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In Search of Forgotten Melodies: Vignettes From Bengal’s Musical History

November 20, 2022 | By

Somdev Chatterjee reviews the documentary City Symphonies directed by Subha Das Mollick and produced by Films Division.

City Symphonies by Subha Das Mollick

Behind the camera at golden hour

The European discovery of India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an important episode in the cultural history of both the West and India. The European consciousness confronted an alien civilization of great antiquity containing untold riches but in a state of decay. The effort to understand and make sense of this encounter on western terms was part of the project of the intellectual conquest of India, which still colours western perception of India and has greatly influenced the course of Indian cultural history and how we perceive our own heritage.

The work and influence of Indologists such as William Jones and Max Muller in the fields of linguistics, philosophy and religion are well known; there are other facets of this encounter which are less widely discussed. City Symphonies by Subha Das Mollick brings to light one such facet of this meeting of civilizations. It tells the story of some early European colonisers’ encounters with Hindustani music, their efforts to collect it and transcribe it in western staff notation, and even to recreate it with their musicians and on their own musical instruments like the harpsichord. It is a story of fascinating discovery, efforts at collection and assimilation, frustrations arising from imperfect comprehension and the difficulties of fitting an Indian art form into the set mould of Western classical music. And sadly, like almost all stories about our cultural heritage, it is about forgetting that heritage.

City Symphonies directed by Subha Das Mollick

Jane Chapman plays the harpsichord at the Royal College of Music

The first part of the film has two connecting threads – a book and a musical instrument. The instrument is the harpsichord, and the book is The Oriental Miscellany. The harpsichord looks like a double-decker piano and was a popular musical instrument in European homes in the eighteenth century. In this period, European officials and their wives were often invited to the nautch parties of the Indian gentry. In these parties, courtesans of great skill and beauty would perform Hindustani music with their bands of accompanying musicians.

The film tells the story of Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, wife of an East India Company official and an amateur harpsichordist who became fascinated by the ghazals and tuppahs she heard and became an avid collector of Indian music. She would invite the musicians to perform at her home as she attempted to recreate the tunes on her harpsichord and write them down. Her transcriptions of Indian music are the earliest available record of Indian music written down in western staff notation. She even assembled a small group of European performers who learnt to perform this music. There is a charming story of how she and her little troupe gave a performance before an European audience where she herself sang the vocal parts, hiding herself behind a Hindustani dress and a mask. The members of the audience were convinced that she was a native until at the conclusion of her performance she put down her mask and spoke in English. She gave many performances in front of European and even Indian audiences which were greatly appreciated. In the film, Dr. Kathleen Butler Schofield from King’s College, London credits Sophia Plowden with introducing a new form of Western music — the Hindustani air. This was a rendition of Hindustani music on Western musical instruments by Europeans after addition of harmonic layers. This was sometimes accompanied by singing as well.

City Symphonies directed by Subha Das Mollick

Track shot at Sovabazar Rajbari

Plowden was by no means the only European interested in collecting, transcribing and recreating Indian music. Her friend Margaret Fowke was by some accounts an even more accomplished musician who also collected Indian music. She also played the harpsichord along with Indian musicians. And in 1789, William Hamilton Bird published the Oriental Miscellany, a collection of Hindustani Music transcribed in Western staff notation. This is the first known book of Indian music in western notation. It was published from Kolkata, and it serves as the second connecting thread of the film. It is a sad comment on our neglect of our own history that no copy of this important book is now available in Kolkata, just as there are no harpsichords in the city anymore. The music of that period is almost lost to us. The filmmaker traced a copy of the book to the Royal College of Music in London. Jane Chapman, a music researcher who also teaches there, plays some of the pieces from the book on a harpsichord in the film. It allows us a tantalising glimpse, albeit through the veil of time and imperfect translation, of the kind of music that was played in the houses of the Indian and European elite in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The film also traces the long and complicated histories of the various forms of music represented in Bird’s collection as well as Plowden’s album. Tuppahs, for example, were originally songs sung by cowherds in Punjab and Sindh, which made their way to the Delhi court in the voices of Qawals and from there into the court of Lucknow, where they became wildly popular, performed by the most talented courtesans. Sophia Plowden probably picked them up in Lucknow and gave them a western spin on her harpsichord. Tuppahs were made popular in Bengal in the late eighteenth century by Ramnidhi Gupta better known as Nidhu Babu. Then Rabindranath and others transformed the genre with its amorous, somewhat superficial focus on outward beauty to a vehicle for the expression of yearning for the divine.

Unfortunately, almost none of the music collected in the Oriental Miscellany were Bengali songs, which begs the question why a book of Indian music published from Kolkata should ignore the native music of the city itself. The filmmaker conjectures that this may have been because the Europeans rarely ventured into the black part of the town in their search for native music, and thus only knew about the kinds of music that was performed in the white part of the town or in the houses of the native gentry. Yet the city of Kolkata was vibrant with music in every quarter, and for every ear. The musical traditions of the Bengalis developed parallelly, though unknown to the new European masters. The second part of City symphonies maps out this exclusively Indian musical landscape of the city of the late eighteenth century. Through interviews with Indian music scholars and performances of representative musical pieces, it recreates a world where Nidhu Babu’s amorous tuppahs, Hindustani classical music, Ramprasad’s Shyama Sangeet, akhrai songs, khayals, thumris, kirtans and bhajans all coexisted and were part of the soil from which the later Bengali Renaissance blossomed, especially in the musical creations of Rabindranath Tagore. The film traverses a large canvas from 18th century Kolkata to 21st century London, showing the links between cultures and periods and seeking out unsuspected alleyways by which the various traditions developed and influenced each other.

City Symphonies directed by Subha Das Mollick

Sourendro Soumyojit performing together

Though the film does a commendable job of bringing to life a forgotten phase in the history of music in Bengal, one wishes there was some discussion of the effect that the encounter between Europe and India had on the subsequent development of the musical traditions of the two cultures. The eighteenth century encounter with Europe transformed the way we viewed (and continue to view) our own history, religion, literature, and philosophy. In a way, a new Indian identity was invented as a result of that encounter. It seems our musical traditions largely bypassed this process, and continued to develop along their own lines, drawing inspiration occasionally from Europe, but without any radical disjunction with the past. Why this happened is interesting, and one wishes that the film had dwelt on the question.

Apart from interviews with music scholars, the film features several musical performances by Dr. Kathleen Butler Schofield, Jane Chapman, Sourendro-Soumyajit, Debashish Raychaudhuri and Shatabdi Roy. These are among the films’ greatest attractions. Even those without any special interest in musical history would enjoy listening to these renditions that evoke a world that is now hidden in the mists of time.

Trailer of City Symphonies

2 Mins Trailer with Final Audio Mix (10-05-2022) from Subha Das Mollick on Vimeo.

More to read

Satyajit Ray’s Rendezvous with Documentaries

Dwelling in Travelling: Chronicle of the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta

Naal: An Eloquent Reconnection With the Nurturer

Calcutta Sonata – The City’s Sustained Love Affair with the Piano




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Somdev Chatterjee is a freelance documentary filmmaker and writer for television. He teaches television direction and production at Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Kolkata.
All Posts of Somdev Chatterjee

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