From the significance of Western music in the social and religious lives of European and Christian communities to the use of orchestras in Indian film music, Western musical practices have had a defining role in India’s music histories. In recent years, the popularity of Western art music has grown in India’s cities in tandem with rapid urbanisation, an expanding and affluent urban middle class, as well as changing musical and educational trends. 

Focusing on contemporary case studies, this research aimed to answer the following questions:

  • What are the reasons for Western art music’s popularity? 
  • How is it used, shaped and experienced by those involved? 
  • How is it positioned in relation to broader musical, educational, and urban histories? 
  • What can the above tell us about the ongoing transformations of Western art music in India and beyond?

The research

Researchers drew on multi-sited ethnography and around 100 in-depth interviews focused on three primary case studies. 

Case study 1 

Explored the experiences of alumni from the Oxford Mission, Behala (OMB) – a missionary/philanthropic institution in Kolkata (capital of West Bengal) established by the Oxford Movement in the late nineteenth century. Orchestral training has functioned as a central educational resource for the OMB since the early twentieth century. This case study sought to explore the ways in which OMB alumni mobilised their education to pursue careers as musicians, illustrating the diverse functions of orchestral training as a form of philanthropy in contemporary Kolkata. 

Case study 2 

Focused on the experiences of parents whose children were enrolled at Bangalore School of Music – an oversubscribed private music school in Bengaluru (capital of the South Indian state, Karnataka). This case study shed light on the reasons why affluent parents encouraged their children to study Western art music, and how Western art music was shaped to intersect with the values and experiences of urban middle class communities.

Case study 3 

Focused on the experiences of undergraduate students and their teachers at KM Music Conservatory (KM) – a private higher music education institution in Chennai (capital of the South Indian state, Tamil Nadu), established by famed music director AR Rahman. At the time of research, students enrolled on KM’s diploma course studied Western art music, Hindustani classical music and audio engineering. This case study explored the reasons why these students had decided to pursue higher music education as well as the ways in which both teachers and students negotiated this complex educational environment. 

The outcome

The project was wide-ranging and the ethnographic data particularly rich. Each city, each institution and each interviewee provided fascinating insights into Western art music’s diverse meanings and functions in contemporary India.

Overall, the study showed that, due to a range of historic and contemporary factors, Western art music is uniquely positioned to find relevance within a variety of groups and contexts in contemporary urban India. Western art music is subsequently used, shaped and experienced in ways that bring into dialogue diverse histories, ideologies, dispositions, and orientations. As a result, Western art music forms a powerful and sophisticated optic through which to explore the lived experience of class as well as a range of educational, musical and urban histories and trends in contemporary India.

Perhaps most significant, this research demonstrates that Western art music is about much more than just Europe and America. Acknowledging the significant history of Western art music in India and other countries beyond the ‘West’ provides a useful springboard for rethinking and redefining what Western art music has meant in the past and what it can mean today.  

Featured researcher

Rupert Avis

Dr Avis is interested in performance psychology, Western art music pedagogy, music and postcolonialism and popular music. 

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