British professor revives 18th century Indian music

Jane Chapman reinterprets music performed at the courts of erstwhile nawabs to suit modern tastes

London : An acclaimed British professor has revived, recorded and reinterpreted the traditional music of 18th century Indian musicians performed at the courts of nawabs and mansions of wealthy English merchants according to the new generation’s taste.

Jane Chapman, a harpsichordist — or a harp-like musical instrument played by the means of a keyboard — revisits traditional compositions originally staged by troupes of performers at Indian ‘nautch’ or dance parties held in the mansions of wealthy English merchants and at the courts of the Indian nawabs.

The University of Southampton Turner Sims Fellow explored these early musical encounters between the Indian sub-continent and the West to release a CD titled ‘The Oriental Miscellany’.

“The British became very interested in capturing what they had heard at colourful social gatherings, recreating performances in India, and transporting it back home to their Georgian drawing rooms,” says Chapman, a professor of harpsichord at the Royal College of Music in London. “This led to some of the songs being notated and arranged for instruments they were familiar with, such as the harpsichord,” she added.

The project began while Jane was an artist in residence at King’s College London’s Foyle Special Collections Library, working in collaboration with Katherine Butler Schofield at King’s music department and with the college’s India Institute. She studied ‘The Oriental Miscellany’ — the first ever publication of Indian music written in staff notation for Western instruments, along with a collection of 77 songs compiled by 18th century harpsichordist Sophia Plowden.

‘The Oriental Miscellany: Airs of Hindoostan’ is a book of musical scores, published by conductor and concert promoter William Hamilton Bird in Calcutta in 1789. It is regarded by musicologists as an important historical source of Indian music.

Some of the compositions it contains, along with Plowden’s collection, originate from the traditional folk songs of camel drivers. “I wanted the new recording to reach back to the roots of this kind of music and reflect how it would have sounded when first performed centuries ago,” Chapman said.

“I collaborated with musicians from India to explore how the songs would originally have been arranged and then worked from this to develop a new interpretation,” she added.

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