Worldly Divine Love: Women and Public Performances of Sung Poetry in South Asia with Francesca Cassio

This event is in collaboration with UBC Green College and the Department of Asian Studies.


Through postcolonial and contemporary gender studies theories, the presenter will discuss and showcase secular and religious repertoires, ranging from the songs performed by the tawaif-s (courtesans) to the sung poetry associated with spiritual contexts and practices. Delving into the social norms that in Pre-Partition India prevented women from becoming professional singers, the speaker will debate the public sphere of music performances dominated by male-restricted mehfils. Based on several years of fieldwork in South Asia, and rigorous musical training under the guidance of renowned singers of Indian music, Dr. Cassio’s talk will explore two opposite expressions of ‘love’ – as portrait in the tawaifs’ songs and in the Sikh kirtan repertoire – whose nuances though allow to go beyond the (colonial) binary categories of secular and ‘religious’, dissolving into the spiritual dimension of the sung poetry, in which the ‘beloved’ is disembodied.


Dr. Francesca Cassio is Professor of Music at Hofstra University (NY) and since 2011 holds the Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair in Sikh Musicology, the first academic position of its kind in the United States. M.A. and PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University ‘La Sapienza’ of Rome, in affiliation with the Benares Hindu University, Dr. Cassio has conducted extensive research in India, where she lived for several years and was trained in vocal music by renowned musicians such as Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar, Prof. Ritwik Sanyal, and Dr. Smt. Girija Devi. Senior disciple of Bhai Baldeep Singh, the 13th generation exponent of Gurbani kirtan, Dr. Cassio specialized on the history and the musicological analysis of traditional Sikh repertoires. Prior to joining Hofstra, Dr. Cassio was lecturer of Ethnomusicology and Indian vocal music at the University of Trento, Conservatory of Vicenza, Conservatory of Adria (Italy), and Visiting Professor at Viswa Bharati University (Shantiniketan, India). Dr. Cassio is the author of a monograph on dhrupad titled “Percorsi della Voce. Storia e teccniche esecutive del canto dhrupad dell’India del Nord” (2000). Her essays are published in edited volumes and international academic journals, and her research interests cover several areas in the field of South Asian music, ranging from early-music history to pedagogy, music and gender, music-s of underrepresented traditions, postcolonial and decolonial studies. In 2015, she was awarded the Stessin Prize with the article “Female Voices in Gurbani Sangit and the Role of the Media in Promoting Female Kirtanie”. Accomplished dhrupad singer and kirtaniya, Dr. Cassio has lectured and performed in renowned gurdwaras and academic institutions in India, Europe and the USA.