Mumbai Mehfil: Hindustani Music Audiences in the long 20th Century

By Tejaswini Niranjana

(Director, Centre for Inter-Asian Research, Ahmedabad University)



The lingua musica based on Hindustani raga music that emerges in 20th century Mumbai owes its origins to the Persianate performance forms of the 1850s onwards as manifested in the Parsi theatre. The acts of collective listening and viewing which brought together people of different social backgrounds are to be found not only in the theatre but also in the concert hall and in private homes.


The spaces of these gatherings, these mehfils, were sometimes reproduced in and through cinema, as were the melodies made familiar through raga music. The audiences that came together to listen to vocal and instrumental music were bound by their musicophilia, becoming ‘social subjects’ through this process. Their responses to the music – manifested in a variety of mehfils – were drawn from the metropolitan unconscious that came to be assembled in Mumbai, where the largely migrant population produced a sedimented repertoire of ways of living that became available to all of the city’s inhabitants.


There are a few key concepts around which I’ve organized my talk, which draws on my recent book, Musicophilia in Mumbai: Performing Subjects and the Metropolitan Unconscious. These concepts are: musicophilia, the social subject, the metropolitan unconscious, the performance of modernity, and the lingua musica. I hope to demonstrate how these are tied to one another, and how the spaces of music in Mumbai and on-screen in Hindi films are profoundly informed by a Persianate sensibility.


In my book, I trace the role of Hindustani classical music in the evolution of the city of Mumbai, during the British colonial period and after Independence, during what I’ve called the long twentieth century. This is the question I focus on: Why is it, when Indians were becoming part of the modern world, were they obsessed with a music that was not modern? As Indians struggled for freedom from colonial rule, they claimed older cultural forms, such as traditional music, and re-purposed them into ‘classical’ forms.


They presented these re-purposed cultural forms as ‘national’ forms connected to the new ‘Indian’ identity. As we know from many different cases worldwide, anything which claims a ‘national’ identity is often not at all singular, but composed of elements from diverse national or nationalised contexts. Similarly with what came to be called Hindustani classical music, or raga music, which historically was strongly informed by Persianate content and form.


DEEWAANA - The Musicophiliac

Central to my argument is the phenomenon of musicophilia, and the people madly in love with music, the musicophiliacs or deewaane (a word derived from Persian – in Persian I am told the word means demonic, crazy, insane). Who were they, where did they come from, how did their aspirations in the modern city of Mumbai become linked to the appreciation of Hindustani music, where did Mumbai people get exposed to this music, what might have been their experience of collective listening? What sense of the ‘public’ did the listening experience generate?


Although listening was a deeply felt individualized experience, I argue that it was simultaneously a collective experience, because listening happened in the mehfil. I call the mehfil audience member a ‘social subject’, a subject formed through collective listening.


So deewaanapan, I argue, is a condition of subjective excess, the condition of the musical subject’s simultaneous psychic and social habitation of modern urban space. And the modern urban space of Bombay/Mumbai was quite distinctive (it was the second largest city in the British Empire).


From having been a minor outpost of the British Empire rented out to the East India Company at ten pounds per annum, by 1800 Mumbai began to see the rapid growth of the opium trade with China. Shipbuilders and merchants moved to Bombay – they came from a heterogeneous group including Parsis, Gujarati Banias, Marathi-speakers, Marwaris, Bohras, Armenians, and Indo-Portuguese.


The East India Company which administered the city encouraged a variety of artisans to migrate from the Marathi-speaking hinterland as well as from the Konkan coast and from Gujarat, and with the numerous petty traders these became the inhabitants of the “native town” in the 1800s. Later in the century, this native town, known as Girgaum, also became home to the new middle-class professionals as also to musicians and performers of different kinds. Thus Girgaum became the prime location for music mehfils from the early 20 th century.


By this time, the early twentieth century, Bombay – as headquarters of the Bombay Presidency – displayed many of the features of other imperial cities of the time: a city-planning and governing authority, a judiciary, a form of political representation through institutions like the municipal council, a local bourgeoisie, a major commercial and industrial sector, an entertainment industry, hospitals, professional schools, an elaborate education system ranging from primary to tertiary levels, a multi-language and vocal press.


Aspects of Mumbai’s modernity could be seen in new structures of governance and new associational models, even those which brought people together on the basis of caste, place of origin, and language. There were platforms on which participants deliberated on issues of common good and spoke on behalf of constituencies they claimed to represent, or tried to exert pressure on the governors of the city by making civic concerns visible.


