Why do Indian musicians tug at their ears when mentioning a senior figure in music?

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

To touch, or tug at one or both ears, is a visible sign of repentance in South Asian cultures. But one often notices that Indian musicians, as well as their disciples, perform this action when uttering the name of a maestro, past or present, irrespective of whether or not the maestro in question is actually physically present. One may well ask, what is there to repent? But, voicing the name of the great and the good used to be considered a somewhat disrespectful and even daring action. That belief persists to this day, albeit ostensibly.

Before encounters with Western culture, first names were almost never used in India or in other traditional Asian and African societies. There are numerous reasons for this, the most important being respect and reverence, but the tradition dates back to ancient practices whereby knowing someone’s name enabled magic spells to be cast on them.

Apart from such concerns about superstition, the sound of the name itself was said to carry magical, numerological properties and the utterance of that sound itself was said to undermine the physical or mental strength of the name’s owner.

Whatever the reason, it was basically never done to address one’s elders and betters by their name, irrespective of whether or not they were present, or even living at the time. Even within ordinary families, most people were referred to by the honorific for their relationship to the person speaking of them, with separate words for uncle, aunt, brother-in-law, etc., depending on whether they were related through the maternal or paternal side of the family.

On top of that many families, whether aristocratic or of more modest means, usually followed the practice of giving a child a formal name for official purposes as well as a family nickname with clearly defined rules for who may use which in addressing that child.

Even so, the first name was almost never used – a practice that is still evident in the names of South Indian notables, including musicians who use one or two letters, followed by a last name, (e.g. the novelist R.K. Narayan or violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam) which may, or may not be the actual family surname.

When modern life eventually demanded that people be addressed by their name, where musicians where concerned, it became customary to add the honorific ‘ji’ to the end of the first name unless that musician could also be addressed as Ustad (teacher, Muslim), Pandit (teacher, Hindu) or Bhai (practitioner of Sikh devotional music).


Listen to the music | Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar is revered by his fellow khayal vocalists for his mastery of the Agra, Jaipur, and Gwalior gharanas. Here he alternates long sustained tones with rapid melodies on Raag Darbari, live from Darbar Festival 2011.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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