Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840-1914)

in Overview
Published on: 07 July 2016

Anirban Bhattacharyya

Anirban Bhattacharyya is a Hindustani classical vocalist of the Patiala tradition, a senior disciple of Ajoy Chakraborty. An M.Mus. from SOAS London (2011), his research focuses on the life and works of Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore and the development of concert culture in classical music in Calcutta.

Pioneering a Modernist Thought in Indian Musicology



In the early 19th century Calcutta, the Brahmo Samaj was the site through which music entered the educated Bengali middle class religious space. The Bengali ‘middle class’ or the bhadralok in Calcutta was an ideological construct which was created in response to the political and economic domination by the British on the one hand and the cultural leadership among the colonized people on the other (Chatterjee 1993). The bhadralok emerged as cultural leaders of the indigenous colonized people. With the efforts of Dwarkanath Tagore and Raja Rammohan Roy towards initiating the movement to modernize Bengali music, Brahmo Samaj was one of the earliest sites that catalyzed the modernizing forces in the realm of Bengali music practice. Concurrently, Hindu College was the experimental site where formal training in Western music was introduced for the first time in the colonial capital. These new sites, ways of musicality and ideologies, which were yet to acquire discursive coherence and institutional mediation, were absolutely critical to the shaping of bhadralok musical modernity.


The bhadralok in Calcutta, who were on the one hand placed in a position of subordination under the British, and on the other hand in a position of dominance over fellow Indians from lower classes, negotiated the process of national cultural formation essentially as a form of sanitizing and systematizing. Partha Chatterjee argues in The Nation and Its Fragments, the nationalist 'creat[ed] its own domain of sovereignty…in the "inner" domain— the site of [cultural] identity formation… —actively kept separate from the "outside", "material" domain...', much before they announced political independence (Chatterjee 1993:6–13).


The bhadralok notion of self-refashioning was primarily based on the ideological notion of a musical lack which stemmed out of selective internalization of the overwhelmingly dismissive colonial discourse on music in India. As the ‘sentinels of culture’ (Bhattacharya 2005) they professed the practice of music as mentioned in the Shastra-s (scriptures), devoid of the sensuality of court music cultivated by Muslim musicians.


After 1857, Calcutta encountered for the first time the North Indian court music forms of khayal and thumri after Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the fifth king of Awadh, was exiled to Calcutta,­ resulting in the proliferation of a Muslim public sphere in Calcutta. Matiaburj, the area on the outskirts of Calcutta where the Nawab settled, soon became known as a ‘second Lucknow’ and attracted recently displaced court musicians seeking employment. Almost around the same time, Bishnupur, one of the most important cultural centers of Bengal, experienced massive outmigration of distinguished musicians like Kshetra Mohan Goswami, Radhika Prasad Goswami, and Jadu Bhatta who were patronized by the Tagores in Calcutta. These scholars and musicians comprised the first generation of music teachers in Calcutta.


Sourindro Mohun Tagore: Rise of a Bhadralok Musicologist

Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore, a prominent member of the Pathuriaghata branch of the Tagore family and an elder kinsman of Rabindranath Tagore, was one of the earliest Indian musicologists to publish writings on music in English. Huro Kumar Tagore’s second son, Sourindro Mohun was born in 1840. He studied Sanskrit and English during his nine years at Hindu College and graduated in 1858. Tagore began learning the sitar from Lakshmi Narayan Mishra of Benaras at the age of 17 and continued studies in other aspects of classical music and musicology with the well-known scholar Kshetra Mohan Goswami. Both the teachers were upper-caste Brahmins so their high-caste and class affiliations were appropriate for their inclusion by the bhadralok modernizers. Tagore also learnt Western music from a German pianist and took much interest in collecting books and ancient manuscripts on Indian music theories and works on European music.


Bhadralok musical modernity in the 1870s was founded on the inheritance of a body of musical knowledge for which the categories and frames of discourse were provided by Orientalist writings, particularly those of Sir William Jones and Captain Willard, whose writings on Indian music had a profound impact on indigenous musicologists. The ideological construct of periodizing history into past, medieval and modern and ‘otherizing’ popular music—values that percolated through the Post-Enlightenment education policies of the 1830s—helped these musicologists to link their agenda to an ‘ancient Hindu’ past, claiming its downfall was due to Muslim (yavana) ‘invasions’, and raising the need for its revival in the modern times. Thus, an urgent need for a refurbished theory of music was felt, one that seamlessly linked back to the ancient Sanskrit texts and yet was also discursively modern. 


