Sar paper—March 2008

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Behind the Scenes: Playback Singing and Ideologies of Voice in South India
Amanda Weidman

SAR paper—March 2008

Yes, I can do a Brahmin voice, a folk voice, whatever voice. But from the first note they still know it’s Janaki.”

S. Janaki, playback singer, Chennai, Jan 3, 2004
This paper investigates claims to modernity made through the sounding voice and through particular ideologies about the voice that arose in relation to a new profession emerging in 1950s India: playback singing for the popular cinema. Playback singing, constituted by voices and practices of voice developed in the decades just following India’s independence, is a realm of vocality intricately encoded with meaning. This paper makes broad two arguments. First, I suggest that sound and the voice, operating alongside and often outside of discursive channels, are media powerful in their ability to create affective relationships to abstract concepts like “modernity” or the nation. Second, I argue that considering vocal sound and practices of voice as emergent from particular historical moments can reveal histories different from those enabled by dominant Euro-Western narratives of voice and vocality.
Since the introduction of sound in the early 1930s, Indian popular cinema has been characterized by its inclusion of song and dance sequences. Recent scholarship has emphasized the central role these scenes play in connecting the film’s diegesis to the outside world, on conveying what the “prose” of the film cannot, and on staking out claims to the new and the “modern” through sound and imagery (Sen 2006). Breaking temporal and spatial continuity with the film’s narrative, these scenes trouble Hollywood’s assumption of a self-contained diegietic world in another way as well. Song scenes function as star vehicles (Majumdar 2001), not only for the on-screen actors, but also for the behind-the-scenes singers whose voices are featured in them. Given the importance of these scenes, any critique of the acoustic organization of Indian popular cinema must begin not with the speaking voice, but with the singing voice, and must be as concerned with what goes on behind the scenes—that is, in the production process— as with what goes on in them.
In Hollywood cinema, as in many other Western cultural forms, a strong emphasis is placed on the assumption of an actual match between a body and its voice.1 While Hollywood, from the 1930s on, has made an effort to mask the workings of technology in matching image and voice, Indian popular cinema has gone in the other direction, not only not masking the workings of technology in matching one body with another’s voice, but acknowledging the audience’s awareness and aesthetic appreciation of this fragmentation. The timing of this shift in values and priorities is significant. In the 1930s and early 40s, Indian popular films featured singing actors and actresses, and standards of authenticity were similar to what we see in Hollywood at the time. In the 1940s, the industry began to employ playback singers: singers whose voices, recorded in the studio, were subsequently lip-synched by the on-screen actors and actresses. During this time, directors practiced voice-casting—that is, attempting to realistically match an actor’s and a singer’s voice. The playback singers, referred to as “ghost voices,” remained uncredited. The ideal was still the Hollywood-like assumption of an actual match between body and voice (Majumdar 2001, 167-168).
In the 1950s, however, this changed. Playback singers went from being unknown “ghost” singers to being celebrities in their own right. The split between body and voice came not only to be accepted, but to be the ideal; what mattered in this phase, and what continues to matter today, is not the match between voice and body, but the recognizability of the singing voice in and of itself (Majumdar 2001, 168).2 Since the 1950s, relatively few playback voices have been used compared to numbers of actors and actresses, which means that the same voices are repeated over many different characters. Audiences are aware (indeed, must be aware) of the real source of the singing voice, and that awareness constitutes a significant part of the pleasure they derive from cinema. Knowledge of and about playback singers circulates through news and fan magazines, and through special live stage performances by the singers themselves. But while playback singers are stars who often overshadow the screen actors or actresses for whom they sing, they are not glamorous by the same standards; their stardom in fact rests on the absence of visual glamour. Another important aspect of their stardom is the fact that they are cast as only singers; any creative role they might have in shaping the songs they sing is generally not articulated.
Within this configuration, a certain kind of female playback singer has attained iconic status in modern India. She is a recognizable type who manages to embody seemingly contradictory elements: a dazzling voice and a modest, even plain appearance—a woman whose singing voice is recorded and then matched up with on-screen characters of varying social position and status, but whose “live” persona and demeanor remain that of a “respectable” middle-class, upper-caste woman. Lata Mangeshkar, the playback singer whose voice has been used in virtually every Bollywood film between 1951 and 2000, is a cultural icon throughout India, not only because of the incredible monopoly she had in the female playback world and the repetition of her voice across so many generations of actresses, but also because her voice and persona became a kind of standard to which female playback singers in South India adhered and by which they were judged.
This paper will trace the genealogy of the figure of the respectable female playback singer and her voice. I explore how Indian nationalist discourse and its concomitant notions of femininity worked in tandem with technologies of sound reproduction and amplification to naturalize both a particular female vocal sound and an ideology about women’s voices. Recent scholarship focuses on Lata Mangeshkar’s strategic agency in developing a particular kind of voice and persona.3 My aim here is somewhat broader: to trace the development of a larger context within which the kind of figure and voice that Lata (and others) embodied could emerge. The focus of my historical and ethnographic interest is on South India and the Tamil-language film industry, known as Kollywood.

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