The Politics of Musical Time

October 5, 2022

The South Asian Studies Council congratulates Eben Graves, Assistant Director at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), on today’s publication of The Politics of Musical Time by Indiana University Press. The Politics of Musical Time builds on Graves’ dissertation to examine the complex temporality and commodification of the genre of Bengali Hindu devotional music called padābalī kīrtan.

The padābalī kīrtan tradition dates back to the late 16th century, when it emerged from the reformist Gaudiya Vaishnava movement of the Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It has been passed on “orally and aurally” by lineages of musicians and singers across Bengal for centuries, and entered the 20th century “intact as a whole system,” when the padābalī kīrtans were finally written down.

Graves says he was drawn into the world of padābalī kīrtans by playing the khol, a Bengali drum that is used for devotional performances. “I was attracted to the aesthetics of this kind of music because it was so different from popular music in South Asia, but also other classical musics. There was something fascinating about this musical style that has its own whole world of tal theory.” Tal, or meter, is the building block of kirtans. In the padābalī style, the tal is described by Graves as large and expansive. “[It’s] this musical style that’s very slow-moving. Poetic texts get set to these very slow tempos, and these very large tals.” Tals are made up of counts of matra (beats or time-units)—up to 56 matra can make up a single tal in some cases. The result is that a song that is only four or five couplets long can, Graves says, take 40 or 45 minutes to perform.

The central focus of Politics of Musical Time is the way modern life and what Graves calls the challenge of “making a livelihood as an artist in a capitalist society” are changing the temporality of padābalī kīrtans and their performance. Graves documents the loss of control performers of kīrtans experience as thousands perform at large music festivals in regimented time-slots that run counter to the traditionally lengthy performance style. He also writes on the way technology, from video compact discs (VCDs) to YouTube, has “shrunk” the way songs are performed for audiences in ways that “people who weren’t forced to work in this professional economy, [see as] doing damage to the genre.” Graves connects these phenomena with both the kīrtans’ importance as symbols of Bengali nationhood and identity and with the temporalities that surround the performance and performers of music. Most research in music on temporality, Graves says, has focused on the relationship between performances. That neglects the other influences and temporal challenges—like commercial pressure, political context, and religious significance—that musicians are navigating. He says, “You can’t really divorce the moment of music, the musical object, from all of that other temporality happening.” Politics of Musical Time shows how all of these factors affect the musical timing and commercialization of one of Bengal’s richest musical traditions.

In conversation and in his book, Graves also emphasizes how much of his work relies on performers who experience and describe changes to the padābalī kīrtan art form. “My research is a discussion,” he says, highlighting a virtual concert the ISM hosted with two of the performers mentioned in his book as well as discussions with collaborators throughout his research.

Graves earned his PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. The Politics of Musical Time is available for sale at all major retailers.