The Goddess Mariyamman in Music and in Sociology of Religion


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Listen to all the four items sung by Sirgali Govindarajan and Madurai Somasundaram as discussed in the publication:

by Pia Srinivasan Buonomo and S.A.Srinivasan | Reviews >>

Published by
Dr. Inge Wezler Verlag
Reinbek 1999

ISBN 3-88587-025-8

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The material basis for the remarks is a song in praise of the goddess Mariyamman sung on the one hand in a Tamil movie, on the other in two concerts of classical South Indian music. The authors describe how they came to the decision to analyze this material, and this more biographical part also leads to considerations of a general nature, i.e. to Indians tending to solve a problem atomistically, that is to say, by taking it in isolation, in its very own terms, so that solutions to similar or even substantially identical problems can easily be different to such a degree that, at any rate in etic, outsider terms, the solutions are mutually exclusive. Again, this more biographical part has also occasioned a discussion of Hindu religiosity being easily capable of embracing elements which too are mutually exclusive from the etic point of view.

However, the substantive part of the remarks regards music, in the sense of an attempt to describe, not exhaustively, yet in considerable detail, the differences and the similarities between the movie and the concert versions of the song. The emphasis lies on composition, on how the tonal material, different in the movie song and in its concert rendering, is put together each time, achieving compositional / symmetrical density in that phrases are repeated or varied upon, a density also achieved by transitions based on repetition / quasi-repetition / anticipation. Of no less importance in compositional terms are metrical liberties and the frequent concomitance of religious / literary and musical elements, a concomitance which too leads to symmetrical / compositional density, among other things. Though not central to the remarks, yet not simply marginal too, are the occasional discussions of the contrast between the theory and the actual practice of music and of the far from simple contrast between classical South Indian music, film music and devotional music.
The detailed notations and various appendices added are essential complements to the musicological analysis.
The remarks on the Sociology of Religion of Mariyamman follow, substantially, upon the musicological analysis, though the atomistic approach dealt with earlier is to be sure equally a problem of religious sociology. Yet in this case things were clear enough. As against this, in the remarks following upon the musicological analysis all that is done is to list some of the central riddles the worship of Mariyamman poses: the enormous preponderance of feminine deities; the rationale of blood offerings; a very strong preference for identifying ‘folk-goddesses’, like Mariyamman too, with the ‘high-caste’ goddess Parvati. [*] The riddles are stated in some detail, but no answers are given, for research in the field is not yet in a position to give any.

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)