At All India Radio’s Chennai station, launched on June 16, 1938, B. Kolappan delves into the archives and discovers a treasure trove of dulcet memories

At first sight, it looked like Ali Baba’s cave. There may not have been gold and jewels, but there was a treasure just as precious.

When All India Radio (AIR), Chennai, opened the doors of its archives for me, I found priceless recordings on subjects ranging from musical and literary discourses to classical music, autobiographies of Sivaji Ganesan, M.S. Viswanathan and R. Venkataraman narrated in their own voices, to interviews and plays.

“You name a leader, writer, orator or musician and we have his recordings,” said director of the station K.P. Srinivasan, while placing before me a bundle of papers listing all the recordings available at the station, which was launched on June 16, 1938.

The late D.K. Pattammal and nadaswaram player Thiruvengadu Subramania Pillai performed on the day of the inauguration.

Today’s serious literary buffs would have read all the works of Manikodi writers including Pudhumaipaithan, B.S. Ramaiya and Ku. Alagirisamy. At AIR Chennai, they can listen to their favourite authors.

The studio has also preserved black and white photographs of all those who have visited and performed on its premises — an incredible collection, including those of many great actors such as Sivaji Ganesan, Nagesh, R.S. Manohar and Manorama who have staged plays here.

AIR Chennai is also probably the only institution that has a recoding of the chorus of late music director M.P. Srinivasan, who set to music many of Subramania Bharathi’s songs. Mr. Srinivasan, and programme executive director M. Selvakumar, led me to the library and I picked up a disc of yesteryears, stacks of which have been preserved for years together in wooden boxes. I blew on the disc gently to remove a film of dust that was coating it, and was thrilled to see the title: it was a concert by Bismillah Khan, recorded in 1953.

 “In those days, long before the arrival of magnetic spool tapes, recordings were made on these discs. It was called electrical recording. We have not yet fully indexed them and the collection could still up throw many surprises,” said Mr. Selvakumar.

The station has over 25,000 recordings running into 13,000 hours. So far though, it has digitised only 700 hours of them.

Some of the tracks at the library gathering dust are a series of 78 rpm recordings of western music — instrumental, film songs and classical concerts. While the 79 rpm recordings are now available in the form of CDs, the task before AIR Chennai is to digitise the rest of the thousands of hours of recordings — a mammoth task that officials admitted was not progressing well mostly because of a shortage of funds, manpower and technology.

The station, Mr. Srinivasan said, used to function from a building on Marshall Road in Egmore, before shifting its office to Marina Complex in 1954.

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