But alongside these platforms, there were others, like those that brought musicophiliacs together, which did not necessarily function as a space of/for representation. In spite of the efforts of music critics to deploy classificatory systems and popularize standards of judgment, evidenced in “sporadic debates” in magazines, musicophiliacs were not bound to follow  principles of rational discourse. Instead, the space they occupied while listening to music was one of intense and vociferous expression of appreciation and devotion.


Often it was a space in which people fell silent because they were so profoundly moved, and where head-shaking or swaying or weeping – marks of what we might call bodies in affect – were greatly in evidence. In order to be able to understand the musicophiliac as a subject embedded in colonial and post-colonial modernity, we need to grasp this subject as a “social subject” and not an individual in the normative euro-modern sense.


The Metropolitan Unconscious
In my book I provide an account of this social subject, the musicophiliac, by examining the kinds of spaces in and practices through which the love of music is manifested in Bombay/Mumbai. I claim that in this city obtains what I call a metropolitan unconscious, a collectivized unconscious that includes the diverse pasts and experiences of the migrants who came to settle here under conditions of colonial modernity from the nineteenth century onwards.


The metropolitan unconscious draws on all these migrant histories but is not identical with any one of them. These would include, in the instance at hand, both the hereditary musicians who taught and performed here as well as the people who made up the musicophiliac audience. Internally fraught by divisions of caste, class, religion, gender, and language, the musicophiliacs – fixated on Hindustani music – could sidestep these distinctions to create a community of musical affect. It was not a matter of “transcending” the divisions but of negotiating them in ways that had to be “performed” and not laid out in contractual language.


While musicophilia represents some features of the excess of subject formation in the contingent historical conditions of urban Bombay, the metropolitan unconscious stands for the sedimented repertoire of ways of living and experiencing that people brought into Bombay and which underwent transformation in engaging with the conditions of the present.


Performance of Modernity
So here we have a new entity - the coming together in the metropolitan space-time of colonial Bombay of multiple histories creates not a sum of their parts but an altogether new entity, the metropolitan unconscious, inhabiting which affords new routes and new opportunities for the formation of social subjects. Under conditions of colonial modernity and the subsequent assembling of a national-modern, subjects render their present liveable by re-visioning the past, but they do so – as in the case of Hindustani music – by drawing on a shared archive, not an individuated one, even as they engage in personal quests for listening opportunities, in building a vocabulary of devotion around their favorite musician, or in attempting to learn to sing or play an instrument themselves.


I propose that the performance of modernity was an imperative of this metropolitan unconscious, and that the passion for music opened up an important route to the realization of this performance. Although the word performance in contemporary English indicates the act of presenting a play, or any other form of entertainment, or at the most may refer to doing a particular job or undertaking an activity, in Indian languages the word for performance, which is pradarshan, refers to enactment and exhibition on the one hand, and to demonstration or showing, on the other.


Drawing heavily on the connotations of pradarshan then, I use its translation, “performance,” to mean ‘render articulate, make visible, display, demonstrate’. These forms of pradarshan took place in the mehfils, whether they were small private baithaks in the home of a musician, an ordinary fan, or a rich patron; or whether they were more public mehfils, in a music school, at the Ganesh festival, or on the concert stage. The pradarshan was not just by the musicians but by the audience members, and engaging in this form of pradarshan in relation to Hindustani music was for both a ‘performance of modernity’.


In the period I’m looking at, Hindustani music moved from being a courtly art to one firmly embedded in the urban marketplace. New structures of patronage for performers included the music theater companies, the emerging middle classes who set up music circles, the gramophone companies, and the state-owned radio.


The new audiences for Hindustani music formed communities of listeners who often tried to learn music themselves, through the burgeoning music schools and through individual discipleship to great musicians. I argue that in Bombay the centrality of music from the late nineteenth century onwards helped form a distinctive urbanity, manifested in how urban spaces were organized and how they were experienced by musical subjects.


Significantly, there was no dominant community in this city historically speaking, and no dominant language, since it was populated by speakers of Marathi, of Gujarati (Hindu, Muslim, or Parsi by religious affiliation), Konkani speakers, Hindustani-Urdu speakers, speakers of Telugu and other South Indian languages, and also Christians (who spoke English and other languages) and Baghdadi Jews (who spoke a dialect of Arabic). The linguistic diversity of Bombay’s inhabitants is relevant to my argument about musicophilia in the city, as I will demonstrate. But first a short detour through theatre history.


