Research, Ethnomusicology, Oral History & Anthropology in South Asia & the Arabic States of the Gulf

Rolf Killius is a researcher in ethnomusicology and anthropology of south Asian material culture and arts. He works in exhibition curating, academic research, music and sound production, film production editing,  and the delivery of music and arts events especially related to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Traditional Music and Dance of Nepal

The Musical Instrument Museum Nepal in Kathmandu invited Rolf Killius to film and study traditional Nepalese music and dance. The work focused on the cultures within the Kathmandu Valley.

It is fascinating to fly into the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley: below green fertile fields, small villages and hamlets. Towards the right and left the slopes of the hills. From far beckon the snow-peaked Himalaya mountains; nearly on the same height as the aircraft. Suddenly the valley opens up: the outskirts of the mega city of Kathmandu and its twin-towns appear. Despite being a mega city it seems rather like an endless village with vegetable and paddy fields,sometimes with three-story buildings in the middle of a field. While one watches, everything is getting blurred by the smog of Kathmandu, and there already is the runway. With its cities, towns and villages the Kathmandu Valley is the political, economic, and cultural centre of Nepal.  Nowhere are there so many Buddhist and Hindu temples and all of the many communities in Nepal have settled here.

The first impression is that the musical instruments and music are quite similar to various parts of India or Tibet. It seems that the variety of musical and dance cultures of the relativly small Nepal is even bigger than India.There are however some striking differences to Indian music, such as the bent oboe used in the Panchai Baja ensemble, the fact that women also play instruments and that men and women dance together freely. Generally Nepalese music can be regarded as being at an intersection where Indian, Tibetan and Chinese cultures meet, though with a specific Nepalese twist. Important also is that Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the local religions are manifold and interrelated and have a huge impact on music and dance. Possibly the geographically different regions, the southern plains, the formerly culturally independent Himalayan valleys and the various mountain ranges have enabled all these diverse cultures to develop.

Dancers from the Kirati Community                                                             View from Bhaktapur

Following these thoughts Nepalese music can be roughly divided according to the geographical areas and religious preferences: the pre-Himalayan plains, the slopes of the Himalayas and the inhabited upper mountain ranges. In a simplified way Hinduism dominates in the plains, Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism the highlands, and a mixture of all prevails in the Midlands. The large Kathmandu valley being part of the latter. Nepal has created a bewildering variety of music and dance genres and styles. There is music and dance for everything: for each annual season and life-cycle event, to heal, to remember the ancestors, to celebrate the numerous Buddhist and Hindu festivals, and as a means of connecting the living with the dead.

As in other South Asian countries Nepal has experienced deteriorating conditions for traditional music and dance. The influence of the almighty Bollywood music from neighbouring India and difficult economic conditions for traditional musicians being some reasons for this. These conditions have had the result that the traditional repertoire is being reduced, musicians seek employment elsewhere, a diminishing musical quality occurs and many genres could now be regarded as endangered.

Although finally in 2008 the oppressive Hindu monarchy has been replaced by a democratic republic, the socio-economic conditions for most of the people has not yet improved. In a way the difficult living circumstances coincide with the descending development of the traditional music and dance.
The valuable work of the Musical Instrument Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu and the Music Department within the Kathmandu University in Bhaktapur is slightly more than a drop in the ocean to protect and support traditional music and dance. To support traditional music and dance the Museum organises a
International Folk Music Film Festival in Kathmandu from 25 to 27 November 2011.

Rathwa Documentation and Research Project

A team from the Vacha Museum at the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh (Gujarat) researched and documented parts of the music and dance culture of the Rathwa Adivasi people and related cultures.
The project was initiated by the Bhasha Research and Documentation Centre in Baroda, partly funded by the British Library Sound Archive, UK, (facilitated by World music Curator Janet Topp Farigon) and conducted by the exhibition curator and filmmaker Rolf Killius from London.

Rathwa and Related Communities

"God gave us birth and we are all the same" (Rathwa elder from village Gunata) after a recording session.

The Rathwa Adivasi community inhabit mainly the Vadodara and Panchmahal districts of Gujarat. The community is closely related to the Bhilala Adivasi in Madhya Pradesh. Their language,  Rathvi, is regarded as a dialect of Gujarati.

Rathwa believe in ancestor spirits and various community gods, but also respect Hindu gods and goddesses. They live in exogamous clans and their food staple is maize, but increasingly rice as well. They offer their field and crafts products on the weekly haats (markets) in all bigger villages and towns of the two districts.Rathwa and related communities own a rich and diversified music and dance culture; most of the genres relate either to life-cycle or agricultural cycles. Special festivals are celebrated according to mainstream Hindu celebrations like Holi or Divali.

Pithora Painting

The ritualistic painting of pithora wall pictures - done in the main room of traditional Rathwa houses - stands at the core of their belief system. The details in the painting show ideas taking from the Rathwa creation myth as well as everyday life situations and objects.

The main part of the elaborate painting shows  the marriage of the Rathwa's most revered god Pithoro to Pithori. This is mostly depicted in the form of huge marriage processions modelled after a royal wedding (that is showing elephants, camel and horses). Pithoro or Baba Pithoro is supposed to protect the household and cattle. Often during a recovery after a serious illness of a family member a vow is taken, to paint a pithora painting and celebrate an elaborate ritual. Several lakhara (painters) paint while the badwa - the Rathwa priest - directs and later interprets the details on the wall painting. In this process the badwa falls in trance: Rathwa believe that in this moment god Pithoro enters his body and speaks to the community. After the ritual the family sacrifices a goat.

