The soundtrack to Asia’s quest for self-determination and modernity


Having studied the relationship between Indian music and modern Indian society, Professor Tejaswini Niranjana, of Lingnan’s Department of Cultural Studies, has been testing whether some of the same propositions hold true in Mainland China and Hong Kong. She has, however, been taking a different and creative approach in this instance by working with musicians in a practice experiment.


In her book, Musicophilia in Mumbai, due to be published in February 2020, Professor Niranjana traces the role of Hindustani classical music as the city evolved after the end of British colonial rule. The research question she focused on is why, when Indians were becoming part of the modern world and creating their own modernity, did they continue to be obsessed with this, so-called, “old time” music? In the book, she doesn’t examine the form of the music but instead explores a larger cultural/social/political issue through a cultural phenomenon that’s become so dominant in that space.


Professor Tejaswini Niranjana

In the 19th century, Mumbai was the second biggest city in British Empire after London and a place where certain cultural activities were sanctioned by colonial society. One of the ways in which the drive to turn India into a nation state on its own terms manifested itself was through the claiming and re-purposing of older cultural forms, such as traditional music.


The recording of this music began at the start of the 20th century and, within a few decades, it could also be heard on the radio. While the Indian middle class created arts circles that would invite musicians to play, theatre and, with the advent of the “talkies”, the enjoyment of such music spread even more widely across all strata of society. Until the 1970s and 80s, Hindustani and South Indian classical music provided the melodic base to many Indian films soundtracks.


After completing her research in India, Professor Niranjana wondered if, in other parts of Asia, the same connection between modernity and a reclaiming of a cultural tradition was happening. What she’s now doing in her work with Chinese musicians, both in Hong Kong and on the Mainland, is test whether some of the same propositions hold in a very different context.


There are significant differences between evolution of music traditions in India and China. In what can be seen as part of an effort to escape a feudal past and modernise, Western musical forms were widely adopted in China during the 20th century, in a way they never were in India. One needs to look no further than the large numbers of classical pianists found in modern China, and the way in which the melodic structures of Chinese music changed in an attempt to match the harmonic structures of Western music, for evidence.


As a singer, rather than a musicologist, herself, the inspiration for Professor Niranjana’’s approach came from witnessing a jamming session between Indian musicians she had brought to Shanghai for the Biennale, and their Chinese counterparts. The Saath-Saath Project, which she subsequently created, involves a series of cross-cultural collaborations between musicians, composers and scholars, which aim to prompt an examination of cultural practice in China and India.


To know more about Professor Niranjana's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.