India’s first digital musical archive – an individual labour of love

Nat

India-Culture

Vikram Sampath in his archive
Image

Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The notions of cultural archiving in India is still sporadic with few government run institutions existing in harmony with standalone private repositories – managed by individuals that are conspicuous by the absence of inter-linkages with government facilities.

Bangalore-based scholar, writer and the moving force behind the Bangalore Literature Festival Vikram Sampath has given Indian classical music the first-of-its kind archive, www.archiveofindianmusic.org that features nearly 200 artists and  1,000 clips. It spans a wide range of sounds including folk, classical and instrumental genres – voices and historic recordings free of government interference.

The archive is headquartered in Bangalore under the umbrella of the Manipal University. It has collected close to 10,000 records  – both 78 RPM shellacs and vinyls from a variety of sources – few donations, from private owners and “kabadiwallahs”.

Classical music in India has a Vedic lineage with the Sama Vedic chantings while folk traditions predate the arrival of the Aryans. Over centuries music evolved with the royal patronage and also through the interventions of the saints as a medium to propagate the message of universal brotherhood starting with the Tamil Azhwar and Nayanar saints of the 6-8th centuries. North Indian vocal music assimilated from Persian and Iranian music in the 12th-13th century with the arrival of the Sufi saints.

Vikram  Sampath, the author of “My Name is Gauhar Jaan” (the narrative of Gauhar Jaan, the first woman vocalist of India to record commercially on gramophone) – traces the beginning of the archive to the intense research for his book in Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. “I had collected several original 78 RPM records of Gauhar Jaan from the flea markets in Kolkata, Mumbai and in the national capital.  In 2010, after writing the book, I went to Berlin on a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study and came upon a treasure of recordings by Indian artists in sound archives at Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London. The constant refrain was why don’t I set up a music archive,” Sampath said, recalling the archive’s origin.

Upon his return to India, he filed a detailed proposal to the government of India for a national archive of music – but the plan was canned.   Help came in the form T.V. Mohandas Pai, who was then with Infosys and now the chairman of the Manipal Global Education, who advised Sampath to set up a private non-profit trust.  “I established the Archive of Indian Music (AMI) in 2011 with my parents then as founder trustees. Pai reposed faith  and generously funded the project with seed capital that helped to import state of the art equipment,” Sampath told this writer.  The Manipal University agreed to host the archive on their premises in Bangalore.

A grant from the India Foundation of Arts (IFA) is helping Sampath put together  important research material around this era.  The archive since 2011 has added heft with advisors like Chinmaya Garekhan, the president of Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA-Delhi), Shyam Benegal, Vijay Kichlu, VAK Ranga Rao, Suresh Chandravarkar,  musician Shyamala G. Bhave, Lalith Rao, Bombay Jayashri, danseuse Sonal Man Singh and Arundhati Ghosh (IFA)  pitching in for the archive.

Sampath says the archive seeks to digitize, preserve and disseminate an immortal slice of the musical and cultural history of the land. The range of recordings to be covered would not be restricted to Hindustani and Carnatic classical alone, but “also to theatre, early cinema and folk recordings in all languages, devotional and patriotic songs – as also voices and speeches of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore , Jawaharlal Nehru and several other Indian icons.

The archivist throws lights on few rare possessions of the repository — “rare tracks including Gandhiji’s spiritual message he recorded in 1931 in England, the country’s first recordings by Gauhar Jaan in 1902, Rabindranath Tagore reciting his Bengali poetry, the first recording of the national anthem by the Viswa Bharati chorus and the first recording of Carnatic vocalist M.S Subbulakshmi as a nine-year-old”.

Sampath says the “Archive of Indian Music is probably the first of its kind of digital sound archive for vintage recordings in India that is easily accessible to all”. The archive wants to restore nearly 100,000 records in the next five years and set up parallel centres in Kolkata and Gujarat— and build a permanent building in Bangalore called the “National Sound Archive of India” which would be an everlasting legacy for our country.

The history of music preservation in our country is “a sad commentary”. In a nation, “where music is so ubiquitous, isn’t it a shame that we don’t have a central repository for all kinds of music” Sampath says.

What better way than the arts to achieve a sense of national integration in these troubled times where divisions are more apparent than any sense of unity. It is cultural inheritances like these that give us sense of identity. But traditionally music too has been an oral tradition, transmitted from teacher to taught and hence along with pedagogy, even the documentation has largely survived word of mouth and through anecdotal memory — all of which come with their fair share of loss in translation and exaggeration.

“Treatises on musical theories have no doubt existed, but documentation around musicians is almost absent,” the archivist says.  An archivist  needs to be indiscriminate and not let his or her personal biases cloud the preservation.

“I would naturally tend to have a bias towards classical music. But that defeats the whole purpose. Our criterion is that all that was recorded — be it classical or folk songs or speeches or voices of common Indians – needs to be collated and preserved from across the country… Recording technology when it came to India in 1902 played such a major role in democratizing music, making classical music popular. Hence what was perceived as elitist becomes “that of the masses through technology’”, Sampath said.

Hence what is perceived as elitist becomes that of the masses through technology.

“In just three months of the pilot website going live with 600 clips, the sound cloud profile has more than 300,000 total plays and close to 200,000 followers. Sampath says 40 per cent of the listeners coming from India.

Sampath has a tall wishlist.   “We want to set up a permanent archive building and name it the National Sound Archive of India. All the national archives are in Delhi. We want to set it up in Bangalore, a city which represents technology. We have petitioned the Karnataka government… I am just a catalyst,” the archivist said.

Sampath, who launched his website in Delhi July22, is busy promoting his repository.

P.S Archivist Vikram Sampath is the author of three books, “Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars” (Rupa & Co) , “My Name is Gauhar Jaan” and “Voice of the Veena: S. Balachander” .

– Madhusree Chatterjee

 

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