Radha Kapuria (KCL), Thornley Fellow (6 months)

Music in Colonial Punjab, c.1849-1947: A Social History (King’s College London)

My research considers the social history of music in colonial Punjab, to show the adaptability of its musical traditions, as also their intrinsic role in shaping multiple identities among performers, patrons and listeners. Exploring the lesser-known history of art or Hindustani music in the region, this study prompts a reassessment of Punjab, long stereotyped as the land of ‘rustic’ culture. Undivided Punjab is a unique focus of investigation, given its geographical location—connecting South with Central Asia— and its embrace of both the popular and elite domains of music in a way that challenges the familiar trajectory of Indian music’s embourgeoisement and nationalisation under colonialism (Bakhle, 2005; Subramanian 2006; Walker 2014). Several languages flourished together in colonial Punjab, constituting an ‘unwieldy multilingual literary archive’ (Orsini, 2015). Given that much contemporary scholarship is still based on sources from single language scripts, my thesis breaks new ground by consulting sources in Punjabi, Urdu, Braj, Hindi and English; including manuscripts and books from the British and Royal Asiatic Society Libraries, John Rylands Special Collection, the SOAS and V&A Archives; and archives at Patiala and Chandigarh, India. I combine this with oral history interviews straddling India, Pakistan and the diaspora. This regional history of music is thus inherently interdisciplinary, combining perspectives from ethnomusicology with the historical method.

By studying the circulation of musicians, their audiences and shifting forms of patronage, I hope to unravel the mixed roots of Punjab’s art-music traditions that consistently elide easy categorisations. Rather, their resilience within the crucial interstices of regional, caste, class, and gender identities allowed their survival in the face of the modernisation attendant upon colonialism in India. Shifting music history’s focus away from domains of state and nation, I thus re-orient historical inquiry into cultural formations in colonial India by exploring music in Punjab within other equally significant trajectories of performance, faith, emotion, and belonging.

Research and publications


  • “Music and Its Many Memories: Complicating 1947 for the Punjab”, book chapter in Churnjeet Mahn and Anne Murphy (eds.), Partition and the Practice of Memory, Palgrave, 2017 (forthcoming)
  • “Unconquerable Nemesis” in ‘Postscript’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19 December, 2015, Vol. L, No. 51, pp. 91-92
  • "Redefining Music's Sacrality: The Harballabh Festival of Punjab, 1875-1950", Social Scientist, May-June 2015, Vol.43 (5/6), pp. 77-92
  • “Gandhi as Volunteer: A Historical Exploration”, Gandhi Marg, Vol. 35, No. 2, September 2013, pp. 263-282.