Center for Research Libraries - Global Resources Network

Resources for

South Asian Music Resources at CRL

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya
Assistant Professor of Music, Colorado College


Cover of Women’s Folk-Songs of Rajputana by L. Winifred Bryce (Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964). CRL e- Resource.

The dozens of digitized books on South Asian music in the Center for Research Libraries’ collection offer an amazingly substantive resource. The particularly noteworthy books within this collection fall into three broad categories:

  1. General surveys and broadly conceived introductions to Hindustani (North Indian) and Carnatic (South Indian) classical traditions and their associated instruments;
  2. Books that have exerted a significant historical influence on the development of South Asian music and dance historiography or that illuminate particular moments in that process; and
  3. Works that focus on the lesser-studied folk music and dance of particular regions.

Studies that focus on the Hindustani and Carnatic classical traditions dominate current scholarship in South Asian music, often at the expense of understanding vernacular practice at more local sites, so the third category arguably contains the most exciting contributions.

Surveys and Introductions to the Classical Traditions

The CRL collection abounds with several surveys and introductions to South Asian classical traditions. Some representative works in this category include Bigamudre Chaitanya Deva’s An Introduction to Indian Music (1972) and Musical Instruments (1977). The latter offers a richly illustrated introduction to the history and classes of South Asian folk and classical instruments for nonspecialists. The pen-and-ink drawings of less-common folk instruments complement lively descriptions of the instruments’ use in respective contexts and traditions, and their relationship to particular communities. Deva’s Musical Instruments of India (1978) offers a longer introduction to South Asian organology written for specialists. G. N. Joshi, a longtime music executive at HMV Records who organized the commercial release of historical recordings in the All India Radio archives, wrote Understanding Indian Classical Music (1977), which reviews the history and theoretical development of Indian music, including the origins and structures of raga, instruments, and the gharana system. Joshi’s volume also offers more than 50 black-and-white photographic plates of particular instruments, their depiction in classical sculpture, and contemporary portraits of noted performers with their instruments.

Studies of Historical Significance

The collection features two books in English by the towering Indian musicologist, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860–1936), who is credited with writing the first modern treatise on Hindustani classical music. In A Comparative Study of the Music Systems of the 15th, 16th, and 18th Centuries, Bhatkhande delves into historical examples in vocal music to reveal the common basis for the North Indian and South Indian classical traditions—which up to this point were considered quite separate from one another. A Short Historical Survey of the Music of Upper India offers the text that Bhatkhande presented at the First All-India Music Conference on March 20, 1916. He gives an overview of a few historical treatises, but argues that one could not trace Hindustani music back to ancient and medieval texts. Contrary to popular opinion, he maintains that the Muslim influence on Hindustani music over the last 300 years has contributed to music’s development, not its deterioration.

The collection also presents an extensive history of Carnatic classical music by P. Sambamoorthy. A professor at the University of Madras, Sambamoorthy helped establish the study of music and music departments at many other universities throughout southern India. His six-volume South Indian Music (1964) spans almost 2,000 pages and has become a foundational text for the contemporary study of Carnatic music.

Ethel Rosenthal’s The Story of Indian Music and Its Instruments (1928) shares a rare window into early studies of Indian music by western writers—most of whom were not extensively trained in music. Intended for a general English-speaking reader outside India, Rosenthal’s book does not provide much substantive information, but offers an acute insight into how English people responded to music during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rosenthal’s book includes sections like “The Vina and Some Other Instruments” and “The Peculiarities of Manners and Customs in Hindustan to which Allusions are Made in their Song”. More valuably, Rosenthal’s book reproduces the complete text of Sir William Jones’s celebrated treatise On the Musical Modes of the Hindus (1792). Known for his study of Sanskrit and his founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Jones was the first significant European writer on Indian music—all of which he accomplished while serving as a judge in Calcutta. The content of Jones’s treatise reflects 18th- and 19th-century Europeans’ focus on decoding ancient texts in South Asian music, as opposed to understanding the practice.