The recent academic works on S.M. Tagore in roughly the last three decades beginning with Charles Capwell (1982) to Gerry Farrell (1997) to Martin Clayton (2010), have studied him as a pioneering musicologist within the Bengal Renaissance paradigm of the last quarter of 19th-century Bengal. 


A recent study on the Bengali public life of music by Sagnik Atarthi (2012) closely scrutinizes the colonial musicological literature and history produced during this period and argues that the changes in the discourse and practice are necessarily constitutive of a larger modernity. In this light, it would be interesting to study the complexities that governed Tagore’s musicological projects and the ways in which he responded to and challenged the contemporary colonial knowledge of Indian music. 


In his doctoral dissertation, 'Tuning Modernity: Musical Knowledge and Subjectivities in Colonial India, (c.1780 – c.1900)', Sharmadip Basu (2011) has utilized the concepts of apparatus, subjectification and governmentality to explain the process of cultural modernity in Bengal. He argues, an apparatus always takes shape in response to a particular historical situation and produces (or must produce) their subjects, which result from the relation between living beings and apparatuses. Governmentality implies the discursive and disciplinary management of the subjects that apparatuses produce into a finite population—a society as different from the state.


The historical situation refers to the era of Sourindro Mohun Tagore which can be roughly bracketed between 1871 and 1896­ that began with his Discourse on National Music and ended with the publication of the Universal History of Music in the late 19th century Bengal, which developed (or created the urgent need to develop) the manual technology of musical production, or more specifically the Bengali Dandamatrik notation system developed by Sourindro Mohun and his mentor Kshetra Mohan Goswami, as its ‘apparatus’.


There were other related elements which animated this apparatus included establishing  ‘Hindu music’[1] as the original and most authentic music of India, defining national music, translating Sanskrit music treatises into Bengali, consolidating a musico-historical consciousness, publishing journals, establishing schools, cultivating music in the middle class familial space, and introducing the harmonium as the primary accompanying instrument (Basu 2011:305–6).


Sourindro Mohun Tagore’s pedagogic pursuits drew connections with history and anthropology in Indian musicology. His self-conscious middle class project of self-fashioning within the larger discourse of modernity sought to provide a socio-cultural understanding of music and his revivalist concerns touched upon most of the major faculties in musicology, including Historical Musicology and Comparative Musicology, leading towards what was possibly one of the earliest works in Ethnomusicology as a perspective. Sourindro Mohun Tagore’s works represent a unique confluence of theory along with compositional and pedagogic work. It is only during his era that the modern musical consciousness began to assume an ideologically coherent form in India—one that was placed within a framework of scientific knowledge, supported by a body of theoretical terms for disciplinary needs, institutionally mediated and openly critical of Western misinterpretations of music in India.



Need for a National Music

Two dominant factors that influenced musicological studies in the 1880s Europe were the discovery of the ‘world’ and understanding of one’s ‘national culture’—a combination of which led to the third factor of identifying the cultural ‘Other’ (Nettl 2011:16). The development of a national consciousness played an important role in the formation of an ideology that hugely impacted the growth of late 19th century musicology. Bruno Nettl comments that 'one of the palpable values of early musicological literature was love and admiration of nation—usually one’s own…' and notes that the typical move was towards publishing scores of anything, major or minor, with a national focus, and writing music history books (Nettl 2011:16). The emergent national consciousness in Bengal was responding to an extant discursive and historical situation with S.M. Tagore at the centre. It became simultaneously necessary to identify a musical ‘Other’ to produce the bhadralok musical self.   


In his pioneering work Introduction to the Study on the National Music (1866), Carl Engel introduced the concept of a national music, where he defined it as a music ‘appertaining to a nation or tribe, whose individual emotions and passions it expresses, which distinguish it from the music of any other nation or tribe.’ His argument was that each culture has their own music, despite which there are a lot of commonalities in performance practices, social function and even tunes, across nations and continents. 


Sourindro Mohun was highly influenced by Carl Engel’s work, so much so, that after Engel published Introduction to the Study on the National Music, Tagore was inspired to publish his debut work on music Jatiya Sangeet Bishayak Prastab or Discourse on National Music in 1871.


