Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities
2007—2008 Forum on Origins
Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College
The Female Voice in Tamil Cinema
Song sequences are a central element of Indian popular cinema. The voices in these songs are those of “playback” singers, recorded in the film music studio and subsequently “lip-synched” by actors. Playback singers, whose voices are immediately recognized by Indian audiences, have become celebrities in their own right. The respectable female playback singer in particular has become a cultural icon, one whose singing voice might be matched up with on-screen characters of varying social status, but whose “original” persona remains that of a married, upper-caste woman.
I will trace a genealogy of this figure and her voice, looking at how Indian nationalist notions of femininity worked together with technologies of sound recording and reproduction to naturalize both a particular vocal sound and an ideology about women’s voices. Second, I will explore the ways in which playback singing both preserves and disturbs supposedly “original” voice-body relationships.