Music in Colonial Punjab:
Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, 1800-1947
by Dr Radha Kapuria
Oxford University Press 2023, 416pp
Reviewed by: Dr G Ali Shair, University of Warwick
1 March 2024
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Punjab in various national, sub-national and transnational imaginaries – Pakistani, Indian, Punjabi and diaspora – is understood by many as the land of folk culture. Whether it is the state-led politics of cultural commemoration in East Punjab or the thriving scene of South Asian diaspora cultural production across the world, it is the folksy, rural and earthy image of the region that dominates the historical representation of its performing traditions and artists. This quintessential association between the land and music has often led to stereotypical assertions like ‘serious music and Punjab were incompatible’, as Radha Kapuria states in her book Music in Colonial Punjab (p.3). It is a timely intervention to interrogate this enduring stereotype that reduces Punjab’s performance cultures to merely popular performance forms such as giddha, kikli and bhangra.

Towards this end, the book undertakes a historical recovery arguing that Hindustani classical music was ‘an important feature of life in the pre-twentieth-century Punjab courts’ (p.3). In temporal breadth, it begins in the early nineteenth century, in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, before the advent of colonial rule, and concludes in the mid-twentieth century, when the region had to bear the departing blow of colonial rule in the form of its partition in 1947. With an empirical focus on undivided Punjab, therefore, Kapuria offers a holistic understanding of various music traditions, its hereditary practitioners (mirasi) and courtesans ‘who constantly crossed the artificial boundaries since created between ‘classical’, ‘folk’ and ‘devotional’, and between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ ’ (p.4).

These thematic and empirical ambitions can be achieved, as Kapuria argues, by utilising what has been missing in the extant literature’s engagement with the music of Punjab: a conventional historical analysis. In other words, the idea of folksy Punjab is attributed to an ‘inherent presentism’ that underpins existing anthropological, sociological and ethnomusicological studies. To correct what she alternatively terms ‘curious presentism’, this study advocates ‘a more historically grounded awareness of music in the region.’ However, as a work of history that mainly comprises the colonial period, it goes beyond the discipline’s codified relationship with the archive to include interviews and oral histories, thereby combining more conventional historical methods with an ethnomusicological perspective. In this regard, Kapuria’s work sets a worthy precedent for studying performance culture in the context of South Asia where overlapping structures of cultural patronage, colonial modernity and social reform condition the production and consumption of music.

Bearing witness to its own convictions, such methodological innovativeness has alerted this work to the consideration of caste, gender and power, and to how these components of social life in Punjab intersect historically to define the performing cultures of the region. Especially, the trope of gender provides the sustaining thread around which historical information and analysis are weaved to bring alive music’s ubiquity in the social life of Punjab. Whether those be the ‘Amazonian’ female dancers in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, missionary memsahibs in colonial Punjab, the Muslim courtesans or the ‘chaste’ middle-class women bent on sanitising the musical tradition, Kapuria highlights women’s centrality to the world of music in Punjab. This is the great strength of the book in centring woman, but also a possible weakness as by essentialising the category it leaves open the question as to what other dimensions are eclipsed.

The book comprises four chapters. In the following, I present a summary of each chapter by highlighting the main thematic concerns and questions it attempts to address.

The first chapter picks up on the prologued significance of a bridge built over the Hansli canal in the Indian Punjab, famously called ‘Pul Moran’, ‘Pul Kanjri’ or the ‘Bridge of the Dancing Girl’, which is named after Moran, the Muslim courtesan wife of Ranjit Singh. Hence, we are historically guided to the cosmopolitan-spirited court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in early nineteenth-century Punjab where one sees both music and musicians playing a pre-eminent role in the technologies and rituals of statecraft. Drawing on archival as well as oral evidence, Kapuria helps her readers to see the place of music at the Lahore darbar beyond the realm of mere entertainment. Recognising how performance cultures can ‘affectively’ aid meaning-making processes in society, Kapuria urges us to view the Maharaja’s generous patronage of classical music and dance as part of his strategic and diplomatic relations with the British and Europeans.

The most substantial historical evidence that bears witness to this analytical conviction consists of two important aspects of Maharaj’s quotidian courtly life: his affective attachment with his two Muslim courtesan wives and the troupe of female bodyguard dancers, which were called ‘Amazonian dancers’ by the European visitors of Maharaj’s court. Interestingly, the Maharaja’s fondness for his wives who hail from courtesan backgrounds figures differently in Indian and European sources, as she writes: ‘In Indian chronicles, therefore, we find none of the moral opprobrium reserved for Ranjit Singh’s having married courtesans that is so amply visible in European accounts’ (p.57). The chapter closes with a discussion of the Amazonian troops of martial female performers, an invention unique to Ranjit Singh who would patronise and present these performers as a way of extending hospitality to British rivals and other Europeans.

The second chapter is the lengthiest of all and understandably so as it tracks the sociocultural shift coterminous with the dissolution of the Sikh state and the advent of colonial rule in Punjab. For this purpose, the chapter comprises two parts. The first part, foregrounding the significance of music in the colonial and missionary project, records the layered and complex attitude that colonialists and missionaries held towards mirasi. In this regard, the author distinguishes the surfeit of ethnographic studies by the intellectually inclined colonial administrators like Richard Temple and Charles Swynnerton from the missionary engagement with the music of Punjab. The distinction lies in their differential attitude towards mirasi and the local music traditions. In the case of the former, it is the abusive characterisation of mirasi that combines with the consolidation of a rustic-idyllic image of the region. However, in the case of female missionaries, ‘they were more enthusiastic and gentler in their engagement with the music of the ‘natives’ on its own terms’ (p. 52). Similarly, in the case of Anne Wilson – whom Kapuria terms the first ethnomusicologist of Punjab and even credits her writings for offering ‘thick descriptions’ – she refuses to dismiss Wilson’s writings as an act of epistemic violence on Punjab’s music. Instead, we are exhorted to read:

[the] nuances in the articulation of these women that go beyond ‘prevalent Anglo-Indian modes of stereotyping’ and often question the bases and rationale of imperialism (p.137).