The conceptualisation of folk songs as defining elements of a nation was set forth by Johann Gottfried Herder (1807), who was probably the first one to propose that ‘each people has its own music’—that ‘there is such a thing as a style of folk song’ peculiar or rather closely associated to each people (Nettl 2011:41). In his debut musicological work—a manifesto of his musical nationalism—Tagore legitimized his project keeping in tandem with the contemporary colonial musicological rhetoric, utilizing history as his disciplinary tool to bridge cultural nationalism and his loyalty to the colonial rulers. The demarcation between the concept of national music as people’s own music or ‘folk music’ as opposed to canonical music as Hindu music was very clear from the beginning.


In A Discourse on National Music, S.M. Tagore publicly laid down his agenda of musical nationalism. Here he legitimized his pedagogic venture extensively referring to European thinkers on music from Pythagoras to Socrates, Homer, Milton and Shakespeare. Tagore referred to Aristides saying ‘like the clever peasant who has to weed out before tilling . . . music lessons cleanse the mind in filth before he [the child] is instructed in other shastras (disciplines).’ It is clear from this symbolic quotation that Tagore’s tonality in terms of his academic venture was necessarily self-conceived as a disciplinary one. He internalized his role as a musicologist who was essentially not very different from an ethnologist or an anthropologist. He writes: ‘. . . to learn [histories of] national music it is the musicologist’s imperative to investigate the different characters of the human [mind in different cultures to see how] they are related to one another; the ethnologist or the anthropologist’s are not [very different]’ (Tagore 1871). This reveals the extent to which Tagore conceived of musicology as an inter-disciplinary domain. A careful comparison of this debut work of Tagore’s advocating the need for a national music with some other offerings by him as a loyal subject of the English royalty, helps us understand his distinction between nationalism and loyalty, and how he constantly embedded his cultural nationalism in his expressions of loyalty. 



Theorizing Hindu Music

Arguably the most important contribution of Sourindro Mohun Tagore in the field of theoretical musicology was not that he created terminologies but that he brought them back in his discursive pursuit of musical modernity and contextualized them in Hindu music. Out of his entire range of publications, more than a third of them are on Indian musicological foundational concepts. Beginning with the seven swaras, twenty-two shrutis, six ragas and thirty six raginis and the eight rasa theory, Tagore addressed all these and many more in separate volumes. He further contextualized them with Sanskrit shlokas (a form of Sanskrit verse) and even exemplified with his own compositions. The table below vividly illustrates his venture in the world of Musicology.


Sixteen Publications on Indian Musicology


Jatiya Sangita Bishayak Prostab ('Discourse on National Music')


Hindu Music [Reprinted from Hindoo Patriot]


Hindu Music from Various Authors (2nd Edition in 1882)


Sangeet Sar Sangraha/Theory of Sanskrit Music compiled from the Ancient Authorities, with Various Criticisms and Remarks by the Author


Gitavali/ A Hindi Manual of Indian Vocal Music


The Eight Principal Rasas of the Hindus, With Murti and Vrindaka, or Tableaux and Dramatic Pieces, Illustrating their Character


Indian Music's Address to Lord Lytton


The Five Principal Musicians of The Hindus/A Brief Exposition of the Essential Elements of Hindu Music as Set Forth by the Five Celestial Musicians of India, an Offering to the Fifth International Congress of Orientalists, to be held at Berlin in September, 1881


The Shadja-Grama and the European Diatonic Scale


Gita-Pravesa/A Manual of Hindu Vocal Music in Bengali, Composed and Set to Music


The Musical Scales of The Hindus: With Remarks on the Applicability of Harmony to Hindu Music


The Twenty-Two Musical Shrutis of the Hindus


Six Ragas and Thirty-Six Raginis of the Hindus


The Seven Principal Musical Notes of the Hindus, with their Presiding Deities, Composed in Celebration of the Birth-Day of Her Most Gracious Majesty the Empress of India


Universal History of Music, Compiled from Diverse Sources, Together with Various Original Notes on Hindu Music


Tagore’s Six Principal Ragas (1877) was a unique publication composed in the tradition of the Ragamala paintings in Mughal India that represented the six ragas and thirty-six raginis in figural iconography. This folio-sized publication consisted of ornately laid out pages alternately sequenced with a panegyric to Queen Victoria set to a particular raga/ragini on one side, and a lithograph plate of the same raga/ragini in figural representation opposite the musico-poetic text. In this volume he presented the seasonal theory of ragas combined with ‘emblematical representations’ in the form of lithographs. In this publication he associates Hindu music with tender passions that ‘abound in feeling and imagination’ and concludes that for ‘bolder passions’ one ‘must look where a colder climate displays a stronger race’ (Tagore 1877:16). Defining the raga as a personified entity as distinguished from one another through their emotions, Tagore presented six ragas specific to six seasons in India as follows: a. summer: Panchama b. monsoon: Megh  c. autumn: Bhairav d. dewy: Sri e. winter: Nat Narayan f. spring: Basant.


