Sikh Studies

The Hermeneutics of Sikh Music (rāg) and Word (shabad)

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May 21-23, 2010

Hofstra University
Organized by the S.K.K.Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies

Is music a language? Is there meaning in music? Perhaps universal meaning – given the popular platitude that music is the only universal language. Or is the meaning in music mediated by culture to such an extent that one is hard put to speak of universals? If the latter then does that imply a cultural limit to the supposed universal nature of the Gurū Granth Sāhib arguably the musical text par excellence? If the Word needs to be translated across linguistic contexts then does Sikh music also require translation into culture-specific and musical idioms to be efficacious? How to interpret and translate musical meaning? Is it even possible?

The purpose of this conference is to bring these two crucial dimensions of Sikh thought and practice, philosophy and aesthetics, together to initiate an academic dialogue between the Word (language, meaning, interpretation) and its performance in Music and Song (rāg/melody, tāl/metric cycle, laya/tempo, bhāv/expression, instruments etc). The conference aims to grapple with a hermeneutics that can cater for both musical evocation (kīrtan) and philosophical contemplation (kathā) as one phenomenon.

This new departure for the field of Sikh Studies raises many questions like :

What is the nature of musical meaning, does it evolve, if so, can it regress as well?
What is the connection between music (gurshabad kīrtan) and interpretation?
Is there a "musical hermeneutics" in general, and if not, should we construct one?
How many schools of “Sikh musical hermeneutics” (taksāls) are there?
What is the relation between rāg and shabad, kīrtan and kathā?
What is the difference between dhrupad and khyāl forms?
What is the relationship between music, mantra, chant and trance?
What is the relationship between music, subjectivity and memory?
What is the relationship between the musical, religious and political?