A Festive Occasion: Researching “Multiple Meanings” as a Strategy for Understanding Interreligious Musical Performances

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Posted on 4 years ago

My research in Kerala, India centers around the study of interreligious performances of festival music related to chenda percussion ensembles, which are played mostly by Hindus yet are used in many churches across the state for religious festivals and saints day celebrations. In view of the increase of religiously motivated violence around the world, it is especially interesting to note the way that these musicians seem to move seamlessly between completely different religious contexts, namely Christian and Hindu. In my research, I have found that it is not only the musicians who move between religious groups but individuals, neighbors, and religious leaders. What inspires this type of fluid interaction between religious groups in this context and what maintains it? Through this discussion, I explore the concept of communal harmony in relation to Kerala culture and music and suggest the possibility that religious tolerance is maintained in part through a system of multiple meanings regarding religious events and ritual music, and through joint participation in “festivity.” One might describe these “multiple meanings” as convenient misunderstandings that are not only tolerated but even perpetuated among different groups of participants in the festival. By looking at the different viewpoints of four categories of people: Leaders; Members; Musicians; and Non-Members, and by letting these multiple voices speak for themselves, we can better understand the nature of the Kerala religious festival situation through perceptions regarding the musical soundscapes of these events. We will discover how each of these groups’ perceptions are different than the others, and by paying attention to the object of each group’s focus, or multifocality, we can begin to make sense of how social and musical interactions work between members of different religious groups. Through a brief analysis of my ongoing research, I will present the two concepts of “multivocality” and “multifocality” as important research strategies through which we can attempt to process the multiple meanings contained in the music of religious festivals throughout Kerala, which have helped to promote communal harmony among the local Hindu, Christian, and Muslim community members for centuries. I will also present further possibilities for this research strategy to be applied in other areas of cultural studies.

-Katherine Morehouse, PhD Candidate at the University of Maryland

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