In an extensive 40-page introduction to the volume, Tagore lays down fundamental concepts, technical terms, methodological details and conceptual classifications of Hindu music. Beginning with the concept of sangita he goes on to explain marga and desi music, the historical sources of music, the conceptual chain of nada, shrutis, swara, grama, murchhana and tanas, then elaborating on saptaka, harmony, grama, tala, chhanda, raga and rasa and so on.


With regards to Tagore’s awareness of Western music, issues and concerns regarding the duality of melody and harmony surfaced time and again in his writings. In Musical Scales of the Hindus (1883), Tagore writes:


It is generally complained by European musicians that Hindu Music is not perfect, because Harmony is not applied to it. Some of them despise the music of Hindusthan simply on this account. Others [like Captain Willard] very kindly offer suggestions to the feasibility of harmonizing it. A careful consideration of the method in which vocal and instrumental music is performed in this country cannot but lead to the conclusion that Hindu Music is not altogether devoid of Harmony, though this Harmony may not be the same as that by which European musicians understand the term... It would seem after all, that the difficulties in the way of harmonizing Hindu Music are by no means few or small. Nothing but a compromise can solve the problem. Let the European musicians modify their rules of Harmony so that it may be applied to Indian music with the least injury to its integrity, and let also the Hindu musicians relax the stringency of the rules with which their Music is bound hard and fast. Unless both parties are prepared to make concessions, it would be futile to engraft Harmony on Indian Music. (Tagore 1884:108, 117–18)


In this short exposition on theoretical Musicology we find enough indication that he was considering advanced research in this area. Tagore’s expertise in Sanskrit gave him access to the original treatises on music, which positioned him as a reliable and authentic writer. Based on his study of primary sources, Tagore re-addressed the theoretical and conceptual framework of Indian Musicology and gave it a coherent and logical shape. This gave him further stimulus to link these shastras with what he was producing for present-day implementation.



Torchbearer of Organology

According to ethnomusicologist Nazir Jairazbhoy, the 1880s saw two major achievements in the field of Ethnomusicology. The first was the Catalogue descriptif et analytique du Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles (1880) prepared by Victor-Charles Mahillon (1841–1924), the then curator of the newly opened Brussels Museum. This catalogue introduced the four-category classification of the musical instruments for the first time in the West. The second was Alexander J. Ellis’s article On the Musical Scales of Various Nations (1885) where the concept of measuring musical intervals through a cent system was introduced. As Jairazbhoy puts it, Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore was ‘one of the major catalytic agents’ for these two seemingly unrelated events which later on proved to be landmark events in the history of the development of ethnomusicology (Jairazbhoy 1990:67).


In 1876, the Musical Instruments Museum (now MIM) of the Royal Academy of Belgium received a collection of 98 musical instruments as a generous gift from Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore and Victor Mahillon was commissioned to prepare a catalogue of these instruments. Mahillon took this opportunity to ‘facilitate research... [that] would provide a serious aid to the study of the history and Organology of instruments’ (Jairazbhoy 1990:68). Along with the instrument collection, Tagore sent 13 of his major works on musicology,[2] which included four of Tagore’s major works on musical instruments: Yantra Khetra Dipika (1872), Harmonium Sutra (1874), Yantra Kosh (1875), and Mridanga Manjari (1875). Out of these four books on musical instruments, three are detailed manuals for learning sitarmridanga (later to be known as pakhawaj) and harmonium (till then not the portable, bellow-aided Indian version). All of them are written in Bengali and there are no parallel English versions known. From the period of the publication of these volumes it seems they were intended for enthusiastic native Bengali music students or more specifically for the students of Bengal Music School that had been recently established.


It is evident that Mahillon consulted Tagore’s works in English (most probably Hindu Music by Various Authors) and came across the four-part instrument classification system used in India dating back to Natya-Shastra (written sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE)Two of the writers in this book, namely Captain Augustus Willard and Francis Gladwin, had mentioned about the four-part system being based on the source material of sound in Hindu Music by Various Authors. This system which can be summarised as tat (string), bitat (skin), ghana (solid) and sushir (wind), was later adopted by Hornbostel-Sachs in their pioneering work on modern Organology.


