Terada Yoshitaka (1954-2023): The man from Japan who played the nagaswaram

Published : Mar 30, 2023 19:19 IST - 7 MINS READ

Terada Yoshitaka.

Terada Yoshitaka. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

A towering personality, he looked at various aspects of classical music and power politics within.

March 28, 2023 was a strange day. The Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL), where I am fellow and curator of books, received the first set of copies of T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music written by Terada Yoshitaka, Professor Emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. RMRL is the co-publisher of the book along with Speaking Tiger Books. We were planning the quickest way to send a copy to the author, as we had planned a launch event in the third week of April. But to our horror, we got the disturbing news that Terada Yoshitaka passed away around the same time the first copy of his book had reached Chennai. He had been suffering from hepatitis and finally the virus overpowered him.

Before going into the details of his work on classical music, let me share a few biographical details about this chronicler of culture, which we mentioned in our publisher’s note for the book.

Terada Yoshitaka, who was also Professor Emeritus of the Graduate University of Advanced Studies, had an MA and a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington. He had also served as a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester-at-Sea programme, New York University, Universität Bonn, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research areas include India, the Philippines, Japan, and Asian America.

He was the editor of Music and Society in South Asia: Perspectives from Japan, a collection of essays on South Asian performing arts by Japanese scholars (National Museum of Ethnology, 2008), and his India-related articles appeared in reputed international journals and as chapters in books.

Over the past 20 years, Terada had also experimented in filmmaking methods and produced more than 30 films on musical traditions from diverse locations, including two on India.

Wide-ranging scholarship

This note fails to capture the full extent of Terada Yoshitaka’s wide-ranging and highly meticulous scholarship. A Japanese scholar, he studied the nagaswaram under the rigorous training of Latchappa Pillai and could speak Tamil effortlessly. He worked extensively on the history of two trajectories of south Indian music, the Periya Melam and the Carnatic, which are simultaneously linked but vastly different.

Terada Yoshitaka was delighted to read my blurb for his book, which read: “Yoshitaka Terada’s work documents the profound change brought about by the intense negotiation of the charismatic and influential nagaswaram musician, T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai, in the field of classical south Indian music. The book is as much about nagaswaram and thavil as it is about contested cultural terrain and [Pillai’s] creative intervention to reclaim the due place for this fascinating instrument in the classical pantheon.”

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Sometimes, talking about a towering personality could become trite. I think the Indian cultural universe is obliged to understand Terada Yoshitaka’s role as a scholar who looked at the competitive and social aspects of classical music and the layers of power politics within.

RMRL’s journey to become his publisher partly reveals the challenges in recording and documenting the contested world of classicism in India, particularly south India.

Just before the pandemic changed our lives, there was a performance by dancer Nrithya Pillai and a lecture by academic Davesh Soneji, the author of Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memories and Modernity in South India, in Chennai. Nrithya Pillai raised many pertinent questions about who represents tradition in the world of classism. We invited her to give a talk at our library. One of the participants at the event was Terada Yoshitaka.

My colleague Sundar and my wife Anitha had been moved by his earlier informed article, “Effects of Nostalgia”, published by the National Museum of Ethnology, Japan. In that essay, Terada Yoshitaka makes a clear distinction between nostalgia and memory. He speaks of how nostalgia is used to perpetuate hierarchies.

He wrote: “The images invoked in nostalgia toward the first half of this century not only indicate the asymmetry of power, but also provide a site of ensuing struggle between competing discourses although nostalgia engenders the most compelling consequences when used by a dominant group. While nostalgic articulation of the golden past of ‘Periya Melam’ music, which supports Brahman domination, is one small segment within the dominant discourse on south Indian music, that mode of articulation appears pervasive and prevalent in such discourse. An analysis of nostalgia is, then, an attempt to expose critically the ideological underpinning which has determined the contour of the dominant discourse.”

Research on T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai

We had a freewheeling talk with Terada Yoshitaka and we inquired about his research on T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai, one of India’s grandest performers. He explained how Rajarattinam Pillai had become the subject of his doctoral research in an American university.

Here is a broad paraphrase of our discussion with Terada Yoshitaka over three days: “My study is an exploration of south Indian music culture through an analysis of one charismatic musician, Tiruvavadudurai N. Rajarattinam Pillai. The rationale for selecting this particular musician for an analysis of south Indian music culture at large rests on his unique position in the matrix of complex relationships between the two important music traditions in south India: Periya Melam and Carnatic music. Public discourse concerning south Indian music culture is generally advanced from a Brahmin perspective. Although the Brahmin perspective is in itself of prime importance because of the prominence of Brahmins in south Indian music culture, such a view appears to be biased due to the exclusion of the non-Brahmin perspectives. My study is a discursive analysis of Rajarattinam Pillai as a symbol. I have argued that Rajarattinam Pillai as a polysemic symbol embodies or summarises the ambiguity and conflict in the relationship between two important musical traditions in south India.”

This extended talk was the trigger for RMRL to launch into the publication project of Terada Yoshitaka’s book. We felt it was important that a rigorous scholarship on a nuanced subject such as nagaswaram and thavil should not be restricted to the shelves of a few libraries in North America.

We felt that it should reach larger readers and sought Terada Yoshitaka’s permission to publish it in India. At RMRL, we were particularly moved by his invocation of McDonald’s understanding of memory in the recording of cultural history.

Drawing from McDonald’s theory, he said: “The relevance of the analytical notion of social memory for this study lies in its ability to connect the use of the past with political practice. It directs our attention not to the past but to the past-present relation, and more specifically to the ways in which the past is used to account for, justify, understand, or criticise the present.”

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There are multiple reasons for the delayed publication of his thesis as a book. First, converting a PhD thesis into a book meant for the larger public needed large-scale editing. Then, from a score of Terada Yoshitaka’s essays, we were forced to choose and edit three substantial essays to explain the sociopolitical context of classical performance in south India. The act of securing permission from different sources further delayed the process. Finally, when Terada Yoshitaka was in Chennai in January, 2023, we managed to send the final proof to Speaking Tiger.

Over a meal, we promised to have a launch of the book with a nagaswaram concert at RMRL. The book has come out and at the launch, a nagaswaram concert will happen. But without the presence of Terada Yoshitaka’s sobering erudition.

B.M. Sundaram, the best reservoir of knowledge about nagaswaram and thavil in India, in his introduction to Terada Yoshitaka’s book succinctly summarised the scholar’s importance. He wrote: “It is extremely strenuous to collect such a vast range of details about a vidwan and Terada Yoshitaka has done it successfully. I would say this work is an encyclopaedia, which will be useful for future researchers as it is an outstanding history of two musical instruments.”

Today, we have the encyclopaedia but not the encyclopaedist.

A.S. Panneerselvan, former Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, is fellow and curator of books at the Roja Muthiah Research Library.

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