Musicophilia in Mumbai – Inspired, hosted, perpetuated and celebrated


Bhaskar Parichha reviews Musicophilia in Mumbai by Tejaswini Niranjana (Published by Tulika Books , 2020) calling it a fascinating journey across the city.

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”

Oliver Sacks

Who doesn’t comprehend  the power of music that  moves us and  affects our mood? And when it is Hindustani music and the city of Mumbai, things ought to go cerebral. For being a wonderful  mix  of social science research and creative non-fiction, this is a stupendous book. 

Musicophilia in Mumbai: Performing Subjects and the Metropolitan Unconscious’ by    Tejaswini Niranjana traces the place of Hindustani classical music in Mumbai during the twentieth century. As the city moved from being a seat of British colonial power to a vibrant postcolonial metropolis, Mumbai witnessed a score of cultural advancements. Two things happened simultaneously: the widespread love of music all over the city that created ethos of collective listening and, as a result, it brought together people of varied social and linguistic backgrounds. This music culture produced modern subjects whose predilections  were grounded in reciprocation. They were hardly personal. Niranjana calls them ‘musicophiliacs.

With music in mind, she draws on historical archives, newspapers, oral histories, and interviews with musicians, critics, students, and instrument makers and her own personal experiences as a student of Hindustani classical music to write this book.

Niranjana shows how, by attending concerts, learning instruments, and performing at home and in various urban environments, performers  personified various forms of modernity that were distinct from those found in the West. She traces the relationship between musical practices and the construction of the social subject and opens up new ways to think about urbanity, subjectivity, culture, and multiple modernities. 

Author of ‘Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad and ‘Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context’, Niranjana is currently Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University. 

According to the book, the ‘passion’ for Hindustani music was strongly linked to the ‘linguistic diversity’ of Mumbai, which aided and fashioned the development of public spaces all over the city. There was a cherished relationship between urban spaces in the then ‘Bombay’ and the music these dwellings “inspired, hosted, perpetuated and celebrated”.  

The book is a fascinating journey across the city and subtly portraying the lives and struggles of musicians whilst  showing how gender, caste, class, and religious identity deflected their biases. 

Musicophilia in Mumbai’  provides a comprehensive account of the music-seeking people  , by examining the kinds of spaces in and practices through which the love of music was  manifested in Mumbai. 

Argues Niranjana:

‘I claim that in this city obtains what I call a “metropolitan unconscious,” a collectivized unconscious that includes the diverse pasts and experiences of the migrants who came to settle here under conditions of colonial modernity from the nineteenth century onward. The metropolitan unconscious draws on all these migrant histories but is not identical with any one of them. These would include both the hereditary musicians who taught and performed here as well as the people who made up the musicophiliac audience. Internally fraught with divisions of caste, class, religion, gender, and language, the musicophiliacs—fixated on Hindustani music—could sidestep these distinctions to create a community of musical affect.

The introductory chapter ‘On Not Being Able to Learn Music’ is sort of a throwback to the author’s  past and where she also sets the tone of the book. The other chapters wherein she lures the reader are: ‘Yaa Nagari Mein Lakh Darwaza’: Musicophilia and the Lingua Musica in Mumbai’; ‘Mehfil (Performance): The Spaces of Music’;’Deewaana (The Mad One): The Lover of Music’; ‘Taleem: Pedagogy and the Performing Subject and Nearness as Distance, or Distance as Nearness. ’Together, they present the evolution of the music culture in Mumbai.

According to Niranjana, what is today called Hindustani music began to take root in Mumbai around the 1850s and eventually became intimately associated with the city. Through the 19th century, Bombay grew in importance as a major center of trade and commerce, and markets for entertainment as well as forms of patronage.

Then, new kinds of listening experience were enabled in a proliferation of new public spaces – the Parsi theatre and the Marathi Sangeet Natak (musical play); the music club; the music school; the baithak in a wealthy patron’s home; the music ‘conference’; and the concert stage in places like Laxmi Baug, Brahman Sabha or Jinnah Hall in Girgaum. The book says that the Hindustani music audience was largely drawn from middle and lower middle classes, with occasional appearances of wealthy merchants and film stars.

What’s noteworthy is  the  performers who had brought the music into Bombay — Muslim ustads, the tawaifs from the north, and the naikins from western India — gradually “diminished in numbers” in  twentieth  century Bombay and only a handful survived into the 21st century.  These performers lived in chawls, apartments, or independent houses depending on the social stratum of the resident.

Says the book: while Girgaum was largely populated  by Marathi and Gujarati-speaking Hindus, there were also specific areas where Parsis lived.  Goan or north Karnataka kalavant families lived in Thakurdwar. Likewise, courtesans or tawaifs of different religious backgrounds lived in Grant Road and Kalbadevi Road. There were small artisanal shops, such as those of the tabla makers in Pandit Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale Path, where the worker -proprietor lived, worked, cooked and dined  in the same space. 

This exhaustive book – so meticulously written – says that the diversity of the erstwhile Bombay’s population is also reflected in the architectural styles and ornamental details, where colonial architectural repertoire met motifs and spatial arrangements that were drawn from migrating communities.

Written  as it is by  a cultural theorist, the book  is a pleasant read. It has everything that Mumbai’s musical heritage once took pride in. The lavishly produced book is a cursor to the ways in which Hindustani classical music enabled discrete performances of modernity in a postcolonial context. 

Overflowing with   information , anecdotes sprinkled with factoids along with  numerous  archival photos, the book weaves the musical genealogies and musicians’ biographies. It magnificently captures the lives, emotions, and the subsisted   spaces of musicians and their audiences.

What enhances the beauty of the book is the  engrossing  cover.The  riff on  old postcard ( photo  by Jugal Modi and design by Alpana Khare)) is indicative of two women turned away from each other.The tawaif wears headphones and spins a disc.The other woman is a  ‘naikin’ who learned Marathi,went into the Sangeet Natak and then into the film industry,married upwards, acquired middle-class respectability.The tawaif also went into films  but lingered on a ghostly presence in the films, as Niranjana puts it.

‘Musicophilia in Mumbai’ will, undoubtedly , set the standard for more such scholarship on Hindustani music as also India’s other gharanas. Even if the study is deeply localized and empirically distinct , similar patterns can be traced elsewhere in South Asia. The book suggests that the relationship between cultural practice and the formation of the social subject can be expressed in many ways and many contexts – especially in the ‘non-west.’


About the Reviewer

Bhaskar Parichha is a senior journalist and author based in Bhubaneswar. He does book reviews for major publishing houses – mostly  non-fiction.

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