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Abstract

This dissertation moves beyond cosmopolitan centers to focus on how young people in rural India engage with global media networks by investigating the intersections between gender, youth, and performance. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the northeastern Indian state of Assam since 2009, I explore performances of music and dance associated with the springtime bihu New Year’s festival. I demonstrate how bihu is more than a celebration of fertility and the beginning of the agricultural cycle. By engaging with performers who move between ritual contexts, festival stages, and reality television competitions, I recognize the embodied sounds of bihu as constitutive of gendered and contested spaces where social, economic and geopolitical anxieties play out on the world stage. But I also investigate bihu as a context in which relationships are cultivated and affirmed between families and friends, between humans and the natural world, and between individual selves and multiple imagined communities. Theorizing bihu as “sounded practice,” I approach the study of performance through an investigation of sounded movement that seeks to avoid common binaries such as music/dance and melody/rhythm. As the subject of highly gendered debates about cultural authenticity, bihu constitutes an arena in which the sounding, moving body serves as evidence of regional belonging. Urban music and dance schools, university folklore departments, and state cultural institutions situate bihu as constitutive of a broader folk sensibility that spans seasonal and life cycle ritual contexts, commercial music markets, and university student politics. I argue that this vernacular sounded practice provides young people with opportunities to experiment with socially determined boundaries of gender and sexuality, to learn how to navigate risks, and to bridge seemingly incommensurable media worlds. In so doing, my work challenges and advances scholarly discussions of youth culture and media in South Asian communities as well as postcolonial analyses of gender and liberalization in a broader geopolitical context.

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