Thanks to a private initiative, we now have a music archive of rare 12,000 recordings in digitised form

Can you believe that the All India Radio does not have any recordings between 1931 and 1955 and Doordarshan similarly has no recordings of any sports event before the 1982 Asian Games?

This revelation was made by Boria Majumdar, historian and archivist and a familiar face on television news channels in his avatar as a cricket expert, while speaking at the launch function of Archive of Indian Music at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts this past Tuesday. Majumdar said the information was given to him by the Directors General of the two organisations. This did surprise those who know a little about these Government-owned yet allegedly autonomous media behemoths where callous apathy is the order of the day. AIR had the invaluable treasure of our music in its archives that could have formed the basis for writing the history of music in all its forms — folk, film, ghazal, qawwali, semi-classical as well as classical –– in the 20th Century. Doordarshan too had rare recordings of masters of yore. But all that has become part of the erased past.

What the AIR and Doordarshan should have done is being attempted by Vikram Sampath who is a writer, musician and a music historian rolled into one. With generous financial backing from T. V. Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal Global Education, he has been collecting records from all the corners of the country and from all possible sources and getting them cleaned and digitised. So far, he has been able to restore 12,000 recordings most of which could be described as rare. And like a true music enthusiast that he is –– he has authored two books on Gauhar Jan and S. Balachander –– he has put up 1,000 of them on a website, www.archiveofindianmusic.org, and interested music lovers can listen to them free of cost. His target is to collect and restore at least 100,000 old recordings so as to save our musical heritage from getting irretrievably lost.

While the website was formally launched by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, one could not fail to notice that neither of the two DGs of the AIR and Doordarshan was present on the occasion although people like celebrated dancer Sonal Mansingh and Parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyar took the trouble of attending the function. Sonal Mansingh, who is also associated with the Archive of Indian Music Trust as a member of its Advisory Board, also addressed the gathering and exhorted Vikram to devote his attention to the preservation of dance history too.

Vikram Sampath narrated his experiences abroad where he was invariably asked why India did not have a national archive of recordings. He said he stumbled upon hundreds of recordings of the Indian prisoners of war (caught during the First World War) in Berlin and always felt embarrassed whenever he had to face the same question. This embarrassment proved to be the driving force that made him embark on this rather arduous journey. He was lucky enough to get the backing of T.V. Mohandas Pai in his second meeting itself and there has been no looking back ever since. He set up AIM (Archive of Indian Music) as a non-profit trust, imported state-of-art equipment for cleaning, restoration and digitisation of shellac and vinyl records and made Bangalore his base.

A few recordings played on the occasion of the website launch were enough to offer a glimpse as to what kind of a treasure trove Vikram has been able to create in just two years. They included a recording of the famed Gauhar Jaan that was made in 1905. Gauhar Jaan was the first Indian musician ever recorded and her first recording dates back to 1902. One was able to listen to M. S. Subbulakshmi when she was barely nine as also the recordings of Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Several other recordings of classical musicians such as Imdad Khan (grandfather of the late sitar wizard Vilayat Khan), Kesarbai Kerkar and Narayanrao Vyas were also played. One feels reassured that due to Vikram Sampath’s labour of love, our musical past will remain with us in future too.

(Music lovers can log on to www.archiveofindianmusic.org to listen to the recordings for free.)

The article has been updated to give the correct URL of Archive of Indian Music.

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