Hindus, Muslims, and Music in India


A review of Brahmans Beyond Nationalism, Muslims Beyond Dominance: A Hidden History of North Indian Classical Music’s Hinduization, by Justin Scarimbolo.

The discipline of historical ethnomusicology has grown over the last few decades partly as a response to unsatisfactory answers gathered in the field. Ethnomusicologists questioned the longer histories of instruments and genres as narrated by their music teachers, or, in the textual archive, the written histories developed by colonial scholars and reiterated in post-colonial works. Opening these musical histories to critique raised new questions about how larger, extra-musical forces developed in South Asian society and culture and shaped the way music was heard, how certain practices were deemed illicit and driven underground, and determined which stories would dominate in the worlds of the performing arts. Justin Scarimbolo’s dissertation continues this twofold process of historical reconstruction and revisionist critique, using his work on a particular family’s entanglement with musical culture to raise new historiographical challenges and to question the answers offered by earlier generations of ethnomusicologists.

Scarimbolo’s dissertation culminates in a detailed discussion of a family of upper caste Hindu professional musicians, the Ashtewales of Ujjain, who specialize in the sitār and bīn. In order to tell their story, Scarimbolo first has to disentangle, and in some cases reject, a number of fundamental assumptions about the course of Hindustani music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scarimbolo maintains that histories of Indian music are encumbered by two basic principles: that elite art music was primarily the domain of Muslim musicians through the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, who jealously guarded their expertise from other communities; and that this “dominance” was gradually dismantled and ultimately broken by upper caste Hindus from the late nineteenth century onwards, in a musically-oriented form of nationalism. Taken together, he argues, these assumptions have “inevitably led to the creation of a misleading historical paradigm of two consecutive dominances, one Muslim, the other Hindu, that reduces the complexities of musicians’ identities and obscures the collaborations between Muslims and Hindus during an earlier era” (p. 18).

Scarimbolo notes that there are already acknowledged exceptions to this model: Brahmin singers from Bengal, for example, who studied from Muslim hereditary professionals in the early nineteenth century. However, these cases are considered “exceptional” precisely because the standard historiography insists that before the twentieth century classical music was a closed Muslim domain. Presenting an alternative perspective, Scarimbolo considers why Brahmins took up music from the late eighteenth century onwards, long before the nationalist project. To tackle this prevalent historiography, Scarimbolo ties together a number of different approaches. At times, the thesis has an highly ethnographic quality, drawing on his immediate experiences from living, studying, listening, and playing with the Ashtewales. Elsewhere, Scarimbolo delves into the colonial archives to consider the social ramifications of the British policy of indirect rule, and the place of Mughal-style patronage in Maratha polities. In another section, Scarimbolo investigates the technicalities of musicological theory to develop his arguments in social history. However, the primary approach running throughout the dissertation is a finely combed reading and critique of historical ethnomusicologists who have come before him.

Chapter 1, “Colonial Consequences”, begins with the moment Scarimbolo was shown a legal document in the Ashtewales’ possession, a sanad from 1818 from the ruler of Bhopal and overseen by the British. This document secured the family an annual pension of 6,000 rupees and transformed their social position: they moved to Ujjain where they built a mansion and became local patrons of the arts. Ultimately these Brahmin patrons became the disciples of the professional Muslim musicians in their employ. Scarimbolo provides a new context for this document by presenting a re-appraisal of colonialism’s relationship to music in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. He proposes that musical culture actually benefitted from colonialism, due to the policy of indirect rule, under which wealthy collaborators of the East India Company were financially and socially equipped to expand “their patronage and participation in music.” (p. 30) Examining the efflorescence of music under these conditions in Gwalior, Tanjore, Awadh, and Jaipur, he maintains that it was no coincidence that genres, instruments, and social formations were crafted into their modern forms in the same period that royal courts were politically disempowered. Following Christopher Bayly’s (Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) recognition of royal expenditure and patronage as politically-informed practices rather than irresponsible frivolities, Scarimbolo proposes that the British encouraged rulers to invest themselves in their cultural responsibilities, to deflect attention from their own political and economic incursions: “the assumption being that demonstration of the rulers’ largesse would sustain their legitimacy (and their ability to collect revenue for the Company) in spite of the loss of political power” (p. 116).

Scarimbolo applies this hypothesis to a detailed discussion of the Ashtewales’ relationship to the Panj Mahal territory, drawing on colonial records to reconstruct the position of that region in the shifting diplomatic and military engagements between the British, Bhopal, the Pindaris, and the Peshwas. Against this background, he explains how an ancestor of the Ashtewales was given revenue from the Ashta district in recognition of his services to the Company in 1818, which facilitated their migration to Ujjain and their subsequent patronage of the arts. This historical thread therefore serves as a case study for his larger argument that for some Brahmin families, colonialism was a necessary precondition for participation in music.