Theater and Hindustani Music
From the 1860s on, when the first proscenium theaters were built, the urban experience in Bombay included the entertainment afforded by the musical play. The history of the musical theater in Bombay is closely tied to the nineteenth century emergence and growing popularity of Hindustani music. Whether it was in the Parsi theater (first in Gujarati, then in Hindustani/Urdu) or the Marathi-language sangeet natak, audiences encountered melodies from art music especially through “lighter” genres like the dadra, hori, ghazal, qawwali, and thumri.


While the Parsi theater or the sangeet natak did not usually provide a performance platform for “classical” music per se, the songs – often numbering more than sixty or seventy in each play – were raga-based, both Hindustani and Carnatic, and helped cultivate a taste for the melodic forms of such raga music in the theater audiences. Several musicians were closely associated with the theater, as trainers, composers, actors, and even directors. Thus, the significance of the theater’s intimate connection to Hindustani raga music can’t be emphasized enough for my argument about musicophilia and the performance of modernity.


Although in the 1860s directors like Vishnudas Bhave put up plays in both Marathi and Hindi, in later decades this form of theater confined itself to Marathi only, even as the melodic basis of the music they became famous for remained the Hindustani music originally taught by the migrant Muslim ustads.


When the talkies in Hindi and Marathi started being made in the 1930s, well-known musicians like Master Krishnarao composed for the films and also sang for them. The popularity of the Parsi theater and the sangeet natak over nearly seven or eight decades helped cultivate a musical literacy not only in the theatergoing audience, but also in those who listened to the stage songs over the radio after the 1930s, when the theater itself had begun to decline. The widespread appreciation of stage music was one of the key factors contributing to the clamour for learning Hindustani music that arose in Bombay in the late 1800s and the early twentieth century.


Lingua Musica
As Kathryn Hansen points out in her insightful work on Parsi theater, Urdu and/or Hindustani was not the first language of many Bombay residents in the late 19 th century. Knowledge of Urdu was lacking among playwrights, actors, and spectators when the language was first introduced on stage. Hansen argues that “the circulation of linguistic forms through popular media itself articulates social boundaries and enables the configuration of linguistic identities.”


I’ll modify the insight a bit to bring it into my story of Hindustani music and the metropolitan unconscious. Instead of saying that the circulation of such forms enables linguistic identities to be configured, I would argue that it is precisely the circulation and normativization of Hindustani musical compositions that allow linguistic preferences to be layered, so that a person engaging with art music in Bombay – whether in the nineteenth century or the present – moves constantly between languages in daily interaction but privileges “Hindustani” (which includes all the dialects it subsumes) compositions.


It was common in the music schools of Gwalior, Baroda, Lucknow, and Bombay in the early twentieth century to have instructors speaking in Marathi to get students to sing in “Hindustani.” This could, of course, be an indication that most of the people who thronged the music schools were either native speakers of Marathi or were fluent in that language, like Konkani or Kannada speakers from the Bombay Presidency region.


But I want to extend this idea – of moving between languages in the engagement with Hindustani music – to suggest that one reason why some form of Hindustani becomes the main mode of communication in Bombay and remains so to this day is precisely because it is underlaid with the lingua musica which had become part of the cultural vernacular of the city by the early twentieth century.


Musicophiliacs encountered the expressive forms of the lingua musica through their experience as theatregoers (beginning with the Parsi theatre), as participants in mehfils, and as students in music classes. It would be the same cultural idiom that they would meet in its refraction through the music (and even the setting sometimes) of Hindi films.


Let me now show you glimpses of three different Hindi film sequences. I've chosen them for their attention to the setting of the mehfil.


 The first is the famous musical duel from Basant Bahar (1956)

Watch Video 

  The second is the qawwali from Barsaat ki raat (1960)

Watch Video 

And the third is a song from Bajirao Mastani (2015)

Watch Video 





The text above is taken from Tejaswini Niranjana's presentation on the 17th of June 2022 in the second session of the joint seminar series between Mardomnameh (A People's History Journal) and the Centre for Inter-Asian Research at Ahmedabad University. The reference for the presentation is Tejaswini Niranjana's book, Musicophilia in Mumbai, Performing Subjects and the Metropolitan Unconsicous, published by Duke University Press in 2020.