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Music in colonial punjab

On the launch of her book, Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, Radha Kapuria tells us how she developed an interest in this subject, and wider significance of social histories like this in understanding political events and the world beyond them.

Tell us about yourself and your research.

I grew up in New Delhi, India, a third-generation member of a Hindu family who migrated from Lahore in Pakistan on the eve of the 1947 Partition. My childhood was framed by a fundamental cultural confusion: my grandparents and parents communicated both a deep-seated suspicion toward members of the ‘Other’ community (Pakistani Muslims, in this case), and a love for Punjabi music and wedding songs and Urdu TV dramas featuring Pakistani artistes. It was partly in response to this cultural contradiction that I began my research into the shared heritage of undivided, pre-1947 Punjab.

Tell us about your recent book Music in Colonial Punjab.

This book (based on my PhD research at King’s College London) explores the life of music in colonial, pre-1947 Punjab. It offers the first social history of music in undivided Punjab (1849-1947), arguing for the primacy of classical music for a region conventionally understood as a centre of folk music alone. It maps the historical journey of a range of musicians and dancers in colonial Punjab—whether mirāsī (community of bards), kalāwant (higher-status musicians), kanjrī (subaltern female performers) or tawā’if (courtesans). The time period it covers begins with the prominence of Pul Kanjri during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign in the early nineteenth century and concludes with the emergence of the Patiala gharānā (musical lineage) as the epitome of musical excellence in the early twentieth. I also examine the history of Punjabi socio-musical reform by the newly emerging Anglicised middle classes—whether Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, or Christian—and the engagement of British colonial administrators with Punjab’s musician and performing communities. At its core, the book reveals the inherently diverse composition of musical connoisseurship in Punjab and positions gender and caste at the heart of the musical transformations wrought by colonialism in the region.

Can you tell us about the role of women in this?

The book unearths new evidence for the power–social, political, material, and cultural– wielded by Punjab’s performing community of courtesans. Though my research began with larger questions around stereotypes of Punjabi music and the importance of socially marginalized musician communities like the mirāsīs, it soon became clear that considerations of gender lay at the very heart of the project. In other words, while I did not consciously seek women out in the archives, I discovered them at every other nook in the archives and at each turn in the research journey: from a courtly context in the early nineteenth century, to their criticality in Christian mission work in the mid-nineteenth century, and finally to the strident late nineteenth-century reform campaigns to outlaw nautch performances by courtesans and replace them with devotional singing by ‘chaste’ middle-class women. Women’s voices and their status in the realms of musical performance, dissemination, and reform, thus feature as a central theme in the book.

What could the implications be for modern peacebuilding?

Combining insights from history, ethnomusicology, sociology, literature and geography, Music in Colonial Punjab provides a unique perspective on the social history of an activity that still unites a fascinating region today divided between the rival nation-states of India and Pakistan. The book contains several instances of the multiple musical trajectories that reveal the profound cultural–especially musical­–connections between communities today believed to be primordially at odds with each other– the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims of Punjab. This includes a discussion of the social importance of communities like mirāsī (musician-bards) and tawā’if (courtesans) in straddling the religious divide between Punjab’s different communities.

Why do you think social history is so important for understanding political events?

Social history illuminates an aspect of history that conventional political history disregards: the relations between different social groups, and the everyday lived reality of the past. This offers us a texture into worlds far removed from us in space and time. It enhances our understanding of the ‘big’ political events of history, even as it helps us understand a world beyond them.

Why did you decide to join the team at Durham?

The Durham History department is a large one, with strengths in cultural, gender, and environmental histories, all of which appealed to me. It also has a robust investment in histories of the Global South (Africa and east Asia, in particular), with South Asian history becoming a growing centre of focus. In 2022, the year I started at Durham, I launched a Level 2 module HIST21H1 on the intersections of gender and caste in South Asia, drawing from the focus on musician-castes and female performers in my book, and a strand titled ‘Courtesan Queens: Female Performers and Power in South Asia’ for the Level 2 historiography module, HIST2922 Conversations with History. This year, long with Prof Jonathan Saha and Dr Christopher Bahl–the other two South Asian history specialists at Durham­–I am convening an exciting new Level 1 Module titled HIST1711 South Asia: Texts-Artefacts-Empires. This module uses the some of the vast range of material and textual objects in the Durham Special Collections and the Oriental Museum to introduce first year students to the sweeping arc of South Asian history from the early modern period to decolonization in the mid twentieth century.

What future research projects are you planning / working on? Find out more

My current research project tackles, head on, this question of what the 1947 Partition meant for Punjab’s musicians. It continues my erstwhile postdoctoral Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship project at the University of Sheffield, which maps the history of musical exchange across the Indo-Pak border. Apart from this, I am researching the histories of the itinerant female performer in South Asia, in particular focussing on mobility, and agency through travel and movement in southwest Punjab during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I am also interested in the connections of the environment with music and performance histories on the subcontinent.

Find out more

  • Image: Maharaja Sher Singh and Companions Watching a Dance Performance, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1850; The San Diego Museum of Art:  Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.
  • Attend the book launch of Music in the Colonial Punjab 


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