Guardian of the Flame: Miyan Himmat Khan and the Last Mughal Emperors

Research output: Other contribution


James Skinner’s magnificent 1825 Persian inventory of the peoples of Delhi, the Tashrīh al-Aqwām, includes a most poignant illustration of a blind musician. This painting is two, quite distinct things. It is firstly a portrait of Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant (d. c. 1845), chief hereditary musician to the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah (r. 1806–37) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837–58). We know a great deal about him from contemporary Indian writings—not least from his own, revolutionary and recognisably modern co-written music treatise, the Asl al-Usūl (c. 1810s–20s). Secondly, the painting was an ethnographic archetype by design; Skinner had it painted to illustrate his entry on the ‘bandijān or kalāwant community’. It closely resembles the proto-ethnographic style that flourished in Company and late-Mughal painting in these decades, which went hand in hand with the classic colonial knowledge project of classifying communities to rule them. Skinner’s entry gives us radically different information on the kalāwants irreconcilable with Himmat Khan’s biography and own writings. In this lecture I will make sense of the divergence of these competing lineages of musical knowledge in Persian, Urdu and English c. 1780–1850, by considering them side by side. Viewing proto-ethnographic paintings and writings against a remarkable new wave of music treatises c. 1793–1853 reveals an incipient indigenous modernity running in parallel with colonial knowledge in the most authoritative centres of Hindustani music production, Delhi and Lucknow.
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputBritish Library Podcasts on Soundcloud
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2018


  • ethnomusicology
  • art history
  • Mughal India
  • Indian history
  • Indian music


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