11 September 2020
by Richard Williams
What do north Indian classical singers, Nepalese farmers, computer scientists, and Virtual Reality filmmakers have in common? They have all collaborated with Richard Widdess, who retired from SOAS as Professor of Musicology this September, having taught here for a remarkable 41 years.
An ethnomusicologist and scholar of South Asia, Richard is recognised the world over for his contributions to the study of Indian music and musical cultures. He traces his love of Hindustani music back to hearing the celebrated surbahar player, Imrat Khan, in a concert broadcast on the radio. He could not envisage the instruments that produced this kind of sound, and was inspired to seek them out. He studied Music at Cambridge and South Asian Area Studies at SOAS, and then took his Ph.D. on early Sanskrit musicological literature from Cambridge. He was appointed as Lecturer in Indian Music at SOAS in 1979, where he became a founding member of the Centre of Music Studies, which brought together scholars whose leading passion was music but were employed in the disparate regional departments of the university (Richard himself, at first, was teaching Sanskrit). This was pioneering work. The Centre reimagined how music should be studied, by setting the Western canon aside in order to give musical cultures and practices from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and their diasporas the respect and attention they deserved. To this day, Music at SOAS is unique in its approach. In 1997, the Centre evolved into a department in its own right, and over the years Richard served as Head and Research Tutor, as well as working hard to bolster ethnomusicology and the study of Asian Music in the UK.
Richard’s research is characteristically meticulous, sensitive, and highly varied in its interests. His earliest work concentrated on historical understandings of raga, from the perspective of Sanskrit musical treatises, grappling with highly technical material and bringing a critical analysis to the way we think about the evolution of Indian art music. Changing gear, in 2004, he published Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music, co-authored with the celebrated singer, Ritwik Sanyal, which provided a comprehensive study of the dhrupad vocal genre, which is generally considered the most prestigious of north Indian classical forms. This book examined the history, evolution, aesthetics, and contemporary culture around dhrupad, and is considered a monumental work in South Asian music studies. While this book cemented Richard’s reputation, he moved into yet another direction and began studying traditions of temple singing in Nepal, especially in Bhaktapur. After many years of sitting with singers from farming communities and asking them about their repertoires, he wrote Dāphā: Sacred Singing in a South Asian City (2013), which speaks to debates about meaning and performance practices as much as it sheds light on the social and religious life of Nepal. While Richard continues to develop his work across all these areas, he has also worked extensively in the fields of musical analysis and cognitive approaches to music, bringing the arts of South Asia to the attention of researchers with very different disciplinary interests. In recent years, Richard has also developed new ways for the public to engage with Indian and Nepali music, from co-curating exhibitions to working on virtual reality films of temple singing and street music in Bhaktapur.
Over the years, Richard has supervised students across a vast range of subjects and methodologies. I am constantly finding yet more doctoral theses where he appears first in the Acknowledgements. Many of his students have gone on to work in universities with students of their own, forming a collective that is jokingly referred to as the Bloomsbury gharana. Despite always having several research projects and students’ dissertations on the go, Richard is extremely generous and open-handed, both as a supervisor and a colleague. He has carried enormous administrative responsibilities, and while his research has been recognised with a Fellowship of the British Academy and the Music Forum (Mumbai) Award, it is easy to lose sight of his extensive toil on the bureaucratic side of things too. Nonetheless, we are extremely grateful to him for his tireless work, which has helped keep music thriving at SOAS. He will be sorely missed by the School of Arts—now home to the Music department—but we are looking forward to seeing (and hearing!) what new directions he pursues as a Professor Emeritus.