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Music and Sound Studies Colloquium: Anaar Desai-Stephens, “Musical dreamwork and Projects of Becoming through Bollywood Song”

Thursday, September 29, 2022 at 4:30pm

Lincoln Hall, 124
Dept of Music, 101 Lincoln Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-4101, USA

In contemporary “Aspirational India,” Bollywood songs serve as potent mediums for desirable self-transformation and sites for articulating ideal forms of subjectivity. This talk offers an ethnographic lens onto the relationship between musical practice and processes of subject formation by examining the projects of self-making undertaken by students at the Institute for Performing Arts, a Mumbai music school that trained aspiring singers in Bollywood “playback singing.” I trace students’ visions of personal and professional futures that brought them to this site of aspirational musical practice while highlighting pedagogical discourses offered by our singing teachers that framed popular musical training as a privileged site for working on the self.

Crucially, while the students’ skill level and familial obligations seemed to preclude any chance of becoming professional singers, I suggest that rather than dismiss their endeavors as naive fantasy or “false consciousness,” the efforts underway at IPA be understood as forms of “dreamwork”: the musical and discursive work of promoting, imagining, and striving for desired selves and futures. And I emphasize the importance of attending to the incipient, fluctuating sensations of selfhood that characterize complex projects of becoming and the role of musical practice therein. In doing so, I build on anthropological literature on ‘becoming’ as well as recent critiques of “identity” frameworks in musical scholarship to ask how musical practice contributes to the formation of subjectivities that are always emergent, in-process, and incomplete.


Anaar Desai-Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. Anaar received her Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Cornell University in 2017, where she received the annual Donald J. Grout award for best dissertation in music. Her work has been supported by Cornell University’s Randel Dissertation and Teaching fellowship, the American Musicological Society’s Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship, and, most recently, the American Association for University Women’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship.

In Fall 2022, Anaar will be a faculty fellow at the University of Rochester’s Humanities Center, working on her first monograph, Voicing Aspiration: Bollywood Songs and the Dreamwork of Contemporary India. Trained as a violinist, Anaar is an active performer across a range of genres and currently plays with the Brazilian forró band “Forró estrellas du norte” (North Stars Forró).

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