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Embodying culture : gurus, disciples and tabla players Nuttall, Denise Irene


This dissertation is an ethnography about the men and women who take up the practice and performance of a Hindustani (North Indian) drum called tabla, as a way of life. Learning tabla means that percussionists must find a guru, a learned master of the tradition who will guide them in their life long study of this instrument. The relationships formed between gurus and disciples are distinctively different in kind from teacher-student relations in Western knowledge systems. The guru-disciple tradition is a very specific, culturally dependent mode of learning originating from the Indian Brahmanical tradition of religious study. Discipleship is a form of apprenticeship which offers no easy translation, philosophically, culturally or spiritually. My ethnography and analysis of tabla as a way of life is presented from my own situated perspective as a tabla disciple of two tabla masters, Ustad Alia Rakha Khan, his son Ustad Zakir Hussain and as a visiting tabla enthusiast with another teacher of tabla, Ritesh Das. I offer a multi-local ethnography which centres on tabla communities based in Bombay, India, Toronto, Ontario, Vancouver, British Columbia, Seattle, Washington and the Bay Area of California. As tabla travels around the globe, outside of India, the learning and teaching of this tradition changes somewhat in its new environments. However, learning to play tabla whether in Indian or diaspora cultures necessitates adopting Indian ways of knowing, learning and being. For those musicians of non-Indian ethnicity who become dedicated to this art form learning tabla also means learning to embody Indian cultural ways of doing and knowing. I posit that learning the cultural, as in learning tabla, begins in the body and the embodied mind. Knowing through and with the body requires re-conceptualizing anthropological concepts of culture, memory and tradition. Grounding an analytic concept of the body in the emerging critical Anthropology of the Body and the Anthropology of the Senses allows for an examination of the social as something more than cognitive and language based.

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