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Anaar Desai-Stephens (Eastman): “Bollywood Songs and the Dreamwork of Aspirational India”

This talk is free and open to the public.

Abstract: While anthropology and cultural studies has long been interested in the role of dreams within capitalism, this scholarship has grappled with a tension between framing dreams as a form of escapist fantasy or as a site of utopian potential. Building on recent South Asian scholarship on dreaming as a social practice, this talk examines Bollywood songs as crucial mediums of what I call dreamwork, the musical and discursive labor of articulating, imagining, and striving for desired selves and futures. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and media analysis, I trace the efficacy of Bollywood songs in catalyzing dreamwork by focusing on their affectively laden sound, the embodied vocal production that they require, and the shared social and political histories they invoke for listeners. Across a range of sites, I ask: How does song practice generate experiences of and attachment to futures? Ultimately, this talk contends that we must explore music's role in enabling situations of precarity and exploitation while taking seriously the musically-mediated dreams that make lives worth living.

Anaar Desai-Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, where she also holds an affiliate appointment in the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Women's and Gender Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Cornell University in 2017, where she received the annual Donald J. Grout award for best dissertation in music. Her work focuses on popular music, media economies, and embodied subjectivity in South Asia and has been supported by sources including the American Musicological Society's Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship and the American Association for University Women's Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship. Anaar is currently working on her first monograph, "Voicing Aspiration: Bollywood Songs and the Dreamwork of Contemporary India," which explores the role of popular music as a medium for aspirational self-making in neoliberalizing India. She is also the co-editor of "Musical Feelings and Affective Politics," a special double issue of Culture Theory Critique, and recently published an article on YouTube, infrastructure and aesthetics in India. Trained as a violinist, Anaar continues to be an active performer across a range of styles.