616 Serra Street
Free and Open to the Public.
Neepa Majumdar (University of Pittsburgh)
"Instruments and Instrumentation: Gramophone, Microphone, and Cinema in Prabhat Talkies' Kunku (1937)"
The talk will focus on Shanta Apte, a singing star of the 1930s, whose song sequences were marked as a tension between the resistant female roles she embodied both on- and off-screen and the codes of modesty marking vocal female performance on screen at this time. While it is a commonplace now to regard the unprecedented scale of public visibility afforded by the cinematic medium as a social hindrance to women’s screen performance in many national contexts, including India, Majumdar who is interested in a later moment of anxiety pertaining to the visibility of the female singing star, in which decoupling singing from dancing became an imperative. Analyzing Apte’s song sequences in her three most popular films with Prabhat Studios, Amar Jyoti/Eternal Flame (1936), Rajput Ramani/Rajput Maiden (1936), and Kunku/ The Unexpected (1937), the paper argues for a split discourse of the female voice, in which opposition between the spoken voice and the singing voice demonstrate the tension between female resistance and modesty. Because of this opposition, it is fruitful to analyze song sequences side by side with what I call “rage sequences” in her films. Though Apte was known as one of the first female singers to move her body while singing, this movement is still highly constrained, in striking contrast to her performances of rage in various scenes of gender and political resistance. Majumdar considers the sonic performance in these contrasting scenes in relation to the film's self-reflexive use of sound technologies and instrumentation.
Neepa Majumdar is Program Director of Film Studies within the Department of English, and Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include film sound, star studies, South Asian early cinema, and documentary film. She is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s (University of Illinois Press, 2009), which received an Honorable Mention in the 2010 Best First Book Award of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Her research tracks the transmutations that occur in such seemingly self-evident ideas as “stardom” and “aurality” as a way to remap the specificities of locally grounded cinematic cultures in early twentieth century India, where the nationalist project remained firmly in conversation with Hollywood and international cinemas. Her current book project, on cinematic and extra-cinematic sonic cultures, focuses on the period just before and after the transition to sound in Indian cinema, with an interest in mapping the transition itself as a gradual shift in sonic cultures that extended before and after the pivotal date of 1931, the official coming of sound to Indian cinema.