ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Touch, Untouch, and the Depositions of Ucchishta

Complex sensory and linguistic underpinnings of caste come into play when touchables, with all their senses, touch objects made by untouchables. Here, ethnographic insights have been used about the devotional percussion instrument, khol, which is made by untouchables, but touched, heard, relished, and understood, by all castes.

In this article, I try to address the peculiar ethical complex involved in touching a product made by an untouchable. The ethnographic object in this case is the khol, a conical percussion instrument with immense sacred value, and an indispensable accompaniment of the devotional musical genre, kirtan, of Bengal. While it is a variant of the mridangam of Carnatic music, unlike it, the khol may be played by a lower caste person. What remains distinct nevertheless, is the singularity of the khol maker: an upper-caste player can never make the khol. The instrument is crafted out of clay and leather, and the craftsmanship involves the most complicated balances of the eyes, ears, mind, and hands. However, the maker, despite the closest proximity to the instrument and its potential life of rhythm and sound, cannot be the player. Like the (other) constituent elements which give it its life-breath, especially raw cow skin, the maker’s touch (and body-self) is also considered defiling. Yet the instrument’s skin touches the player, and its sound (with necessary traces of the skin-memory) touches the listener. How can we make sense of this particular sensory conundrum? And how does the touchable, with his sense-worlds of skin and sonic tactility, process this ambivalence?

The Aesthetic Problematique

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Updated On : 11th Nov, 2019
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