Keeper of the Flame: Miyan Himmat Khan and the Last of the Mughal Emperors
James Skinner’s illustrated 1825 Persian-language Inventory of the Communities of Delhi, the Tashrīh al-Aqwām, includes a painting taken from life of Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant (d.c.1840), the chief hereditary instrumental musician to the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah (r.1806–37) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r.1837–58). But the portrait was simultaneously intended as an ethnographic archetype: Skinner commissioned it to illustrate his entry on “the kalāwant community”, one of 104 distinct people groups he described.

Skinner wrote in Persian, and drew on long-standing Indian traditions of writing on ethnographic “types”. But his work also played into the emergent British colonial knowledge project of categorising the communities they now ruled under the term “caste”. At the same time, Skinner’s entry is wholly unreconcilable with Himmat Khan’s own musical biography and intellectual output—a co-written music treatise, the Asl al-Usūl (Foundations of Rhythm), which presents a revolutionary modern conceptualisation of the Hindustani tāl (metrical) system.

In order to untangle this socio-musical knot, I will juxtapose late Mughal and Conmpany-style ethnographic paintings and written descriptions in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and English against a new wave of Persian, Urdu and Hindi music-technical works composed c. 1780–1850. The latter reveal the emergence of a paracolonial indigenous modernity in the most authoritative centres of North Indian art-music production, Delhi and Lucknow, running alongside and beyond colonial knowledge projects at the end of the East India Company’s tenure in India.
Date: 7 May 2024, 17:15 (Tuesday, 3rd week, Trinity 2024)
Venue: Faculty of Music, St Aldate's OX1 1DB
Venue Details: Denis Arnold Hall
Speaker: Dr Katherine Schofield (King's College London)
Organising department: Faculty of Music
Organisers: Francis Bertschinger (University of Oxford), Stephanie Shon (University of Oxford)
Organiser contact email address:
Part of: Graduate Research Colloquium
Booking required?: Not required
Cost: Free
Audience: Public
Editor: Laura Howorth