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Anaar Desai-Stephens

Anaar Desai-Stephens

Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology; Affiliate Faculty, Susan B. Anthony Institute, University of Rochester

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Trained as an ethnomusicologist and violinist, my research focuses on popular music and media in South Asia. My broader research interests include the intersection of musical practice, embodiment, and subjectivity; musical affect; global media and circulation; music in prisons; and the transnational life of the violin.

My current book project investigates intertwined changes in popular music and youth subjectivity following India’s economic liberalization two decades ago. Drawing on nearly two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai, this project combines ethnographic methods, multimedia analysis, and archival research to theorize the central role of musical practice in creating a new economy of aspiration in liberalizing India. Focusing on reality music television shows such as Indian Idol, and a new set of schools that train contestants for them, I argue that Hindi film song has become a privileged site for participating in the aspirational project of modern India, allowing young singers to work towards a desirable musical future in Bollywood while cultivating themselves as more expressive subjects.

I present regularly at national conferences in ethnomusicology, musicology, anthropology, and Asian studies, and I currently serve as co-chair of the South Asian Performing Arts Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I have published reviews and articles in World of Music (New Series), Music in Contemporary Indian Film: Memory, Voice, Identity, and MusiCULTURE. My work has been supported by Cornell University’s Randel Dissertation and Teaching fellowship and the American Musicological Society’s Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship, amongst other awards.

I continue to be an active performer across a range of styles. My earliest experiences as a violinist took place as a student in the Opus 118 East Harlem Violin Program, subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Small Wonders” and the film “Music of the Heart.” Subsequently, I have performed with groups as varied as New York’s Bang on a Can, baroque ensembles at Cornell and Oberlin, and the Cornell Latin ensemblePalonegro. I have received training in Hindustani violin with Kala Ramnath and Hindustani voice with Warren Senders and Rajeshree Pathak, and I am the violinist for the Mumbai-based world music band Maati Baani.

As an educator, I foreground experiential learning and critical inquiry as central to transformational educational experiences; to this end, I honor the range of lived experiences that my students bring to the classroom. At the same time, I guide my students to critically engage with the social ideologies that structure musical practice, both historically and today. In this way, I seek to have my courses resonate with contemporary political contexts and conversation while encouraging students to reflect upon their own position within structures of power.