From Local to Global History

The cultural and intellectual impact of the imperial encounter on both colonizer and colonized has been my main research preoccupation since my student days. As I investigated this topic from different angles, my research repeatedly took me into unexpected directions. I am especially glad, however, that it merged my fascination for both (Indian) colonial history and music. While I began as a regional historian of Punjab, like so many other historians of my generation, my scholarship increasingly developed towards global history.

Punjab and the Sikhs

Since 1993, I have been interested in the colonial history of Punjab and especially in that of its Sikh inhabitants. Based on my research in Indian and Pakistani Punjab as well as the British Library in London, I wrote Moral Languages from Colonial Punjab (2008), a comparative socio-intellectual history of the Singh Sabha (Sikh), Arya Samaj (Hindu) and Ahmadiyah (Muslim) voluntary reform movements in the context of what may be called a Punjabi Enlightenment. Afterwards, I published on the history and contemporary practice of Sikh devotional music and, since a few years, when I have the time, I am working on a historical novel The Sikh Music Pavilion

Arnold Bake, flyer lecture-recitals, University of Hawaii, 1936.

Romantic Nationalism

In recent years, my research has come full circle. In Moral Languages from Colonial Punjab, I had investigated the period of Indian social reform, which is generally seen as overlapping with an early stage of cultural nationalism. My contribution was the term ‘moral languages’ in replacement of ‘religion’ to clarify intellectual and cultural change under colonial rule. My latest book project Romantic Nationalism in India: Cultivation of Culture and the Global Circulation of Ideas revisits this period and theme. By using the categories ‘cultivation of culture’ and ‘Romantic nationalism’, it explicitly compliments and expands Joep Leerssen's pioneering work on Romantic nationalism in Europe. In doing so, it aims to reinvigorate the debate about early Indian nationalist thought from a comparative global perspective. 

Bhai Jawala Singh at Dera Sahib gurdwara in Lahore, 1935.

Music History

My music practice preceded my history scholarship and over the decades I read much about (global) music history, theory and (ethno)musicology. In my piano studies, I developed a fascination for modernist composers with an interest in non-Western music and particularly Indian music (John Foulds mainly). Conversely, while going through the historiography of (ethno)musicology, I became intrigued by the life and writings of the Dutch pioneer in Indian ethnomusicology Arnold Bake (1899-1963). Soon I began to think about the cross-cultural work of these individuals in relation to the imperial encounter and wider global processes of modernization. Moreover, I realized that the making of national music worldwide was characterized by similar rational, moral and aesthetic motives. So far, I have channelled my interests in global music history into two books, Music and Empire in Britain and India (2013) and Arnold Bake: A Life with South Asian Music (2018), as well as several articles. 

'Hind Devi' (Goddess India), printed on textile, c. 1930.