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Tiptoeing through All India Radio's sound archives

July 23, 1927 was a red-letter day for Indian radio, when the Indian Broadcasting Company was inaugurated at Mumbai’s Radio Club. 87 years later, the guide walks through All India Radio’s sound archives in Churchgate

Outside a nondescript government building flanking the Mantralaya, netas swagger in white suits, and spotless Ambassadors flash red beacons as they hurry in and out of the city’s bureaucratic complex. But a few floors away from this cacophony of state affairs lies a rich treasure trove that not many know of, and even fewer have access to. Here, the air is thick with echoes from the past.


Air stations sell studio recordings of many great Indian vocalists and instrumentalists, in CDs. Pics/Emmanual Karbhari

Guarded by tightly wound red tape, rich notes of melody flow within these walls, living on in vinyl, the spool tapes of yore, computer bytes and CDs. Regular lovers of music cannot access the All India Radio (AIR) sound archives, arguably the largest library of music recordings in the country. But Ujwala Srinivasan, programme executive for FM Rainbow in Mumbai, paints a vivid picture of this vast resource for us.

Treasure trove
“While AIR’s primary focus has always been on broadcasting, we realised some time ago, how valuable our archives were. So, since 2001, we have been digitising the archival recordings from the magnetic quarter inch spool tapes in which they were earlier stored. This has become an important aspect of our work here.”

Not many know that all AIR stations in the country sell rare recordings of luminaries who have graced the AIR studios, including greats like Bhimsen Joshi, MS Subbulakshmi, DV Paluskar and Begum Akhtar. Many of the CDs on sale contain performances that you’ll be hard-pressed to find in a music store.

While efforts have been made to market AIR’s music recordings in these CDs, the same has not been done for the spoken word, which constitutes an equally rare and invaluable section of their archives. The AIR archives boast of interviews with eminent personalities, ranging from Pearl S Buck to George Harrison. It is also home to recordings of rousing speeches made by freedom fighters like Subhash Chandra Bose, or public addresses delivered by stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr BR Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, etc. “In many ways, AIR has been a chronicler and preserver of Indian history,” Srinivasan points out.

AIR has a strict policy of auditioning and grading all its artists before signing them on, in different categories based on merit. “At a time when AIR was the only mass media channel, AIR gave a platform to musicians who later went on to make their mark internationally,” informs Srinivasan.

Did you know?
Legends like Pandit Jasraj (in pic), Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vilayat Khan, Ghulam Mustafa Khan and Amjad Ali Khan have graced AIR’s recording rosters, and many other noted contributors to Hindustani music made humble beginnings at the AIR offices and recording studios.

Pandit Jasraj

The late Pandit Ravi Shankar was chief producer for AIR in Delhi, early in his career. Other greats like Madan Mohan and Salil Chowdhury have been on the AIR payroll.
Information courtesy: Ujwala Srinivasan

From the history books

On July 23, 1927, the Indian Broadcasting Company was inaugurated at Radio House, Apollo Bunder and regular broadcasting commenced thereafter. This service was set up on an experimental basis in Bombay and Calcutta simultaneously, based on an agreement between the Government of India and a private company, called the Indian Broadcasting Company Ltd. A P&T line to a transmitter located at Worli connected its broadcasting studio. At that time, the acoustics of the studios, like hanging of coloured drapes, created a huge interest among the Indian press.

Spool tapes

Legends on tape
An interesting subsection of the AIR’s archive consists of three to four hour-long interviews of noted Indians from all walks of life. After being recorded, these lengthy interviews are put away for the interviewee’s lifetime, and only aired posthumously. “We have recordings with JRD Tata and naturalist Salim Ali, just to name a few,” adds Srinivasan.

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