Share this story   

Exploring music in colonial Punjab with Dr Radha Kapuria

Discover my world      
to read

As she releases her new book, Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, author Radha Kapuria from our Department of History tells us how she developed an interest in this subject, and the 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 artists. It was partly in response to this cultural contradiction that I began my research into the shared heritage of undivided, pre-1947 Punjab.

Maharaja Sher Singh and Companions Watching a Dance Performance, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1850
Maharaja Sher Singh and Companions Watching a Dance Performance, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1850

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 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 century. 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 marginalised 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 (traditional dances performed by professional dancing girls) 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. When I started at Durham in 2022, I launched a level 2 module on the intersections of gender and caste in South Asia. This draws from the focus on musician-castes and female performers in my book, and a strand called ‘Courtesan Queens: Female Performers and Power in South Asia’ for the historiography module, Conversations with History. This year, along with Professor Jonathan Saha and Dr Christopher Bahl - the other two South Asian history specialists at Durham - I am convening an exciting new level 1 Module around 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 decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century.

What future research projects are you working on?

My current research project tackles, head on, this question of what the 1947 Partition meant for Punjab’s musicians. It continues my former 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.

Dr Radha Kapuria
Dr Radha Kapuria

Away from work, what’s your idea of a perfect day off?

The ideal day would involve spending quality time with my family (especially our beautiful calico cat!), reading a favourite book, and if there’s time, checking out an exhibition or gallery.

What has been your favourite holiday and why?

I am a fan of the Mediterranean - from Istanbul to Antibes, from Corfu to Nice. But my favourite and most memorable time so far has been on the small Italian island of Procida, off Napoli, for the luxuriant food, the lemon groves, the slow small town vibe, the dappled sun and the prettiest sea. 

What are your hobbies?

I like indoor gardening and reading fiction, in particular anything by Alexander McCall Smith, Amitav Ghosh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, and Jhumpa Lahiri. As someone who grew up in New Delhi, India, I also love cinema from South Asia, the Hindi film industry (or ‘Bollywood’), but also the regional films from Bengal and South India. My research involves the shared cultural heritage of India and Pakistan, so I am also particularly fond of Pakistani TV shows and music.

When time permits, I also enjoy Hindustani vocal music lessons over Skype with my India-based teacher. I am also a huge fan of pets, and have in recent times become an avid cat mom!



   Share this story   

Start the discussion



Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you! Get in touch via