Project (2021-2022)

Artifact and Tonality: Musical Instrument Makers as Invisible Technicians in Twentieth-Century South India

In India, musical instrument making has so far not been explored from the perspective of history of science and technology. From the historical documents, we can trace musical instrument makers as craftspeople who worked with leather, wood, and other materials. Colonial records and monographs documented many ethnic communities who worked with leather, crafted musical instruments and played them during war and festivals. The instrument makers of the nineteenth century belonged to craft communities working with leather and wood, whereas physicists and engineers started to engage in the study and making of musical instruments only in the twentieth century. While craft narratives so far have dominated our understanding of musical instrument making in South India in a very singular way—associating one ethnic group with one craft practice—this study observes that multiple ethnic groups and a variety of experts came together as instrument makers in twentieth-century Madras. The sources include colonial surveys, monographs, vernacular magazines, music journals, and conference proceedings, dating from between the 1880s and the 1980s, as well as oral history interviews with older instrument makers and musicians.