Rathwa Thambouro Players in Front of a Pithora Painting                     Rathwa Flute Players

Traditional Music in India - Music Research

Since November 2000 the British Library Sound Archive (BLSA) in London and Rolf Killius (partly with Jutta Winkler) have been working on a project - Traditional Music in India (TMI) - to record, document and research folk, devotional and ritual musics of India. The work is done with assistance from the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Delhi and with Indian researchers and musicians based in the project areas.

The work is mainly carried out in the following areas:          
Sotra Musicians in AssamSingers In Kutch
Sotra Musicians in Assam                                                                        Singers in Kutch

Gengkuli (Chakma) Documentation & Research Project       

The anthropologist Wolfgang Mey and Rolf Killius plan a research and documentation project comprising traditional music and dance
 and ritualistic practices of the Chakma people  in the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) in Bangladesh, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh (three Indian states), which are related to the Gengkuli ballads sung and performed by hereditary experts. The Chakma are the largest group of indigenous people in Bangladesh and follow Theravada Buddhism. Gengkuli are the traditional bards/storyteller/musicians/singers of the Chakma people, who are especially known for recounting the early history of this community and their immigration into the CHT.

Tea Music

The north
  east Indian state of Assam is well known the world over for two things: its delicious teas and the wonderful green countryside with fertile paddy fields and tea estates. The wildlife sanctuaries, such as the Kaziranga, situated along the mighty Brahmaputra river and on the slopes of the lofty hills attract foreign and Indian visitors alike. What is not yet known much about, is the rich music and dance culture of the tea workers and estate inhabitants, the tea garden communities.

Rolf Killius is in the process of preparing a project to record, document and research the disappearing folk, devotional, ritual and Adivasi musics of the tea garden communities in Assam, north east India. Though this project will be facilitated, organised and conducted by experts in the field of Ethnomusicology, anthropology and media, it is envisaged to bring together members of such interest groups as tourism (private and government), Assam government agencies, tea garden owners and members of the tea garden community organisations. 

The Future of the Past's Music

Rolf's article The Future of the Past's Music first published in a booklet
  by "Sutton Subrang"  for the 'Sitar Festival' on 5/6 May 2007 at the Bhavan, Indian Cultural Centre London can be read by clicking on the link below .


Publications of  Rolf  Killius

Killius, Rolf
            2013 "From Ancestor Rituals to Tourist Entertainment: Changing Music of the Sora People in Eastern India. Ideas for a 
            Revisitation Project" in Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Ethnographischen Sammlungen Sachsen. Band XLVI. Berlin: Verlag fur
            Wissenschaft und Bildung.
Killius, Rolf 

2009 Review: "Sketches of Kerela" in Ethnomusicology Forum, Volume 18, Issue 1 June 2009, Pages 179-181. London.


Killius, Rolf

2008 "Great Traditions in Little Villages" in Darbar Arts Culture Heritage. Leicester: Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust

Killius, Rolf

2007 "The Future of the Past's Music" in Music Heritage of India. London: Sutton Subrang

Killius, Rolf

            2006 "Letter from Arunachal Pradesh, India" in Songlines Issue 35, London

Killius, Rolf

2006 Ritual Music and Rituals of Kerala. Delhi: B.R. Rhythms http://www.easternbookcorporation.com:80/moreinfo.php?txt_searchstring=12476

Killius, Rolf

2003 "...and the Goddess loves Music: Kshetram Vadyam - the ritual and ritual music of Kerala, South India" http://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20080902124601/http://www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/wtmkeralacontents.html

Killius, Rolf

2000 "The Roar of the South: Kerala Percussion" in Broughton, S.; Ellingham, M. (eds.) World Music: The Rough Guide Vol. 2. London: Rough Guides Ltd

Perumanam Kuttan Marar and party (CD)

1996 Drummers from Heavan - Panchari Melam, the ritual percussion ensemble of Kerala. Leiden, Netherlands: PAN Records, recording and notes by Rolf Killius

Pugatri Divagara Pooduval (CD)

1998 Ritual Percussion of Kerala: Vol. 2 Tayambaka. Geneve: VDE-Gallo, Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire, recording and notes by Rolf KilliusVarious (CD)

1997 Percussions of Kerala, South India. Boulogne, France: Sunset-France, recording and notes by Rolf Killius

Various (CD)

2006 Voices for Humans, Ancestors and Gods. London: Topic Records / British Library Sound Archive, recording and notes by Rolf Killius


Various (CD)

2003  Sounds for Divine Ancestors-The Music of Nepal's Tamu Shamans London: SOAS, notes by Rolf Killius

Various (CD)

2003  Drumming and chanting in God's own country - The temple music of Kerala in South India. London: Topic Records / British Library Sound Archive, recording and notes by Rolf Killius

Various (CD)

2002 Tune in to the Sounds of Kerala. London: Horniman Museum, recording and notes by Rolf Killius

Various (CD)

1998 Ritual Percussion of Kerala: Vol. 1Kshetram Vadyam. Geneve: VDE-Gallo, Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire, recording and notes by Rolf Killius

Contact Rolf:   rolfkillius 'at' yahoo.com