Whether this assertion is valid or not, the richness of the empirical account is convincing. The second part then moves on to present the perspective of an ‘insider’ on music in colonial Punjab by examining a Punjabi qissa (tale) called Mirasinama, penned by a Muslim constable. Kapuria shows that the qissa embodies an unprecedented level of Indian antipathy towards the mirasi. However, to what extent a police constable can be credited for furnishing an insider’s perspective in a power-laden colonial world of Punjab opens up the question of the applicability of the insider-outsider boundary, especially where it is contended that Anne Wilson transgresses it.

The third chapter concerns itself with the music reform project in colonial Punjab. Empirically, the chapter focuses on three cities – Lahore, Amritsar and Jalandhar – located on the South Asia-wide Grand Trunk Road to examine the relationship between urbanity, gender and middle-class discourses in colonial Punjab. This focus on cities is justified to revisit the prevalent imagining of rural and folk as the definitive loci of Punjabi culture. The chapter begins with a discussion of a robbery case registered by a courtesan in Lahore in the late nineteenth century to demonstrate the tawaif’s (courtesan’s) powerful and influential status in colonial Punjab. However, as the historical evidence piles up, the figure of the courtesan becomes the whipping boy for music and religious reform movements across all communities, spearheaded by their middle and elite classes. It was Punjab’s Hindu reform movements that were ‘the quickest to adapt to the changes wrought by colonialism, with socio-religious reform movements like the Arya Samaj…[and] define[d] music strictly in terms of piety, divorcing it from its earlier association with pleasure’ (p.233).

Mai Bhagavati, a female preacher of the Arya Samaj, exemplifies this reformist tendency as she attempted to invert traditional sithniyan (songs sung by women during marriages etc.) by writing lyrics that advocated moral strictures and ideal codes of behaviour instead of themes of love, lust and pleasure. These can also be read as a substitution for thumri, associated with courtesan culture. Therefore, the shaping of new middle-class womanhood, championing the cause of sanitized and respectable music, and her entry into the public sphere was accompanied by the marginalisation of the traditional public performer figure of the tawaif, the Muslim courtesan. As Kapuria writes:

The attack on public female performers was central to the middle-class cultural project of self-definition, where they sought to distance themselves both from the ‘decadent’, ‘effeminate’ upper class of Indo-Muslim aristocracy, but equally, from the ‘uncultured’ lower classes (and castes) of labourers and peasants (p. 217).

The last chapter of this book moves beyond the urban metropolises of Lahore, Amritsar and Jalandhar to examine the emergence of two gharanas (lineages) at the princely courts of Patiala and Kapurthala. While charting the musico-cultural trajectory of each of these courts, she attempts to answer a subsidiary yet no less important question: ‘why, of the many cities and princely centres in Punjab, did Patiala alone emerge as the singularly representative lineage of the region’s classical music?’ In addressing these concerns and questions, Kapuria first outlines the essential contrast between the two courts’ engagement with modernity and the implications for musical change. As she notes:

Patiala’s engagement with colonial modernity and westernisation was reflected in the emergence of a cultural hybridity in the discourse and patronage of music. In contrast, at Kapurthala we see a different kind of engagement: a parallel coexistence of ragadari music with western musical practice. The Kapurthala rulers engaged in a greater cultural dialogue with the West, at least in matters musical (p. 326).

Whilst providing an appraisal of these modernisation processes vis-à-vis musical change, Kapuria’s analysis speaks to the broader literature that has accounted for similar developments at the princely courts of Baroda and Tanjore (Bakhle, Subramanian). Concluding this chapter, Kapuria contends that in addition to the cultural hybridity that underpinned Patiala’s engagement with music’s modernity, it was exceptional stability and the continuous succession of rulers at the court that allowed the emergence of a gharana in its name. This can be contrasted with Ranjit Singh’s era and the short-lived nature of the Lahore court. Though this is largely due to the early capitulation of the Patiala Maharajah to British hegemony, the colonial context that patterned this ‘cultural hybridity’ needs noting.

Indeed, uncovering such spatial and temporal breadth of musical transformation, Music in Colonial Punjab has struck many a chord with those who are interested in the musical past of the region beyond its stereotypical association with the folk. Here I have only presented a few yet significant epistemological and thematic concerns that this must-read book has brought to the fore. A balanced approach that distinguishes among various voices – be they colonial, gendered, native or others – and appreciates each on their own terms uniquely characterises the analytical lens deployed in this work. The empirical richness and the historical data – excavating a multilingual variety of resources comprising manuscripts, paintings, official archives, pamphlets, songbooks, newspapers and official debates – which this capacious historical investigation offers is of particular interest to scholars of music and colonial history in the context of Punjab.

Bakhle, Janaki. 2005. Two Men and Music. Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford University Press.
Subramanian, Lakshmi. 2024. From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India. Oxford University Press.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2024


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