Yantra Kosh, Tagore’s landmark work in Organology, the first known concise compendium of musical instruments, was published in 1875. Written in Bengali, this compendium elaborately laid out the basic principles of the four-part classification system of musical instruments prevalent in India: tat (chordophones), anaddha (membranophones), ghana (idiophones), and sushira (aerophones). The book is divided into three parts: the first part on musical instrumentsthe second on orchestra music and the concluding section is a 174-page long appendix that includes dictionary entries of rare and obsolete instruments from India and other countries arranged in the Bengali alphabetic order. Yantra Kosh contains short notes on 27 kinds of string instruments, 14 varieties of flutes and shawms (a medieval and Renaissance instrument of the woodwind family), 14 kinds of drums and 4 idiophones.


As mentioned earlier, in Yantra Kosh, Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore gave a brief history of the orchestra or ensemble music in India. In the second section of his magnum opus, Tagore discusses at length the history of orchestral instrumentation from different corners of the world, for example, Assyria, Jerusalem, Persia and Egypt, apart from India. In this section, Tagore discusses historical instances of Aikatan Baadan or instrumental orchestra in the historical context of India beginning with the Hindu deity Shiva and ending with the first modern Indian orchestra formed by his mentor Kshetra Mohan Goswami. He argues, if Lord Shiva played rudra veenadamaru and other instruments simultaneously with his four hands according to the Puranas, then it should be considered as the earliest, though incomplete, instance of an orchestra. Classifying an orchestra according to two broader contexts of indoor and outdoor playing, Tagore discusses how the Muslim rulers maintained orchestras as a part of their court music culture. He further classifies orchestra in the Indian context as ‘civilized’ and ‘pastoral’ and justifies them with adequate examples. He also discusses at length the Naqqar Khana of Emperor Akbar and the details of the rhythmic ensemble quoting extensively from H. Blochmann’s work on Ain-i-Akbari.   


Here, Tagore mentions that the foundations of the modern Indian orchestra was laid down by his mentor Kshetra Mohan Goswami under the patronage of his elder brother Raja Jotindro Mohun Tagore for the staging of Ratnaboli theatre in Belgachia Villa back in 1857. Tagore gives an extensive account of how K.M. Goswami designed the 25-piece orchestra which had a very strong string section and a moderate wind section apart from other instruments.


The string section comprised of both plucked and bowed instruments other than the tanpura that provided the drone. Esrar, sarangi, and nadeshwari veena were among the bowed instruments and kachhua sitar, sarod, and rabab among the plucked stringed instruments. Bansuri and a pen-shaped flute kalam were used among aerophonic instruments. All of these instruments were used in pairs—one for the lower octave and another for the higher one. Morchang, also known as the Jew’s harp, and a set of saptasharab or jal-tarang were used as melodic percussion instruments in the orchestra. Mridanga, the double-headed barrel drum used to be the only rhythm instrument. Two other idiophonic instruments: khartali, a pair of clappers, and manjira, a pair of metallic hand cymbals, were used as percussion. An interesting photograph taken in the early 1900s in the courtyard of the Pathuriaghata Rajbari, shows a much smaller orchestra group comprising of only 15 musicians. It is clear that Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore made additions and alterations in music and instruments during the course of time and made it a chamber-size orchestra where nyastarang and alabu sarangi were added later.


In his work, On the Musical Scales of Various Nations, Ellis introduced the logarithmic concept of the cent-based system as a tool for describing intervals. Ellis published the results of his measurements of scales from different countries using this system. Indian scales, though not a significant part of the work, were measured from the tunings of the sitar to different Indian scales and compared to tuning forks of pre-determined pitches. Ellis measured intervals on several Indian veenas donated by S.M. Tagore, which he loaned from Victor Mahillon. A year before Ellis published his work S.M. Tagore had published his Musical Scales of the Hindus (1884). The concept of 22 shrutis as explained by Tagore in his work and the way Ellis used different cent values for different notes were very similar. One cannot also overlook the uncanny similarity between the titles of both these works one year apart. Given these two links with Tagore, we see that he can be designated as a pioneer of organology and be credited in part for the introduction of the most important conceptual basis for organology, namely, the four-part classification system for instruments and the cent system for measuring intervals that turned out to become the scientific backbone of modern organology.



