Dr. Davesh Soneji, Associate Professor of South Asian Religions in the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Canada delivered a lecture on Tukaram in the Tamil Country: Marathi Kirtan, Multilingualism, and the Making of South Indian Musical Tradition at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) on 12th December 2014. The talk was organized by the S N School of Arts and Communication as part of the ongoing programme of research in visual culture.


Davesh Soneji traced the journey of the Marathi Varkari and Ramdasi kirtan to the court of Thanjavur in Tamil-speaking South India during the earliest phases of the establishment of Maratha power at the end of the seventeenth century. These traditions, which became embedded in a form of religious practice known as bhajana sampradaya, survived largely through institutions known as Ramdasimaths in Thanjavur city and the nearby Mannargudi. The maths received patronage from Marathi-speaking desastha Brahmins in the region and also from the Thanjavur court itself, he added.


Soneji made note of how the Marathi kirtan was “indigenized” by the Tamil Smartha Brahmin community in Thanjavur into a uniquely cosmopolitan multilingual, hybrid musical practice was no doubt a mirroring of the Thanjavur court’s own culture of literary polyglossia. In this tradition, the poems of Namdev, Chokhamela, Tukaram, Janabai, Samarth Ramdas and others are brought into a world of not only uniquely “South Indian” ragas and singing-styles, but also into a distinct ritual and mnemonic culture of Tamil Brahmins that includes life-cycle events, temple-style domestic puja, purity laws, and contemporary identity politics.

Illustrating his talk with video clips of formal and informal performances of bhajana sampradaya, Soneji pointed to the ironic ways in which the Marathi kirtan had become integrated into a practice that was essentially Brahminical–and in some ways dissociated from the subaltern roots of many of the compositions.

In the discussion that followed, Soneji emphasized that while his focus had been on uncovering the layers of cultural adaptation that the bhajana sampradaya had undergone, it would be possible to find many such examples across the country, given the scale of migration as well as political, social and cultural movement over the centuries.

-Dr. Usha Raman, Head, Department of Communication