Cornell University

SAP Seminar Series -- Talent, Technique, Transformation: Musical Training and the Possibilities of the Self in Liberalizing India by Anaar Desai-Stephens

Monday, April 4, 2016 at 12:15pm to 1:10pm

Uris Hall, G08
Central Campus

The South Asia Program (SAP) Seminar Series speaker, Anaar Desai-Stephens, will discuss the aspirational striving that permeates contemporary India centers on a fundamental question: How much can a person transform? More specifically, how much, and in what ways, must one transform in order to transcend the habitus of class and caste given to them at birth? This paper offers a musically grounded examination of this question through sites of popular music pedagogy and practice. Drawing on my research on the television show Indian Idol and fieldwork in Mumbai music schools, I examine discourses of musical talent and technique alongside practices of vocal improvement undertaken by aspiring singers. I situate these discourses and practices within a broader aspirational economy that promotes individual self-betterment and transformation in line with larger neoliberal and meritocratic ideologies emerging in India today. Beyond simply yielding insight into conceptions of musical potential, I argue that talent, technique, and vocal change illuminate tensions regarding the possibilities and limits of self-transformation in liberalizing India.

Biography: Anaar Desai-Stephens is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the intersection between music, media, and subjectivity in contemporary India with an emphasis on reality music television shows. She is currently writing her dissertation, “Singing Through the Screen: “Indian Idol” and the Crafting of Selves in Neoliberal India,” with the support of the Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship from the American Musicological Society. Anaar is also an active musician, studying Hindustani vocal music and performing on violin with the Mumbai-based band Maati Baani and Cornell’s Palonegro ensemble.


Event Type



Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, South Asia Program


Arts, performance, India, South Asia, South Asia Program, South Asia Program Seminar Series, self-transformation, music schools

Contact E-Mail

Contact Name

Durga Bor

Contact Phone

(607) 255-6370


Anaar Desai-Stephens

Speaker Affiliation

Department of Music Cornell University

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