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Contesting the Classical: The Tamil Isai Iyakkam and the Politics of Custodianship

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The Tamil Isai Iyakkam (Tamil Music Movement) developed as an auxiliary element of the Tani Tamil movement, which owed its genesis to the course of non-Brahmin agitation in the Madras presidency from around the closing decades of the 19th century. A key element in the movement was the celebration of the Tamil language, which was identified as the principal vehicle for articulating a distinct identity and setting it apart from the trajectory of mainstream Indian nationalism. In due course, the issue of language entered into the larger politics of culture and custodianship, and was deployed to critique the nationalist cultural project that was so vital to the politics of nation building. This paper proposes to investigate the issues of cultural consumption and custodianship in the context of the Tamil movement, to identify the points of convergence between the nationalist and regional (in this case, Tamil) cultural projects and finally, to understand the limited impact of the Tamil movement in reclaiming the site of neo-classical culture. More specifically, the paper will look at classical music as one of the more significant emblems of the cultural project, which addressed the question of the performing arts as an aesthetic inheritance as well as a social network of practitioners and traditional performing communities. The delineation of the project involved not just the remaking of an artistic tradition but also the repositioning of communities of performers associated with the tradition.


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