In the 1960s and 70s, Bengali folk music was heard in Hindi films, composed by Sachin Dev and Rahul Dev Burman who used this traditional genre to capture the pathos of love and longing. Since a few years, Baul and Bathiyali singers have found their space in the musical mainstream, due to music festivals held across the country. But for aficionados, who want to hear this genre of music in its natural habitat, sung by local artistes, minus the new-age acoustics, there is good news.
The Travelling Archive, a brainchild of singer-writer Moushum Bhowmick and sound recordist Sukanta Mazumdar, is an online repository of Bengali folk music. Apart from songs that Bhowmik and Majumdar have recorded while travelling to various parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh at homes, boats and tea stalls, it features research material, essays written by historians and interviews with artistes.
Moushumi Bhowmick and Sukanta Mazumdar recording music during an immersion
The Travelling Archive also has a recording label by the same name that recently came out with its first album titled Field Recordings From Sylhet. It features two women artistes of Sylhet and covers a seven-year field recording time from 2006 to 2012.
The process began as a personal journey for Bhowmick, who started listening to these songs when she picked up cassettes randomly from shops in Dhaka in 1994. She kept playing them over and over again. Her urge to know more about these songs prompted her project proposal titled Love, Loneliness and Longing: Biraho in the folk repertoire of Bengal. The India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in Bangalore was considering this proposal for a research and documentation grant. From 2003, Bhowmick started documenting and recording these songs. In 2004, Mazumdar joined her. Over the years, the duo has got grants from the IFA, the British Library, the Charles Wallace India Trust, the Ford Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund for their cause. Bhowmick says, “The Travelling Archive is an experience of shared listening where you listen to the voices of others. We have been going to the same places over the years as we have built a relationship based on trust with the people. It is an inward journey for us as it gives us a chance to learn new things.”
The functional aspect
The collection of songs and conversation recorded from 2003 to 2014 is sorted on the website by the year of recording, with descriptions of the recording sessions, while the audience/viewer is shown a map of the region from where the music comes. Rather than the earlier two-three minute clips of songs, of late, full songs have been uploaded on the site.
Mazumdar says, “I just carry a stereo mike, a digital camera and a digital recorder so that people are not intimidated. In most cases, they are happy to sing for us.”
The duo now wants to explore the works of people who have done research on this form of music such as Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Bake. As Bhowmick concludes, “The attempt is to make The Travelling Archive a shared space for the singer and the listener.”