Nostalgia, condescension, and gender in Music

We live a lot of our life on the premise that ahead means better, and that somehow better and ahead are related. We view the past sometimes in part with these dual lenses of nostalgia as well as condescension together, making our own unique stereoscopic reconstruction of how things were – in our own lives, and in history. In a tradition such as in Indian music, one is condemned to repeat history as faithfully as one can. This means that historic engagement with the text of the material is a given. This text helps me create scenes of how life might have been, how relationships were constructed, and how love was negotiated.

I am generally upset by the thought that most of the khyal material, which is very commonly the first person account of a woman – is all written by men. This is the inverse of the male gaze in a way, men filling out the woman’s narrative, the female gaze – the Lacanian woman who is the ‘symptom of man’, the necessary route of fantasy. The woman, up all night thinking about her man – who is at the other woman’s room. The woman waiting for her husband, the merchant, to return from years and years of travel. The actual example of a woman tawaif, her song chastised for the classical stage. Writing a song on someone’s behalf is a severe way of putting words in their mouth, and appropriating their feelings.

While being a musician, it has been a wonderful thing to observe from a distance, the changes in women’s voices across decades of use and disuse of microphones, allowance and prohibition of physical beauty on stage, in classical and in popular music. The woman with the item song, her free sexuality symbolized by a low alto voice, and the severe soprano damsel in distress. It has barely been barely a hundred years from the time that men had to play women’s parts in musical theater.

I research body movement and music – and in the study of texts, a lot of the time , I find things like this quote: ‘exaggerated gestures that distract the attention of the audience from the music to the body are discouraged, especially for women’, that make me disappointed, to say the least. When i find interviews by modern women singing the same tradition boldly on stage looking as beautiful as they bloody wish to, I am reminded of the limits of nostalgia.

With all that I can feel about the past, the simple beauty of unrequited and lifelong longing and love, the poesy in waiting and in patience, all of it is based on old poetry. The same old poetry that lets me forget for a very short amount of time, that the time that I wish I was in was also a time that was deeply, deeply, deeply unfair to all women.