Associate Professor of Anthropology Amanda Weidman will spend part of the 2012-13 academic year in India researching “playback singers” in Indian cinema, and the remainder of the year working on a new book she’s writing on the topic.
Weidman is a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow and one of only six ACLS fellows to be appointed as an ACLS/SSRC/NEH International and Area Studies Fellow.
Playback singers are the singers used in popular Indian cinema for the elaborate song and dance numbers commonly used both in Tamil-language film industry, known as “Kollywood,” which Weidman studies, and the more well-known Hindi-language film industry known as “Bollywood.”
See the below video for an example of playback singers in the recent Tamil movie Osthi.
“Set apart from the film narrative, song sequences play a central role in organizing affect and desire through sound and imagery,” says Weidman. “Song sequences also function as star vehicles, not only for the on-screen actors, but also for the behind-the-scenes vocalists.”
These singers are known as playback singers because their voices are first recorded in the studio and then “played back” on the set to be lip-synched by actors.
“Unlike Hollywood cinema,” Weidman says, “where a strong emphasis is placed on the supposed match between body and voice, Indian popular cinema does not mask the workings of technology in matching one body with another’s voice; in fact, it acknowledges the audience’s awareness and aesthetic appreciation of this fragmentation. Playback singers are celebrities in their own right. They also represent a type of performing musician that we are generally unfamiliar with in the U.S. context, different from the pop star or the singer-songwriter.
“Film songs, a central and ubiquitous element of India’s popular culture industry, are a means by which voices are powerfully linked to class, caste, community, gender, and regional/national identity. Playback singing is thus a realm of vocality that has become intricately encoded with meaning,” says Weidman.
For her book, Weidman will examine playback singing within the context of the cultural politics of gender in post-Independence and now post-liberalization India.
She says, “In the 1950s, when playback singing became a profession, it offered women a way to be publicly known celebrities who were more respectable than actresses. Those women purposely adopted a distinctly non-glamorous public persona. But following India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, the expectations for how female singers should look and sound have changed considerably.”
Based in Chennai (formerly Madras), Kollywood is the oldest of the South Indian film industries and rivals Bollywood, the Bombay-based Hindi-language film industry, in the numbers of films produced yearly; however, it has been much less studied.
“Both have abided by similar conventions for the female voice, but Kollywood has always featured a greater variety of female voices, making it an ideal context in which to explore the ways that female voices are variously invested with meaning,” says Weidman.
Tamil-speaking South India has been the focus of much of Weidman’s scholarship. Weidman conducted research in Chennai for this project in 2002, 2004, and 2009-10, and for her previous project on the social history of South Indian classical (Karnatic) music in 1993, 1994, 1995-96, and 1997-98.
She will spend her time in India researching the history of playback singing, interviewing playback singers and others associated with the film industry, and observing playback singers and those around them in the recording studio, at performances, and at public appearances.
This project joins a growing area of anthropological research on the popular film industries of India as sites for examining broader cultural politics. However, Weidman’s focus on playback singing allows her to explore an aspect of women’s performance and participation in the public sphere that, in its cultural prominence, moves beyond the context of the film industry.
“My research pertains to a broad range of interests within South Asian studies, including media, popular culture, performance, and the transformation of the public sphere after economic liberalization, and I hope it will be of interest to scholars studying parallel phenomena in other regions of the world as well,” says Weidman.