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Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean

Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean

The Musical Transitions project is a four-year research programme (2011-2014) funded by the European Research Council and based in the Music Department at King’s College London.

Headed by Principal Investigator, Katherine Butler Schofield, the Musical Transitions team is investigating how and why transitions from pre-colonial to colonial musical fields occurred in the eastern Indian Ocean region during the period of British expansion, c.1750-1900. The project’s geographical remit is India, the Malay world and migration between them, and focusses particularly on the changing relations of pre-colonial Muslim courts, subaltern labour, and colonial settlements.

Previous scholarship has suggested that colonialism created a dramatic rupture with past knowledge systems in colonised musical fields. That such fields underwent large-scale changes in this period is undeniable. However, this project aims to show that, rather than a total rupture with the precolonial past, musical transitions to colonialism in the eastern Indian Ocean region were characterized by gradual transformations that maintained significant continuities with pre-colonial knowledge systems. Without neglecting the distorting effects of colonial power, we will suggest that the process of cultural transition in music and dance is best seen as one of overlapping and interacting layers of pre-colonial, colonial and hybrid discourses, undertaken over time in several language-cultures and by different constituencies. The devil, as always, is in the detail, and we will argue that large scale arguments about transition cannot be made without detailed attention to the microlevel of precise changes in performance practice and discourse at pivotal moments in time.

Viewing India and the Malay peninsula as a single, multiply connected region throws substantial and unexpected light on these patterns of transition, bringing pre-colonial and colonial musical pasts and multiple indigenous- and European-language archives into sustained critical dialogue. By doing this on an unprecedented scale, Musical Transitions will strive to develop a new historical model for the interactions of music and colonialism: one that will persuasively account for both continuities and transformations in musical knowledge systems. The end result will be a picture of cross-cultural appropriations in the colonial era that is considerably more complex than current models of European hegemony allow. It is hoped, too, that the project will shed new light on the historical emergence and mechanics of cultural syncretism in the region, detailing how such practices become enmeshed in the politics of ethnicity and nation - a matter of ongoing concern to scholars of world music today.

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