Log into Vikram Sampath’s web portal to listen to vintage recordings.

There are endless apocryphal tales about famous musicians, which grow with every re-telling and propel them more into the realm of legends. But sources are few for those who might want to listen to a “legendary” musician who lived and died before the era of digital recording.

Bangalore-based writer Vikram Sampath has taken on an ambitious project that he hopes will make their music accessible to all. Archive of Indian Music (AIM), a first-of-its kind web portal of digitised 78-RPM shellacs put together by him, offers over 600 sound clips of 180 vintage recordings. The portal has Hindustani, Carnatic, folk, theatre and early cinema music, besides voices of national leaders. Vikram calls it a “work in progress” with more material expected to be gathered and uploaded. The material on the website (www.archiveofindianmusic.org) is available for free listening through streaming audio alone and is not for download. The website hosts many big names, ranging from Abdul Karim Khan to Piteelu Chowdaiah. But it also has many voices which are either little known (like a certain Kulikarai S. Pichiappa or Miss. A. Sundaram of Madura) or completely anonymous. “Sadly our musical history has not left behind records of many of these musicians. This is particularly true of women musicians, more so courtesans, who have been relegated to the bins of history,” says Vikram.

The idea of starting such a project came to Vikram while he was doing research for the biography of the pioneering woman singer, Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian to record commercially on the gramophone. In the course of research, he collected several of her original 78-RPM records from the flea markets in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. He later went to Berlin on a fellowship and stumbled upon a rich haul of recordings by Indian artistes at the sound archives in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London.

This wealth of recordings from the late 19 century is linked to the interest of colonial scholars in Indian arts and “native voices.” The gramophone Company founded in London in 1898 started sending its recording experts all over the world. “The Company sent their agent, German national Frederick William Gaisberg, to the then Indian capital of Calcutta to record artists,” says Vikram. Thus, Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta came to be the first artiste to be commercially recorded and hundreds of others soon followed, including South Indian artistes. This built a vast corpus of shellac recordings of Indian classical, theatre and film music.

Vikram collected a vast number of these — close to 10,000 now — which were all in the original analogue form of a 78-RPM or a Vinyl disc (EP or LP). “Some were donations and others purchased from the kabadiwalas!” says Vikram. His idea of digitising this and putting them out in public domain did not get anywhere for a long time, lost as it was in the files of departments and academies. It was at this point that T.V. Mohandas Pai, who was then with Infosys and now chairman of Manipal Global Education, stepped into help. He funded the not-for-profit trust floated by Vikram to get the project going.

The trust imported state-of-the-art equipment that meets international standards of fidelity in sound transfers. Manipal University came forward to host the Archive on their premises in Bangalore. A grant from the India Foundation for the Arts helped put together research material. Soon many important musicians, artistes and scholars also joined in to help. “The key was also in cleaning the digitised tracks with modern software. How much is enough is a very subjective call, as cleaning too much would make the sound very metallic and the originality of the vintage recording gets lost,” says Vikram.

After much research and work, a website was finally created with access to all. Though there are archives in India, accessibility has always been a huge issue, says Vikram. “There is such a lot of proprietary feeling about the recordings that it often becomes impossible for people to penetrate the high walls.” He wants the website to grow with time to be a repository of information about artistes and musical traditions with photographs, articles, scans of gramophone sleeves and so on. The trust is also planning an extensive dissemination programme with guided listening sessions, curating thematic exhibitions around the recordings and taking their collection to youngsters by hosting listening kiosks. “The archive welcomes people to donate records and partner with us,” says Vikram.

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