Monday 17 July 2017

Musical melting-pot: evoking 1780s Calcutta

Ensemble Tempus Fugit - Calcutta (Photo Saga-Images)
Ensemble Tempus Fugit - Calcutta (Photo Saga-Images)
In 1690 the East India Company was granted a trading licence by the Nawab of Bengal for three villages on the East bank of the Hooghly river. By 1780, the company had transformed the villages into Calcutta, a small English city. Musicians travelled from London to India, bringing the music of Handel, Corelli and others, whilst others played their harpsichords with Indian classical musicians, and transcribed Indian music into European notation.

It is this musical melting pot which Ensemble Tempus Fugit, director Katie de la Matter, is planning to explore in their programme Calcutta at the Brighton Early Music Festival on 5 November 2017, with further performances at Tara Arts Theatre in 2018. The material is completely fascinating, including Western transcriptions of Hindu and Bengali music (done often at the behest of the wives of English residents), as well as local Indian versions songs.

Indian music and dancing groups were invited into some British-Indian homes, and mainly female colonials would transcribe the songs (or have the songs transcribed) using a harpsichord or pianoforte, this all being part of the greater European 18th-century trend to collect ‘national airs’ — in the same vein as collections of Scots tunes, for example. One of these women, Margaret Fowkes, described the process:

‘I have often made the Musicians tune their instruments to the harpsichord that I might join their little band. They always seemed delighted with the accompaniment of the harpsichord and sung with uncommon animation, and a pleasure to themselves, which was expressed in their faces.'

Another woman, Sophie Plowden hired the musician John Braganza to transcribe songs and had the results put into a beautifully illuminated manuscript with illustrations of Indian musicians by local artists (which contain some of the earliest depictions of some Indian instruments). This survives in the Fitzwilliam Museum as MS380 and forms the basis for Ensemble Tempus Fugit's project.

The performers include James Hall (counter-tenor), Debipriya Sircar (Indian classical vocalist), Sanjay Guha (sitar), Jamie Akers (lutes), Emily Baines (early wind), Lucia Capellaro (Baroque cello) George Clifford (violin) Katie De La Matter (harpsichord & creative direction). And the ensemble will meld this unusual combination of instruments and traditions, with period music, Indian song, puppetry and drama to tell the story of music melting pot on the streets and at the soirées of Calcutta.

The group is crowd-funding for the project (see their page at, and below is their crowd-funding video.

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