S Bharat

Arts Research

Grant Period: One year and six months

S Bharat is an independent researcher based in Uttar Pradesh. He has completed his MPhil from the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. He has written and presented papers on music and auditory cultures, urban studies and Indian English writing in various journals and seminars.

Through this project, Bharat will study the soundscapes of the annual pilgrimage - the Kanwar Yatra. Performed predominantly by young men of non-affluent and lower-caste backgrounds, the pilgrimage involves the ceremonial transportation of containers bearing holy water from the Ganga at Haridwar to various Shiva shrines across North India. The pilgrims cover the arduous journey on foot, which involves considerable physical rigour and suffering. Dating back to the seventeenth century, the Yatra has emerged as one of the largest and fast growing Hindu pilgrimages in India. The current image of the Yatra is that of a rowdy crowd that disrupts traffic, plays loud and vulgar music, and generally exudes intimidating aura as it makes its way through the highways of the North Indian Gangetic belt, particularly the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Haryana.

Music is an important part of the Yatra and also the point at which its execution becomes fraught with conflicts. Pilgrims are typically flanked by mini-trucks mounted with sound-systems that play loud music and mobile tableaux that display and dramatise events from the mythology of Shiva. While some of the music is repurposed from popular cinema, a sizeable portion is also produced for the Yatra specifically, thematically associated with Shiva and stylistically based on call and response. Then there are instances of Bhojpuri music and beat-driven electronic music genres such a psychedelic trance as well. To be a pilgrim or a devotee, according to Bharat, in this context is also to produce oneself as a certain kind of listener and to inhabit its multiple, colliding auditory regimes. Keeping this in view, Bharat will seek answers to two broad questions through his study of the Yatra: What makes music devotional in contemporary South Asia? And, what does it mean to ‘listen’ in the Kanwar Yatra?

Diverse in its sources and media, the soundscape of Kanwar Yatra is brought together by its relationship to the Yatra itself. From a methodological standpoint, Bharat will probe into this phenomenon to understand it as an artistic practice in itself in relation to the pilgrimage in which it is staged. He aims to explore the soundscape of the Kanwar Yatra both from the point of view of its production as works of art and recorded commodities, as well as its reception and circulation during the pilgrimage. He intends to locate this phenomenon with the genealogy of devotional aesthetics of South Asia. Bharat will scrutinise the mixture of media forms and techniques within the Yatra, reckoning with the myriad musical practices that come to permeate its soundscape. This would entail enquiring into the conditions of production of Kanwar music through conversations with singers, DJs, producers and retailers as well as visiting studios where the music is made. He will also ethnographically trace the flow of the Yatra in order to document the ways in which the music, the lights, the chanting and the dancing functions in this milieu.

Since the Yatra takes place over a two-week period once a year, Bharat will divide his project into two phases. The first phase will involve identifying and approaching Kanwariyas and Kanwar music makers as well as a survey of literature and the collection of recorded music. This material will serve as preparation for the second phase, which will involve participation in the Yatra and documenting it through recordings and photographs.

The outcome of this project will be an essay, combining theoretical insights and ethnographic data. The Grantee’s deliverables to IFA will be an essay, audiovisual documentation comprising interviews with the pilgrims and photographs of the Yatra. The budget is commensurate with the proposal.

This grant is made possible with support from Titan Company Limited.