and occasionally self-deprecating as it is substantive.”

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