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If historians of Indian classical music have been obliged to rely primarily upon a finite and often enigmatic set of treatises and iconographic sources, historical studies of semi-classical genres like thumri and ghazal confront even more formidable challenges. Such styles and their predecessors were largely ignored by Sanskrit theoreticians, who tended to be more interested in hoary modal and metrical systems than in contemporary vernacular or regional-language genres sung by courtesans. It is thus inevitable that attempts to reconstruct the development of such genres involve considerable amounts of conjecture, and in some senses raise more questions than they answer. Nevertheless, thumri, ghazal, and earlier counterparts, which we may retrospectively call "light-classical", have played too important a role in South Asian music to be ignored by historians. Further, as I shall suggest, the study of their evolution may yield pa1ticular insights into the nature of Hindustani music history, especially of the modem period. Central to this study is a fundamental paradox characterizing thumri and ghazal history: specifically, that while both genres may be seen as mere variants or particular efflorescences in a long series of similar counterparts dating back to the early common era, there are other senses in which they are unique products of a particular historical moment marked by unprecedented socio-historical features. In this chapter, I attempt to explore this apparent contradiction, and further suggest how the divergent trajectories of thumri and ghazal in the later twentieth century illustrate the distinctive form that modernity has assumed in Indian music culture.


This work was originally published in "Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries," edited by Joep Bor, Françoise Delvoye, Jane Harvey and Emmie te Nijenhuis.



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