Saving the sounds of India

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 30, 2013 01:05 hrs

Developed countries have their national sound archives, India does not. The sound of India, ever since the first recording was done early in the twentieth century, lies strewn in private collections, with state broadcasters All India Radio and Doordashan, in raddi shops all over the country and even collections abroad.

The good news is that two organisations, the Archive of Indian Music and Prasar Bharati, have decided to work individually and collectively to archive what is available and digitise it so that this treasure becomes available to Indians and the rest of the world today and hereafter.

The Archive of Indian Music got going in 2011 with the long-term vision of having a sound archive of India. It has till now acquired 15,000 gramophone discs which cover Carnatic, Hindustani and folk music. These capture the music of early films and the theatre of the time. There are also speeches of national leaders like Gandhi (his only voice recording on gramophone), Tagore and Nazrul Islam. The target is to have a 100,000-strong collection in five years.

Among the archive’s notable acquisitions is the first recording done in India, of Gauhar Jaan in 1902, the only voice recording of Gandhi in the UK in 1931, M S Subulakshmi’s first recording when she was nine years old, and the first recording of “Jana Gana Mana” by the Visva Bharati choir in 1912-13 before it became the national anthem.

The organisation is preserving the old — the nation’s audio treasures — through the new — by using the latest digital technology. It has acquired digitisation equipment and 2,000 renditions have been uploaded at its website (, which was launched earlier this year. The public can log on and hear it for free, though downloading is not yet allowed. When this is permitted a small fee will be charged which will provide a much needed revenue stream. An app developed by software firm Twaang with which Android mobile phones can access the website has been developed. The app can also be used as an audio guide.

The archive has conducted a novelty, audio exhibitions, called “Voices of India” in three cities so far — Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata.   

The archive has become possible through the efforts of two people — Vikram Sampath (author-historian and Carnatic musician) who thought up the project and is its driving spirit, and Mohandas Pai, the former Infosys director and now chairman of Manipal Global Education, who has made a contribution and promised to back up the archive so that it survives and grows.

The idea was born when Sampath was working on his book My Name is Gauhar Jaan. He realised that “the country’s cultural heritage lies rotting in raddi shops.” He has visited the sound archives in European cities like Vienna, Paris, Berlin and London. “These countries all have national sound archives, we don’t,” he regrets.  

Pai recalls, “Sampath met me at a book launch function and discussed this idea with me later. I was fascinated and very impressed by his proposal to create an archive to preserve our heritage and his passion to make this work. We are slowly losing our sound and voices heritage and the proposal was the perfect way for preserving this.”

The aim, says Pai, is “creation of an on-line portal where our music and voices of the past and present will be available for all globally as a public resource.” The goal is also “creation of the National Archive of Sound in Bangalore as a repository and museum to enable our children, youth and researchers engage in a great experience.”

The archive has spent Rs 15 to 16 lakh from the end of 2011 in importing equipment, buying records, incubating the website, and accessing technicians to do the digitising.  

To fulfil its aim of 100,000 collections, there is need for teamwork. Individual collectors have to be located, and persuaded to either part with their collections, to be permanently housed in the archives, or let the archive’s technicians come in with their equipment to digitally record the collection. Those agreeing to part with their collections can continue to listen to them from a CD of the recording.

The Archive of Indian Music is currently housed in Manipal University’s Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities in Bangalore. Land has been earmarked in the city for a permanent home which is to be acquired through public-private partnership. It will be a permanent residence for its stock of records and eventually house a center for music research. The aim is to start a diploma course in archiving with Manipal University. No such course is offered in India right now. The vision can keep expanding.

Sampath wants to set up parallel organisations in other parts of India like Kolkata and Gujarat. Gujarat was a major centre for record distribution and,  Vadodara a particularly vibrant arm. Mumbai has many record collections, private and institutional, like Marathi Natya Sangeet of Bal Gandharva. A lot of Mumbai’s old record collection has moved to Gujarat. But for more centres to come up there is a need for philanthropists. “It is difficult to clone a Mohandas Pai,” says Sampath.

A division or responsibility has been worked out. The sound archive will take care of archiving for the period 1900-1940, the period thereafter will be handled by the two Prasar Bharati arms, AIR and Doordarshan. In this way, the entire sound of India will be captured. “We are working with AIR and Doordarshan on how to catalogue — create a document for them to follow. Technology or money is not a problem for the national broadcasters as Jawhar Sirkar, CEO of Prasar Bharati, is taking a keep interest and Raghu Menon, former information and broadcasting secretary, is committed to this cause,” says an enthusiastic Sampath.  

Sircar notes that “at long last, Prasar Bharati is getting its act together where priceless archival materials are concerned. With the finest brains in archival preservation and in marketing of such products, guiding us now, we may make this long- awaited breakthrough, before this year is over.”

Subroto Chattopadhyay, chairman of the Archival Marketing Group, and chairman, The Peninsula Foundation, says that after a “comprehensive evaluation under Menon, a clear need and road map has emerged on the steps to be taken to archive AIR and DD content.” This is significant, considering its heritage, reach and depth.

The idea is to “bring this content to listeners and viewers in a consumer-friendly manner, using contemporary platforms.” Work will proceed on two fronts. The archiving effort, which will be huge and complex, will be led by Menon as chairman of the National Archival Committee.

For taking the content to market, “a team has been set up which includes Sampath and Sudha Gopalakrishnan who will work with the AIR and DD teams.” They will initiate programmes to popularise the content and help “build further capacity and capability in AIR and DD.” A pilot of initial offerings will come “in the next few months”.

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