Distinction or Distraction? The politics of connoisseurship in eighteenth-century Rajput courts

Rao Raja Bishen Singh of Uniara

Distinction or Distraction? The politics of connoisseurship in eighteenth-century Rajput courts

Tuesday, 10 May 2016 - 2:00pm
Fellows' Dining Room
Richard Williams (Oriental Studies; Trinity College, Oxford)
Dr F Devji
South Asia Seminar

When the ruler of a small eighteenth-century kingdom was being assaulted and pillaged by multiple armies - Rajputs, Marathas, Mughals, and Afghans - why would he invest his resources in ensuring that he was seen as a master of the arts, a connoisseur of music, and the ideal lover?

For a long time the eighteenth century was characterised as a period of both political collapse and cultural efflorescence. This was no coincidence, according to the prevalent historiography, but rather the product of two main factors. The destabilisation of the Mughal Empire led to the rise of large successor courts that took in large numbers of refugee artists and musicians, and the ascendant rulers of these courts neglected their responsibilities, decadently investing themselves in recreational arts. Following new social and cultural histories that have undermined these assumptions, this paper considers the widespread production of intellectual works relating to music and aesthetics in Brajbhasha in the eighteenth century. While major centres like Lucknow and Murshidabad were significant, many smaller courts also patronised important works and together represent a more complicated landscape of cultural production. For these patrons, investments in the arts were evidently not “recreational” as understood in colonial and post-colonial terms, but had a fundamentally political resonance. This paper examines cultural patronage in two minor Rajput courts, Uniara and Banera, to consider how we might characterise literary and artistic productions in courtly settings, giving due acknowledgement to political upheaval, without crudely reducing them to the tools of propaganda or legitimation.

Richard David Williams is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. He researches the cultural history of north India, with a particular interest in theology, literature, and music. Having first studied Theology and then Modern South Asian Studies at Oxford, he took his PhD in Cultural History at King’s College London, focussing on the history of Hindustani classical music.

This seminar series is organised with the support of the History Faculty.