Book Review: Radha Kapuria’s ‘Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs’

By Siddharth Mehrotra- 

Siddharth Mehrotra

[Siddharth Mehrotra is a prolific writer of poetry and fiction and holds a master’s degree in Critical Comparative Scriptures from Claremont University. He lives in Southern California immersed in his study of ancient texts and mythologies, the search for planets in outer space, and a lifelong practice of Tae Kwon Do. He is currently working on a collection of poems. The views expressed are his own.]

To read Radha Kapuria’s (pictured above) book ‘Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs‘ is, for Indian and foreign readers alike, to take a journey into a wondrous realm, hitherto unknown and yet populated with marvels.

In this book, published in 2023 by Oxford University Press, Kapuria makes the effort, in her own phrase, to reveal classical Punjabi music was not, as usually believed, folk music, but court music; a distinction lost on a modern readership, to whom the distinction of ‘high’ and ‘low’ musics is a matter of taste, but at the time very important to the Sikh and Muslims kings of post-Mughal Punjab.

The cover of Radha Kapuria’s book

In most cases, so specialized a book is exciting and new only for the lay reader, whom it introduces to a subject long well known to historians. If Kapuria’s introduction is true, however, this book promises novelty and excitement to both historian and lay reader; because, she contends, this subject has been neglected by the historians and writers of the past three centuries.

If so, the author has achieved the sole permanent ambition of every scholar, adventurer, and scientist: to discover something new, even in a field well-trodden by many before, and share one’s admiration of it with the world. Kapuria’s text is easy to read and just as easily understood.

In the true fashion of a book composed in the Digital Age, its citations and references form not a lineage or isnad of knowledge, but a web of information the reader may pursue at leisure, and this too serves her stated purpose of placing our ideas of Punjabi music in its proper historical context; i.e., in relation to the government and tradition from which it arose.

In that respect, she differs from the popular mode of historiography, in which the purpose is to isolate a certain idea and delineate its demotic origins (‘folk music’, as Kapuria calls it), and revives the older concept of music as the expression of ‘high’ (royal or literate) culture; so much so, she shows us, the very sign of an educated, erudite, literate court and state was to be patron to musicians of both high antecedents and great skill, learned, adept, and well-versed in all the traditional modes.

All this and more is told through the eyes of witnesses: through the writings, i.e., of British administrators, Muslim reformers, Punjabi musical authorities, and historians past and present, so Punjabi music and musicians appear piecemeal through several fractured visions, and only in seeing through them all do we devise anything resembling a clear and accurate idea of the art and its proponents.

As aforesaid, this book reveals a world of marvels: a world of musical lineages as precise as any noble genealogy, of courtesans as respectable and honored as any modern rock-star, of mirasis (bards) at once earthy and celestial, of pretentious reformers trying (and unfortunately, succeeding) to suppress the musical art in the name of an ahistorical past age of purity, of philosopher-kings keeping musicians as treasures; so vast and intricate a subject, it is itself a matter of wonder that so much can be kept within so slender a volume.

Though organized by topic, it does present a clear and coherent chronology of Punjabi classical music, and opens the reader’s mind to new ideas; new to us, ancient in fact, and yet recent in date. It is a book one can read and read again a hundred times and still have more to discover.

Related posts