The second and third chapters consider why Brahmins might want to become participants in musical culture in the first place. Chapter 2, “Mughal Precedents”, looks for social explanations in the context of the shift from Mughal to Maratha rule in Central India. Raghunath Rav was the first of the Ashtewale line to invest himself in music, and his family’s professionalism stems from his initial encounter with the Muslim sitār player Mugalu Khan in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Scarimbolo suggests that taking on Muslim musicians benefitted Raghunath Rav as he navigated his social ascent. Following Kumkum Chatterjee’s elaboration of Mughal cosmopolitanism and “cultural flows” (“Cultural Flows and Cosmopolitanism in Mughal India: The Bishnupur Kingdom.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 46:2 (2009), pp. 147-182), Scarimbolo suggests that as a new member of the elite Raghunath Rav could partake of the cultural prestige of Mughal court culture through its performance culture. Taking inspiration from André Wink (Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics Under the Eighteeenth-Century Marathas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) and Randolf Cooper (The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India: The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Scarimbolo also maintains that Mughal conventions were maintained in the Maratha cultural domain, an “adoptive strategy” (p. 156) that provided a social context for the Ashtewale’s engagement with music.

Chapter 3, “Hindu Continuities,” looks to intellectual history for further insights into the musical journey of Raghunath Rav and his family, and considers how, as Brahmins, they might have related art music to their Hindu past. The fashioning of a history that posits Hindustani music as a cultural expression of Hindu religiosity is now a well-established and expanding subject in Indian history, and has been explored through quite different frames of analysis by scholars such as Janaki Bakhle (Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), Lakshmi Subramanian (“Faith and the Musician.” Economic and Political Weekly 41:45 (2006), pp. 4648-4649), Anna Schultz (Singing a Hindu Nation: Marathi Devotional Performance and Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), and Margaret Walker (India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). While much of this work investigates the late nineteenth century onwards, Scarimbolo considers the pre-history of Hindus (and Orientalists) that claimed a continuous tradition flows between ancient musicological lore and modern musical practices. Since Scarimbolo was unable to locate sources to illuminate the personal positions of Raghunath Rav and his immediate descendants, he instead considers the larger historiography of these claims for Hindu music. Taking inspiration from Katherine Butler Schofield’s (“Reviving the Golden Age Again: ‘Classicization,’ Hindustani Music, and the Mughals.” Ethnomusicology 54:3 (2010), pp. 484-517) analysis of Mughal and colonial processes of classicization, Scarimbolo looks for a historical continuity in the act of making a claim for continuity itself.

This chapter focuses on a methodological problem, which Scarimbolo calls the “additive approach”: musical history is represented as the evolution of a core tradition to which developments are almost superficially added, but that in its essence does not break or undergo substantial “revolution”. This approach is flawed, he insists, since “claims to continuity tend to rest not on a seamless tracing of concepts across time, but on the identification of similarity between concepts separated by yawning gaps of many centuries – gaps that the later authors who outline these concepts deliberately sought to obscure” (pp. 161-62). Championing a more critical “disparate view”, Scarimbolo examines theories on the musicological principles of jātī and rāga, and underlines the language of accommodation and continuity employed by theoreticians long before Orientalist and later nationalist scholars. He contends that this earlier sense of continuity, akin to what Richard Widdess called an “archaizing didactic” (“The Emergence of Dhrupad.” In Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries, edited by J. Bor, F.N. Delvoye, J. Harvey, and E. Nijenhuis. Delhi: Manohar, 2010), poses the possibility that earlier generations of Brahmins – like the Ashtewales – may have intellectually positioned themselves as heirs of India’s musical traditions. Alongside his arguments over the previous chapters, this sense of Hindu intellectual property may have served as a secondary incentive for Brahmins to take on musical instruction in the early nineteenth century.

In Part 2 of the dissertation Scarimbolo turns his attention to the representation of Muslims in the historiography of Hindustani music. He highlights a persistent assumption that before the twentieth century Muslim professional musicians were secretive and possessive of the musical arts, and actively discouraged pedagogy. By outlining the genealogy of this rhetoric, Scarimbolo suggests that the term “Muslim” has been used uncritically, and that essentialist readings have obfuscated the nuances of localized complaints about particular patrons or practitioners of music that might not be “Islamophobic” in their original context.

