chapter  6
38 Pages

The manifest and the hidden: agency and loss in Muslim performance traditions of South and West Asia


This article focuses on how ritual drummers and other coparticipants in Muharram relate the meaning of drumming to themselves, to others and to aspects of Islam in the wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.1

These participants are concerned with the ‘connotations’ (in Barthes’s sense [1967: 89]) of music, both socioculturally and theologically.2 Connotational meanings arise not only from differences in perspective, but also from differing motivations of participants to present their actions as meaningful in one or another context. Some actors perpetuate performances whose meanings are accessible at one level and veiled at another; others strategically resist commonplace forms of meaning; and some aspects of meaning are not so much hidden as lost, owing to social changes that have impeded the transmission of knowledge. The following analysis of case studies from Delhi, Karachi and Hyderabad

(Pakistan) is, in part, an attempt to reveal the broader political context in which actors negotiate what should be manifest, visible or external (z.āhir) and what is, or could be, concealed, invisible, or internal (bā Entering into this world requires careful consideration of the statements of performers, the contexts in which particular utterances are made, and representative details of the local ‘musical’ systems. The structure and naming of the repertoires, and what performers say about their repertoires – whether elaborating or suppressing semiotic possibilities – support larger claims about how their social groups gain prominence in complex urban settings. The ritual context is the annual observance of Muharram, a commemoration

of the battle of Karbala in 680 CE in which the grandson of the Prophet, Muhammad, and his small party, were slain by the henchman of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. The emotionally powerful narratives and visually and aurally elaborate rituals associated with Muharram draw spectators and participants from many communities in South Asia. Drumming figures prominently in some of these rituals through its commonplace battle associations. It is frequently controversial, however, because it could signal the triumph of the enemy, excite celebratory emotions associated with weddings, or implicate other interpretations that run counter to the values of a participating group (see Wolf 2000).