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CULTURE ‣ Sarvar Kahlon Celebrates Cross-Cultural and Traditional Music

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

The Wedding Singer

Sarvar Kahlon, Senior Editor, Cross-Cultural and Traditional Music

I am thrilled to be joining HorizonVU Sound and Movement as Senior Editor, Cross-Cultural and Traditional Music. Growing up in different parts of India, regional music always held a special appeal for me; it said more about the local community, culture, attitudes, and history than I could ever learn in a book.

As Senior Editor Cross-Cultural and Traditional Music, I look forward to sharing interesting facts and discoveries, in addition to my thoughts, views, and insights on indigenous music practices from the subcontinent and the rest of the world. Traditional music is not particularly mainstream, and I especially want to draw attention to music practices with women as primary agents that are even less talked about starting from Punjab, my home state.

I still remember the first time I heard my grandmother sing. We were at a wedding and all the women had gathered for the customary song session. Seated in the middle on the floor, holding a dholki (a type of double-sided drum), she started to sing in a soft, almost frail but sweet voice. It was a charming Punjabi folk song about a wife affectionately asking her husband to bring back gifts from the city like red, and yellow bottles, a flute, glass bangles ─ not to forget ─ himself, and finally, some change to spare.

The expression of romance in the song drew out a side of her I had not seen before. I wondered if she had been afraid to show it given the expectations of propriety that society places on elderly women. Whatever the reason, for me that was a defining moment when I realized, these song sessions were in fact, safe spaces for women like my grandmother to indulge in non-normative behavior, to say and express things they were not comfortable saying in public spaces. Those early experiences of wedding song sessions made quite an impression on me and are the reason for my fascination with women’s music, so to speak.

Music, overall, has played a major role in my life. I have been singing since I was three. With some years of formal training in Hindustani Classical, I mostly taught myself how to sing, grabbing every music-related opportunity that came along. I have considerable on-stage experience as well, performing solo, and with other musicians before a variety of audiences across India. I was also a Soprano voice in a 200-member choir at Christ University.

In those undergraduate years, I not only had the opportunity to perform but also pursue research in music as part of my history thesis, titled “Inferring History form Dhadi Narratives; An Oral Tradition”, that argued in favor of oral tradition as a source of history by analyzing Dhadi song texts – a Punjabi music tradition performed by groups of men in Sikh Gurudwaras, who sing ballads of martyrdom. I also have a Master’s in History of Art from National Museum Institute, New Delhi and although my postgraduate thesis examined Phulkari, a Punjabi textile tradition instead of music, it was still within the purview of folk and rooted in oral tradition.

I am currently finishing a degree in MBA Arts and Cultural Management, from IESA, Paris, with a specialization in Performing Arts. Before this, I was working as Outreach Coordinator for a museum of Indian Modern Art curated by DAG, one of India’s leading modern art galleries. While that was a great learning experience, it also made me realise how much I missed performing arts, especially music and that was the space I wanted to be in. My experience at IESA has been extremely rewarding in that sense, encouraging me to go beyond my comfort zone and take up cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary research in musical performance.

Presently, I am involved in a joint research project on the traditional wedding songs of Punjab with our founder Philip Cartwright, and Professor Laura Leante, a musicologist from Durham University. I can’t wait to see what exciting adventures lie ahead for me on this journey and look forward to sharing them with you here. Given that we live in an age of advanced music production where algorithms control people’s music preference, I want to use this platform essentially, to celebrate the journey of the ‘unsophisticated’ melody from the grassroots. I want to remember songs of birth, marriage, and death that frame life in traditional societies and call attention to songs that our mothers learned from their mothers, who learned it from their mothers, and so forth. As Nietzsche has said, "folk music is the original melody of man; it is the musical mirror of the world".


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