The archive of separation

Sound and silence: Recording Habib in Faridpur, Bangladesh, earlier this year.  

For a production of his minimalist play Krapp’s Last Tape, featuring a 69-year-old man listening to a recording he made on his birthday 30 years ago, Samuel Beckett instructed his actor to “become as much as possible one body with the machine…The spool is his whole life”.

It is Krapp I think of while speaking to Moushumi Bhowmik, a singer-songwriter, and Sukanta Majumdar, an audiographer. The last ten years of their life have unspooled as a journey through Bengal, recording its “rich and varied” folk music, and disseminating it through The Travelling Archive (

“In the beginning it was just a personal journey, a random collection of songs from the road, with no particular purpose or method in mind. I was picking up music with which I could instinctively connect, as a musician... Cassettes began to pile up on shelves at home in Kolkata, many of which remained wrapped in cellophane, gathering dust. But some I played over and over till their songs started to become part of my own repertoire. Then I wanted to know more than just the song,” Moushumi writes on the website.

The project started with a research and documentation grant from the India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore in 2004. Moushumi was joined by Sukanta soon after, as a resource person initially and a co-researcher and traveller subsequently.

Over the years, the project has taken several turns. What started off as an interest in the form of song known as bichchhed gaan — songs traditionally about the separation of lovers, or metaphysical separation of the human from the divine — has grown into a search for songs with a more physical expression — as separation from home.

They have also evolved in the process. For instance, having studied in a film institute, Sukanta was trained to believe that the recorded sound should be “as clean as possible”. But recording on the field meant undoing some of this training and incorporating the ambience and atmosphere into the sound.

Their journey has also taken them beyond the marked boundaries of Bengal, from remote villages in Sylhet, Bangladesh, to London for a sub-project exploring the linkages between music, memory and migration. Recently, they visited Delhi to conduct a workshop at the UnBox festival.

They decided to conduct the workshop with three participants as a field recording with Prabhangshu, a Bengali migrant labourer from the Sunderbans, at his home in Gurgaon. Moushumi had known him from previous visits to the city, and he pulled out all stops to welcome them.

But is the reception everywhere equally warm? Doesn’t the sight of unknown travellers with sophisticated equipment ever inspire wariness or suspicion in the villages they travel to?

“It has never happened with us. As a methodology one thing we try to follow is not going into the unfamiliar. I have always worked in areas that are familiar, or somewhat familiar, and then the familiarity grows. We keep going back to the same places. There are some places we go every year to the same people and record the same songs,” Moushumi says.

Explaining their approach to the recordings, they say, “We don’t barge into someone’s house and start asking questions. We try to approach the field with a lot of humility. And slowly the conversations evolve. Slowly the song comes. Or not. We try to keep our presence as minimal as possible. The silence is as important as the song.”

It proves quite difficult to get an answer from them about their favourite recordings, but the announcement that they’ll be releasing an album of a recording done in Sylhet fills me with a gentle excitement. The album will be accompanied by the release of a bilingual book, comprising details about the artistes and field notes.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 9:11:44 AM |

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