Institutionalizing Hindu Music

S.M. Tagore patronized and promoted the earliest form of the letter-based notation system devised by his mentor Kshetra Mohan Goswami from the 1860s onwards. The formulation and introduction of this Bengali notation was crucial in bringing music to the realm of books and for manually recording music, thus ushering in a new disciplinary regime of music literacy. In his musicological writings Tagore adopted this notation which he called a ‘national notation’ because, according to him, it was ‘indispensible for the thorough expression of Hindu music.’ Tagore argued that every nation should have their national notation system, but notated music was never central to his ideas on national particularity. In Hindu Music Tagore writes:


It is impossible to convey an accurate idea of music by words or written language; that is, the various degrees of acuteness or gravity of sounds, together with the precise quantity of the duration of each, cannot be expressed by common language, so as to be of any use to performers, and as the musical characters now in use, which alone can express music in the manner that could be desired, is a modern invention, of course all attempts to define music anterior to the invention of this elegant and concise method must have necessarily proved abortive. (Tagore 1874:1–2)


This concern with notation affected S.M. Tagore’s ideas of historical musicology and the importance of one’s own system of notation for one’s own music. He therefore had to assign music writing to a universality that transcended culture and time. This was strategically important to build on the argument of a national system of notation. Not only did he come across notations in ancient scriptures, he also had a general idea of change, development and expansion in ‘scientific principles’ and notated music in the cultural geography of nations he described in Universal History of Music (1896)So, the idea of having a ‘national notation’ similar to the Western staff notation also suited his nationalist agenda.


With a definitive ideological construct for a nation’s own music, a sound theoretical foundation and modern methodology to manually record and reproduce music, Hindu music was ready to embark on a ‘new era’ within the larger context of modernity. Having developed these bhadralok musical apparatuses, Sourindro Mohun Tagore founded the Bengal Music School in Calcutta in August, 1871.


Almost 24 years before Sourindro Mohun Tagore established the first known music school in Calcutta, a choral singing class was officially established at the Hindu College in January 1847 after much deliberation. The music class, which was short-lived and faded out in five years time, was probably the first instance when music teaching was attempted to be introduced to native people in an educational institute run by the natives. Also, it marked the ‘first known direct involvement of the colonial state in musical matters of the colonized' (Basu 2011:259).


Samuel Harraden, a Trinity College graduate who had joined Calcutta’s Old Mission Church as an organist earlier in 1846, was selected to begin classes in Hindu College. The class which was started with the understanding that students would be paying an additional fee sufficient to remunerate the teacher could not be sustained eventually in view of insufficient fee collection. Adding to this was the Deputy Governor of Bengal raising the issue of whether instruction in music should at all be encouraged and if it was judicious to provide a permanent salary for the teacher out of state funds.


Although the Principal of the Hindu College observed in the Review of Public Instruction in the Bengal Presidency that ‘...Hindoos are not without a musical taste, capable of being cultivated and improved’, the introduction of a formal music class remained as an ‘experiment of music’. Rejoicing the beginning of a music class Bengal Hurkaru on December 30, 1846 reports, ‘It is true that we were in the habit of considering them [Bengalis] deficient alike in ear and voice, and hopelessly bigoted in favour of their own poor gamut and the primitive instruments and squalling voices by which its notes are evoked . . . and that there [would be] nothing more wonderful in the conversion of a Hindoo into a musician.’ This strong popular belief about Bengalis being an ‘unmusical’ race was the main reason of ‘rejoicing’ the introduction of formal music training to the natives. This becomes more evident towards the end of the article which needs to be quoted at length:


. . we must admit, that the Hindoo generally possess ‘most sweet voices,’ if not very powerful ones; and that if their musical taste has hitherto displayed itself in a very questionable form, the fact is attributable rather to the national prejudice than to a radical defect of ‘ear’. They will, we are sure, under the teaching of Mr. Harriden, speedily discover the superiority of European music over their own... [Italics mine]. (Basu 2011:260)


Sourindro Mohun Tagore joined the Hindu College sometime around 1849 when he was nine years old. Although it cannot be ascertained that he was a student of Harraden, it would not be a stretch to assume that he encountered the choral music classes as a student. It seems worth noting here that the anonymous author of the above article did not have a high opinion about the music of the Hindus, which appears quite evident in his use of the term ‘national prejudice’ as being a reason of the ‘questionable’ status of ‘Hindoo’ music, and also in the assertion that Harraden’s training will help the students in understanding the ‘superiority’ of European music over their own. It was obviously not known by the author while writing this article in 1846 that one of the students from Hindu College would invest his life defending ‘national prejudice’ and challenge the ‘superiority’ of European music over the music of the Hindus.