Chapter 4 explores the narrative of “Muslim Dominance” in English-language scholarship, as seeded by colonial authors, shaped by reformers, and reproduced in later scholarship critical of the reform movement. Scarimbolo makes the significant observation that while the trope of the degeneration of music at the hands of Muslims may be traced to colonial sources, the authors of these texts were levelling their criticisms at Muslim rulers and patrons, rather than performers and pedagogues. He traces this rhetoric of degeneracy back into Mughal-era sources, and concludes that these “colonial criticisms were themselves drawn from pre-existing narrative frameworks of both European and Indian origin, thus further questioning the assumed origin of this narrative in colonial discourse.” (p. 290) As for modern times, Scarimbolo examines the critics of the anti-Muslim discourse too, arguing that they are in effect continuing the idea of Muslim dominance. Even recent scholars, he argues, assume a Muslim monopoly in contrast to later Hindu incursions into the arts, or “in their eagerness to call out colonialists for their anti-Muslim prejudice, critics of colonialism sometimes read anti-Muslimness where no clear evidence exists” (p. 323).

Scarimbolo continues his critical reading of the historiography of music in Chapter 5, “Contingent Identities.” Here he underlines the inadequacy of the “ill conceived and anachronistic” (p. 414) notion of a shift from Muslim dominance in music to a Hindu one. At the heart of his critique is his objection to the essentialism of the key terms, “Muslim” and “Hindu.” In particular, he questions the critical validity of these labels by examining stories of conversion: both of “Hindus” who converted to Islam (which is considered by some as one explanation for the “domination” of Muslim musicians), including famous cases such as Tansen and Gopal Das; and for a later period cases of “converts” who “return” to the fold of Hinduism, rejecting the conversion status of their forebears. Françoise Nalini Delvoye (“L’appropriation de Tānsen, premier musician de la cour d’Akbar, par les traditions sectaires krishnaïtes.” In Constructions hagiographies dans le monde indien: Entre mythe et histoire, edited by F. Mallison. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 2001, pp. 221-56) and Kumkum Sangari (“Tracing Akbar: Hagiographies, Popular Narrative Traditions and the Subject of Conversion”. In Mapping Histories: Essays Presented to Ravinder Kumar, edited by Neera Chandhoke. London: Anthem, 2000, pp. 61-103) previously considered similar complexities in the language of conversion under the Mughals, and Scarimbolo’s extension of this critique to the twentieth-century context is a useful intervention. The particularity of musical culture – as one that demands the performer operate as a technician at the confluence of religious, ritual, and secular practices – suggests it is extremely problematic to confine the musician to too narrow an affiliation. In the context of the Ashetwales, Scarimbolo argues for the “contingent nature of Muslim and Hindu identities in the context of Hindustani music’s history” (p. 463).

Having provided a historical background and intellectual genealogy, and having filtered the conceptual terms inherent in musical history, Scarimbolo finally turns his attention to discipleship in the Ashtewale family in Chapter 6. Drawing primarily upon his interviews with members of the most recent generations of the family, he considers the first three generations of the lineage, Brahmin musicians who studied under Muslim teachers. Crucially, Scarimbolo argues that, “traditions of inter-communal discipleship afford us the important opportunity to rethink the assumption that Muslim and Hindu epistemologies are exclusive of each other, homogeneous within themselves, or unchanging and primordial.” (p. 472) Rather than reiterating the language of Muslim exclusivity and jealousy, he suggests that the reluctance of professional musicians to perform for ill-mannered audiences, or their anxiety over losing control of the circulation of their music (as through recording technology, for example), bears an affinity to the cultural elitism of the Ashtewales as aristocratic disciples. His profile of four musicians from this family, over the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth, represents a nuanced discussion of a lineage engaged with music that cannot be expressed purely in terms of cultural hegemony or nationalism. Scarimbolo’s consideration of these professionals’ extra-musical careers is especially enlightening, entailing offices in the local administration and foundational roles in the Ujjain division of the RSS.

This dissertation therefore provides “an in depth account of one family whose participation in aristocratic discipleship prefigured nationalist interest in music” (p. 467). In order to represent that account authentically, Scarimbolo clears the conceptual ground before him, and returns to the key principles of the social history of music in South Asia in order to consider them afresh, and to challenge problematic assumptions within the discipline. Scholars of Indian music will be grateful for this new account of the Ashtewales, and students of Maratha history will find much of interest in Scarimbolo’s account of local politics in the eighteenth century. However, the core of this dissertation sets out to challenge the historiography of ethnomusicology in South Asia, and this defines Scarimbolo’s central contribution: the different facets of this challenge will provide a platform for many future debates and revisionist critiques to come.

Richard David Williams
Faculty of Oriental Studies
University of Oxford

Primary Sources
Maharashtra State Archives
National Archives of India
Private Archives

Dissertation Information
University of California, Santa Barbara. 2014. 627 pp. Primary Advisor: Scott L. Marcus.

Image: Vishwanath Krishnarao Ashtewale, 1880-1960

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