Religion Professor Steven Hopkins Talks Love of South India's Carnatic Music

by Zach Epstein
Steven Hopkins
Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins' interest in South Indian devotional literature helped spark his love of Carnatic music.

Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins' interest in South Indian devotional literature led him to study throughout the region, extensively in Tamil Nadu, and in other parts of South India and South and Southeast Asia. But, as he recently discussed on WRTI's "Crossover," his studies have also resulted in a love of South India's Carnatic music.

"It's a refined art, with a lot of elegance," said Hopkins, an expert in Sanskrit and Tamil devotional literature. "It's an art that integrates a variety of levels of production."

Hopkins' discussion comes as Swarthmore prepares to welcome Carnatic music artist S. Sowmya and other musicians who will hold a lecture and demonstration in the Lang Concert Hall on Thurs., Nov. 8, at 4:30 p.m.

Sowmya, one of the most accomplished contemporary Indian classical vocal artists of her generation, brings a strong background in the theory of Indian music to her performance of Carnatic music.  She has presented guided appreciation sessions on Tamil and folk music to help bridge the gap between research and performing, with the ultimate goal of bringing the richness of these traditional musical forms out to a wide audience.

Carnatic music "has folk elements too, the elements of every day song," Hopkins says, which is one of the reasons the style appeals to him so much. Hopkins was joined on the program by Raji Venkatesan, president of Sruti: The India Music and Dance Society, and Carnatic music teacher, writer, and performer Kiranavali Vidyasankar.

Hopkins, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1993, received the South Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for his translation of An Ornament for Jewels: Love Poems for the Lord of Gods (Oxford University Press, 2007). He is the author of two major books and many articles on the work of medieval South Indian saint-poet Venkatanatha, best known by his honorific title Vedantadesika or "Preceptor of the Vedanta." In 2009, Hopkins received his third J. William Fulbright Foundation Senior Research Fellowship for research in South India on his current manuscript in progress, The Flight of Love: A Messenger Poem of Medieval South India.