In 1871, Sourindro Mohun Tagore established the Bengal Music School and later on the Bengal Music Academy in 1882 to facilitate aspiring students to learn music and to introduce the cultivation of music in the familial space.


On August 3, 1871, Bengal Music School was inaugurated at 83, Chitpore Road in Calcutta. Babu Gopal Chandra Banerjee, the Head Master of the Calcutta Normal School facilitated the use of the school premises in the evenings for music classes. Both vocal and instrumental music classes began for three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7–9 pm. The fee was fixed at one rupee a month which was occasionally waived off for certain students.


The school was instituted with S.M. Tagore as the President and his mentor Kshetra Mohan Goswami as the General Superintendent. Babu Kaliprasanno Banerjee was designated the post of Assistant Secretary and Head Teacher. The Bengal Music School began with 19 students in August 1971 and grew to 43 students by the end of the first year. Tagore had initially appointed two teachers: Babu Udaychand Goswami for the vocal department and Babu Kaliprasanna Banerjee in charge of the instrumental department (sitar). During the second year (1872-1873), mridanga was added to the instrumental department under the supervision of Babu Kalicharan Mitra. The school was growing steadily and had 56 students enrolled by the end of the second year with five classes: two for vocal music, two for instrumental music (sitar), and one for percussion (mridanga). During the third year, a violin class was added under the tutelage of Babu Brojonath Chakraborty, and the school now had a total of 57 students spread among six classes under the vocal and instrumental departments by the end of the third year.


The Public Opinion and Official Communications opens with a short report on probably the first music examination at the Bengal Music School. The Englishman reports on October 13, 1871, that there were already 40 boys learning at the school, their progress in two months having been found satisfactory in both practical and theoretical examinations taken by the President S.M. Tagore and Babu Kshetra Mohan Goswami. Additionally, it mentions that Babu Kalipada Mukherjee (author of the Bahulin Tattwa, which was the guide book for violin instruction in the school later on) was invited as a guest of honour to deliver a speech on music.


Babu Gangabistu Chakraborty and Babu Haricharan Banerjee joined the school as vocal teachers sometime in the second or third year and replaced Babu Udaychand Goswami. The vocal music curriculum followed Sangit Sara by Kshetra Mohan Goswami and various vocal music pieces composed by Prof. Goswami to teach the 22 students enrolled in the two classes. The instrumental department already had 35 students. The sitar class was divided into two separate sections conducted by Babu Kaliprasanno Banerjee with 15 students and Pandit Ram Prasanna Shrutiratna with seven students. Both of them mainly followed Jantra Khetra Dipika by Sourindro Mohun Tagore as their guide book for the instruction of these two classes apart from Sangit Sara. Babu Kalicharan Mitra conducted his mridanga class with seven students where Mridanga Munjoree by Tagore was a guide book. Babu Brojonath Chakraborty conducted the violin class with six students and followed Bahulin Tattwa as the instruction manual.


The Third Annual Report of the school mentions that Bengal Music School, which was launched by S.M. Tagore as an experimental year-long project with the permission of H. Woodrow, the then Inspector of Schools in the Presidency division, could only continue due to the Raja’s ‘great interest and untiring zeal in its welfare.’ Sourindro Mohun wanted to share the benefits of the system of musical instruction based on the ‘most improved principles of notation’ and his goal was to ‘promote the love of music amongst his countrymen, as a means of elevating their tastes and promoting rational recreation amongst them’ [italics mine]. The contributions of Kaliprasanna Banerjee as the head teacher received a prominent mention in this report which also added to his credibility ‘that he has not been absent for a single day from the commencement of the institution.’ 


From the published accounts statements it is evident that the yearly fee collection was insufficient to meet school expenses. The Third Annual Report (1873–1874) mentions: '... all the contingent charges together with the salaries of some of the junior teachers only are met [from the fees]…but all other heavy and extraordinary charges in connection with the establishment are chiefly borne by the president himself.'


To ensure the respectability of the school, the students were admitted only through the recommendation of some known gentleman, or if they held offices at either Government or mercantile firms. Even the school boys were excluded from admission except when they produced letters from their guardians. So it is clear that the students who joined in the beginning were all from upper class households. It seems that Tagore wanted to achieve social sanction for the practice of Hindu music by the upper class of the society and wanted other people to follow suit. His patronage for these two music schools and some other schools pioneered the introduction of music learning in the formal academic spaces and slowly initiated the socialization of music learning in the middle class households.



