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The ‘Hindostannie Air’: English Attempts to Understand Indian Music in the Late Eighteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Ian Woodfield*
The Queen's University, Belfast


A ‘hindostannie air‘ may be defined as a short piece derived from an Indian original but arranged in a European idiom. The genre came to prominence among the English inhabitants of Calcutta during the 1780s and 1790s. A small group of women, reflecting the currently fashionable interest in anything oriental, began to employ professional musicians to ‘collect’ Indian songs – that is, to notate them as best they could from the performances of leading Indian singers. Once the melodies had been transcribed, they were arranged as solo keyboard pieces or as songs, a process which necessitated the use of a key signature, a time signature and a harmonization in a European idiom. At the height of the fashion, pieces were performed regularly at the fashionable soirées of Calcutta society, often to great applause, with the singers sometimes adopting Indian dress to add to the ‘authenticity’ of the presentation. At the same time the repertory began to attract the attention of the small group of orientalists led by Sir William Jones, who were engaged in the first serious European attempt to understand the principles that lay behind Indian music. By the turn of the century, with Anglo-Indian attitudes to Indian culture becoming steadily more hostile, the genre began to decline in popularity, but it was then taken up by scholars in England. ‘Hindostannie’ specimens from collections brought back from India provided important material for the compilations of national airs published by Crotch, Jones and others. Having thus established a small but distinctive niche in popular English culture as exotic imports, Indian tunes of one kind or another continued to appear throughout the nineteenth century.

Research Article
Copyright © 1994 Royal Musical Association

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This paper was first given in the Department of Social Anthropology The Queen's University, Belfast, on 10 February 1993Google Scholar

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