DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

The Necessity of a Decolonial Frame

Undoing the Inscriptions of Colonial Modernity in the Study of Sikh Musical Heritage


Francesca Cassio (Hofstra University)


Francesca Cassio




Francesca Cassio
Balbinder Singh Bhogal (Hofstra University)
Bhai Baldeep Singh (The Anad Foundation)
Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa Baker (Loyola Marymount University)

This ICTM Dialogues session focuses on Sikh musical heritage in the context of a critique of dominant colonial narratives of South Asian music, which have marginalized the voices of “minorities.” We speak from a decolonial standpoint, recognizing the “epistemic privilege of the West of classifying without being classified,” and call for the undoing of its hierarchical structures. In this, we aim to encourage a paradigm shift, a radical rethinking of ethnomusicological readings of underrepresented cultures of South Asia.

With roots in the late fifteenth century, Sikh musical literature encompasses a rich body of rāgas and song forms for Gurbānī Kīrtan, the singing of scriptural hymns. Modern arrangements of kīrtan are increasingly popular among the Sikh diaspora. However, the documentation and study of heritage compositions and traditional musical knowledges, known as Gurbānī Sangīta, remain overlooked by contemporary ethnomusicology. Instead, our field attends more to Hindu ideologies, and Hindu sacred sound and devotional practices in South Asia. The four speakers in this session question the lack of attention to the Gurbānī Sangīta. They critique orientalist theories that have constructed Sikh(ism) as a world ‘religion,’ and the idea that Sikh heritage is peripheral to and derivative of a pan-Indian tradition. What would it mean to deconstruct these foreign impositions? Is it possible to recover an intangible (Sikh) heritage? Hailing from diverse fields and backgrounds, the presenters engage a multidisciplinary approach to dismantle the demarcation of a (Hindustani) ‘centre.’ They examine Gurbānī Sangīta’s heritage as embodied knowledge in a way that predates and resists colonial modernity, and not linked to institutionalized models and normative twentieth-century constructions of Hindustani music.

Francesca Cassio introduces Sikh musical literature from an (ethno)musicological perspective. She discusses the rāga-based setting of scriptural hymns as a horizontal mode of knowing, experiencing, and celebrating the teaching of Sikh Gurūs. They exist outside the top-down concept of rāgas as ‘classical’ and exclusive music. Encompassing Bhakti and Sufi songs of the premodern era, the hymns are an inclusive body of sung poetry that reflect the epistemic pluriversality of Sikh thought. The concept of pluriversality, as opposed to Western Universalism, is thoroughly explored by the second panelist, Balbinder Singh Bhogal, a Sikh Studies scholar. Debating a spatial and temporal othering that has disempowered ‘different colors of thought,’ he expands on key decolonial expressions such as coloniality of power, epistemicide, enunciation, and epistemic reconstruction. The third presenter, Bhai Baldeep Singh, the thirteenth-generation exponent of Gurbānī Kīrtan, addresses the recovery of the intangible and tangible heritage of Sikhs. He argues that the original Gurbānī Sangīta paramparā (tradition) has remained untouched by coloniality. By resisting foreign and nationalist attempts of colonization, the ‘memory of the persecuted’ has been marginalized and, until recently, has not been documented. The pivotal work of Bhai Baldeep Singh, inspired by the so-called Sikh Renaissance, is critically considered by Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa-Baker at the end of this session. According to Khalsa-Baker, Singh represents a resilient stream of embodied knowledge whose uncolonized logics offer a living hermeneutic. He offers a transformative pedagogy and dynamic process that decolonizes the Sikh self toward a sovereign being (relative to modern attempts that use western logics to revive a supposedly ‘ancient musical purity’).


Further References

Cassio, Francesca and Nirinjan Khalsa-Baker. 2020. “Singing Dharam: Decolonizing the Sikh Sonic Path in the 21st Century”. In Beacons of Dharma, edited by Miller, Christopher, Jeffrey Long and Michael Reading, 271-288. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, Lexington Books.
Freire, Paulo. 2014. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Bloomsbury.
Mandair, Arvind-pal Singh. 2009. Religion and the Specter of the West. Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. New York: Columbia University Press.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Mignolo, Walter D. 2000. Local Histories/ Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Mittman, Asa Simon and Marcus Hensel, eds. 2018. Classic Readings on Monster Theory: Demonstrare, Volume 1. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press.
Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2014. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers.
Singh, Bhāī Baldeep. 2019. “Memory and Pedagogy of Gurbāṇī Saṅgīta: An Autoethnographic Udāsī”. In Sikh Formations: Music and Poetics of Devotion in the Jain and Sikh Traditions, edited by Khalsa Nirinjan Kaur 15 (1-2): 14-141. Abingdon: Routledge.


The dearth of Sikh musical literature and practices in the history of South Asian music reveals profound colonial dynamics that exclude the heritage of the Sikh minority from contemporary narratives. Orientalist scholarship proposes a reading of Sikh heritage through Hindu ideologies about sacred sound and Western classifications of music genres. This reading does not reflect the epistemic ground of Sikh thought and experience.

Discussing the domesticating power of naming and mapping musics according to foreign frameworks, this session raised thought-provoking questions about the colonization of memory. The colonization of memory erases the aural heritage of the persecuted, and fosters new interpretations of Indigenous epistemologies relative to Western logics and neocolonial agendas. A decolonial approach to the study of Sikh musical heritage requires interdisciplinary efforts. This panel supports a collaboration between musicologists, exponents of the Gurbānī sangīta paramparā, and Sikh Studies scholars, through engagement with key issues. Among the achievements of this session is the introduction of decolonial notions such as ecology of knowledges and pluriversality into the field of Sikh Studies and South Asian (ethno)musicology. Considering the various contexts of power in which knowledge is produced, and by whom, the panelists differentiated western discourse regarding universalism and pluralism from the decolonial notion of the pluriversal that (as represented by the Sikh Gurūs’ vision) works against any forms of peripheralization.


Questions to Consider

How can these scholarly reflections about decoloniality be shared with the community, in order to deconstruct ingrained colonial stereotypes? How can we avoid an epistemic reconstruction of intangible and tangible heritage that results in a sense of exclusive knowledge, of knowledge guarded by privileged or credentialed scholars and specialized musicians?

In what ways might the pedagogic process of orally transmitting pre-colonial knowledge resist colonial and reformist attempts to homogenize musico-religious identity into a normative standard? How might this pedagogic process teach an uncolonized logic?

How can we respect one another’s voices, as well as each others’ pedagogies and sovereignty of views? In this regard, does the academy have an ethical responsibility to include the voices of “others”? Further, does the academy have an ethical responsibility to allow or encourage “others” to shape the scholarly production of knowledge, and methods of its production?

When we see (the few remaining) Indigenous epistemologies as potential resources for thinking differently, how can we avoid falling into the (ethical) trap of representation (cultural difference) rather than focusing on the power of enunciation (colonial difference)?

To avoid re-inscribing colonial classifications and the mentality of colonial superiority, one must ask hard questions about the erasure of non-Western epistemologies and pedagogies. We must also engage with the continuities from colonial discourses to the present. In this regard, should we be employing the decolonial category of “modern/colonial world-system” or “colonial modernity” for short?

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