The Archive of Indian Music is a treasure trove of rare gramophone recordings from the fields of music, cinema and theatre.
Vikram Sampath is the happiest when he is rummaging through piles of old records and newspaper clippings at flea markets and kabadi shops, looking for gramophone plates. These days, musicians, folk artists, orators and theatre persons from a bygone era when sound recording was at a nascent stage, interest Vikram like no other.
“I am a classical musician with a historical bent of mind…” says the author-classical singer-engineer. The choice of subjects for his earlier books -- history of the Mysore State, and two trendsetting musicians the first female recorded singer Gauhar Jaan and the iconic Veena S. Balachander – say a lot about this young man’s passion for the past.
And now, he has established the Archive of Indian Music (AIM), which is actually a repository of gramophone recordings from all over India! Henceforth, to listen to some of the best voices and divine instruments across genres - Hindustani classical, Carnatic classical, theatre, early cinema and folk – all you have to do is log on to http://archiveofindianmusic.org
Talking about its genesis, Vikram, a BITS Pilani alumnus, says, “While researching for my book on Gauhar Jaan (the first Indian voice to be recorded in 1902), I went to Berlin on a visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. I chanced upon some recordings by Indian artists across Europe’s Sound Archives in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London. The constant refrain everywhere was why India does not have a national sound archive. I strongly felt the need to do something about it. Support came from T.V. Mohandas Pai, then with Infosys, and now, chairman, Manipal Global Education. He advised me to establish AIM as a private non-profit trust. And that’s how AIM was born with my parents as founder trustees. Today, there are many others, such as my gurus Bombay Jayasri and Jayanthi Kumaresh, Shyam Benegal, Sonal Mansingh, Alarmel Valli, Nandini Ramani, Chinmaya Gharekhan, Shyamala Bhave and Lalith Rao, whose invaluable contributions have helped the website grow.”
Here, Vikram acknowledges the unstinting support of R. Natarajan, Kushal Gopalka and Dr. Suresh Chandvankar, who offered their large collection of gramophone records to be put to good use.
“Honestly, it was heart-breaking to see such valuable slices of cultural and art heritage, gathering dust, often thrown away by people who knew not its worth and people who had it but did not understand what it stood for,” confides Vikram.
And so, he set out to digitise and preserve some of the priceless recordings. “It is a work in progress. Today, I have with me nearly 24,000 tracks of recorded sound, of which I have so far uploaded 600 pieces. Digitising the gramophone plates is no mean task. They were all in the original analog form of a 78 RPM or a Vinyl disc (EP or LP). We imported special equipment for the digital transfers. My technician Chethan Kumar tirelessly cleans the records, digitises and catalogues them on a daily basis. The whole journey so far has been gratifying because in just a month and a half since the website went up, there have been 35,000 plays by people from Iran, Pakistan, Australia and the U.S. We have so much more material, such as tribal recordings by artists from Chattisgarh, which will soon be up for listening pleasure. It has been a learning experience at every step,” says Vikram.
Meanwhile, Vikram is in talks with archives abroad for tie-ups. “They have some awesome clips… like voices of Indian prisoners of war from World War I, and a mother singing a lullaby in Andhra Pradesh nearly 100 years ago!” These recordings are not just about history, but also throw light on how language has evolved.
“Personally, as a Carnatic singer, what I found fascinating was the manner in which time-tested kritis such as ‘Nagumomu’ and ‘Ksheera Sagara’ were sung 100 years ago. The whole idea of tradition takes on a new meaning. The trajectory of classical music is different so much so that you may not even recognise it!”
But why cinema and theatre, you wonder. Vikram says, “As an archivist, I believe any priceless piece of the past, that sheds light on our artistic history and is crying for help, has to be rescued.” So, among the artists you can find dramas of Karnataka Nataka Sabha, Mysore, Jagannath Mysore Palace Band, the Karnartic Band of His Highness Maharaja of Mysore, the Bharat Scouts Guides National Head Quarters, Mohammed Rafi and P. Leela, to list a few.
Even as Vikram, in his corporate avatar, keeps busy hours leading a team for a infotech firm, he is first and foremost an archivist who’s still searching for forgotten melodies and memories.
Anyone who has something more to add to Vikram's collection may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org