Regional Folk and Devotional Traditions

The collections’ many offerings in regional music traditions are significant because they provide information largely absent in conventional music surveys available in the United States. A general introduction to the study of folk traditions in South Asia, Shyam Parmar’s Folk Music and Mass Media (1982) describes the challenges of researching and documenting regionally based projects from the perspective of a former on-air producer on All India Radio. The book mostly focuses on how mass media culture is shaping the identity of folk music today. Parmar notes that many excellent published studies of regional folk traditions in South Asia exist, but they are being written in specific regional languages, which limits their access. Furthermore, although respective universities have initiated many helpful contributions to the study of folk music, the overall failure to coordinate these studies of regional traditions on a national level presents an obstacle to systematic research in these traditions.

Of the more significant regional studies, the collection presents the work of two of the most acclaimed scholars of folk music in East India: Asutosh Bhattacharyya and Sukumar Rāўa. Bhattacharyya’s Chhau Dance of Purulia (1972) is one of the first extensive studies of the Chhau folk dance tradition, as performed in Purulia. Bhattacharyya, a professor at Calcutta University and one of the first significant scholars of Bengali folk culture, is also credited with having identified the Chhau dances in Purulia, West Bengal, as a distinct tradition. The book presents an in-depth account of the dance, associated music, and performances in one village over a number of years. The book opens with almost 20 plates of photographs of dancers’ costumes, movements, explanations of poses, and idols associated with the dance. While extraordinarily detailed in its discussions, the book remains accessible to general readers because it is so engagingly written.

Rāўa’s Music of Eastern India (1973) explores folk, devotional, traditional, and contemporary music from Bengal, Orissa, Assam, and Manipur. It offers a very useful overview of different musical traditions, styles, and instruments in these regions. The excellent chapter focusing on Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore situates Tagore’s songs within the context of more contemporary discussions of hybrids of classical and modern traditions and their relationships to popular music.

Madhubhai Patel’s Folksongs of South Gujarat (1974) opens a whole new world by revealing rural life in Southern Gujarat. Divided in 22 sections, the book translates song texts on themes ranging from women’s fertility prayers to folkdances to marriage, humor, separation, rain, and shepherds’ songs. Each song is situated within the author’s own experience growing up in that region and features painstakingly gathered anecdotes and legends that characterize the area folklore.

K. S. Kothari’s Indian Folk Musical Instruments (1977), published by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (National Academy of Dance, Drama, and Music for India), was based on an exhibition of folk instruments in Delhi in 1968—the first attempt to create a systematic record of folk instruments throughout India. Authored by one of India’s most prominent folk music scholars, the book presents lucid, detailed descriptions of more than 300 instruments and clear photographs.

Some other noteworthy books within this collection include L. Winifred Bryce’s Women’s Folk-Songs of Rajputana (1970), whose countless translations of Rajput song lyrics reveal women’s lives, relationships, and folklore in the region. N. A. Baloch’s Musical Instruments of the Lower Indus Valley of Sind (1981) features extensive descriptions of area folk instruments and beautiful pen-and-ink sketches. Gobind Singh Mansukhani’s Indian Classical Music and Sikh Kirtan (1978) is one of very few extended works to address the role of music in Sikhism. It focuses on the technical aspects and experience of devotional chanting in kirtan and satsang to explain how they form a pathway to God. Heritage of Orissa (1977), produced by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation, provides an all-purpose introduction with an abundance of attractive photographs illustrating Orissa’s geography, wildlife, architecture, religious traditions, dance and music, fairs and festivals, tribal life, and literature.

The collection as a whole is mostly legible, although older publications from the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes missing pages or provide only poorly rendered reproductions of the original illustrations. Longer books separated into multiple files could sometimes be more helpfully marked in terms of their respective sections, but overall, this collection contains an abundance of riches. As noted earlier, a significant contribution from the CRL collection consists of works on regional folk traditions. Given the quality of research and writing as well as their accessibility to the general reader, it is astonishing that most of these works have had such limited circulation until now. This collection is a dramatic contribution that expands the realm of South Asian music and dance studies for general readers and specialized researchers alike.