Universal History of Music: The First Work on Ethnomusicology?

It has been repeatedly suggested that the 1880s marked the beginnings of the development of Ethnomusicology, not as a discipline, but, as mentioned earlier, a perspective of studyBruno Nettl also points out: '…this was the time when inter-cultural studies in music, field-work, studies of music in culture, comparative Organology, and analytical studies of music began to get published almost simultaneously' (Nettl 2011:17).


Universal History of Music, which was Tagore’s last work on the subject, is an excellent example of how he wanted to merge the fields of musicology, colonial historiography and anthropology. This work is the ‘first prominent book that interprets the world of musics as a group of musics’ (Nettl 2011:18), and deals with the issue of the music of different continents with some sense of equality.


In this ambitious history-based ‘world music’ project, Tagore accommodated at least some details about the important musical traditions, cultures and instruments of nearly one hundred countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, America and Oceania. Furthermore, in the course of writing the universal history, he talked about the inevitable transnational and cross-border flow of music. Tagore went to great lengths to include musical traditions present in obscure regions like Iceland and even Borneo among others. It is this perspective, that each of these regions deserves proper attention as being constituents of the universe of music, which makes this work one of the most prominent and read-worthy early works on ‘world music’.




Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore as a representative of the bhadralok has been viewed more commonly as a cultural leader or as an amateur musicologist in the Bengal Renaissance paradigm. His career as a musicologist took off as a propagandist of national music in conjunction with similar developments in the European intellectual sphere. His career took a big turn when he concentrated on Historical Musicology as a part of his larger bhadralok self-fashioning project. His revivalist concerns also touched upon Comparative Musicology as a part of the theorizing and analyzing exercise. Tagore placed his re-contextualized theory of Hindu music on a foundation of scientism, supported by a theoretical framework and essentially based on logic. Within a span of 30 years he published several books of self-composed music pieces meant for both vocal and instrumental performances. Alongside, he wrote manuals on the playing techniques of the sitar, mridanga and harmonium to facilitate overall training in all the branches of music. In Tagore’s writings we find a perfect confluence of theoretical work along with the performance aspect. Finally, S.M. Tagore’s socio-cultural understanding of music led him to publish Universal History of Music, which remains till date one of the earliest works on world music, or, more specifically, on modern day ethnomusicology as a perspective. Tagore’s career ideally showcases the ‘becoming [of] an ethnomusicologist’ as conceptualized by Bruno Nettl in his latest work. Tagore’s perspective of valuing the importance of separate though interconnected musical cultures is what became imperative to the study of ethnomusicology as a discipline in the years to come.



 Atarthi, Sagnik. 2012. ‘Writing Music into Bengal’s Publics: 1870-1940’. MPhil Dissertation, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.


Basu, Sharmadip. 2011. ‘Tuning Modernity: Musical Knowledge and Subjectivities in Colonial India, c.1780 – c.1900’. Syracruse University.


Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Clayton, Martin. 2007. 'Musical Renaissance and its margins in England and India, 1874-1914’, in Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: Portrayal of the East. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 71-93. 


Farrell, Gerry. 1997. Indian Music and the West. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Jairazbhoy, Nazir Ali. 1990. ‘The Beginnings of Organology and Ethnomusicology in the West: V. Mahillon, A. Ellis and S.M. Tagore’, in Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 8: Issues in Organology:67–80.


Nettl, Bruno. 2011. Nettl’s Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Tagore, Sourindro Mohun. 1871. Jatiya Sangeet Bishayak Prastab. (Publication details not available).


———. 1884. Musical Scales of the Hindus: With Remarks on the Applicability of Harmony to Hindu Music. Calcutta: I.C. Bose and Co., Stanhope Press. 


———. 1887. Six Principal Ragas, With a Brief View of Hindu Music. Calcutta: Calcutta Central Press Company Ltd.


[1] Tagore coined the term Hindu Sangeet (in Bengali) or Hindu music as the most authentic form of music in India mentioned in the Vedic and other classical texts.


[2] The list of Tagore’s works and the comments of the curator Gevaert on the books published in the April 14, 1877 issue of L’Echo Musical has been reproduced in English (the original was in French) by Prof. Amy Catlin in Jairazbhoy’s article.