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Hindustani Airs: Music, Pleasure, and Artistic Exchange in the Court of Lucknow

Research Questions:

To what extent did colonial residents contribute to art and culture in Mughal Hindustan during the late eighteenth century?

How can we recover cultures of sociability and exchange in eighteenth-century Lucknow through Sophia Plowden’s album and Cambridge’s collections more broadly?

What do Cambridge’s archives tell us about various cultures of collecting as they developed and transformed in South Asia?

Project Overview:

The focus of Hindustani Airs: Music, Pleasure, and Artistic Exchange in the Court of Lucknow is the Fitzwilliam Museum’s album of Indian musical lyrics made in Lucknow in 1787-88 for an Englishwoman, Sophia Elizabeth Plowden. While living in Lucknow with her husband–an East India Company officer–she collected songs that she heard in courtly gatherings. 67 of them survive in her illustrated book (MS 380). 

The album is a witness to the extent of colonial participation in Hindustani culture, and a unique survival within the arts of the book. Each of the 39 loose folios includes illustrations of performers, dancers, singers, courtesans, and other entertainers. The lyrics are inscribed in Persian nasta‘liq calligraphy, but include Persian, Urdu, Classical Hindi, and Panjabi languages. 

Music historians have made enormous progress in recovering the soundscapes of this book, but we still lack full knowledge of the structure, layout, texts, calligraphy and paintings of the Plowden album. Our research will create a full account of the manuscript in all these aspects, identifying texts and illustrations, and establishing a full context for the album. We hope to make it the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in 2025, with an accompanying public programme focussed on sound and performance.


Marlay Group Funding

Project Partners: 

Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge

Related publications

We envisage a printed catalogue with object description and essays to sit alongside an exhibition.

Project team

Principal Investigators: 

Dr Suzanne Reynolds, Senior Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books, Fitzwilliam Museum

Dr Vivek Gupta, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University College London

Co Invesigators:

Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, Senior Lecturer in South Asian Music and History, King’s College London

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian Collections, British Library

Hallie Swanson, PhD student, University of Pennsylvania, Research Assistant for Hindustani Airs

Marcus Fraser, Honorary Keeper of Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and Miniatures, Fitzwilliam Museum

Outcomes of the project

The intended outcomes of this research include a full description of the manuscript’s physical make up and contents, with texts identified, transcribed, and translated, and paintings studied. We will corroborate our analysis with allied objects in Cambridge collections, most notably with the library of Swiss adventurer and collector Antoine-Louis Polier. Polier’s manuscripts were acquired by Edward Ephraim Pote, who bequeathed them to Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. The Pote Collection is currently on permanent loan to the Cambridge University Library. The findings will be published in a printed edited volume with essays and on the Fitzwilliam’s public online object database.

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