Imagine turning on your iPad and listening to Mahatma Gandhi’s first and only gramophone-recorded speech during his visit to England in 1931 or Bharatratna MS Subbulakshmi’s devotional songs that she sung during the last days of the freedom struggle.
Actually, don’t just imagine. Try it! If you are a music aficionado, we recommend you log on to archiveofindianmusic.org, (AIM) an online repository of vintage gramophone recordings dating back to 1902 from all over India. Apart from various genres of music such as bhajans, carnatic, devotional, film, folk, ghazal, Hindustani and qawwali, people can also listen to speeches by Gandhiji and Rabindranath Tagore in addition to various plays staged by theatre personalities from a 100 years ago.
The brainchild of engineer, musician and author Vikram Sampath, the site, which was launched this May, already has around 1,000 audio clips that are digitised versions of gramophone recordings. Sampath describes his site as a first-of-its-kind digital sound library that has been frequented by three lakh visitors till date. “It has democratic access wherein anyone can log on to the site, read an artiste’s short biography and listen to their audio clip. People who have gramaphone records dating back to anywhere between 1902 to 1952 can also donate them by contacting us,” he says.
The 33-year-old from Bangalore attributes the genesis of this idea to a book that he was writing on Gauhar Jaan -- the first Indian to record on a gramophone way back in 1902. “While researching for my book on Gauhar Jaan, I stumbled upon several gramophone shellacs (78 RPMs) and vinyl LPs (long playing records) at Kabaddi shops, Chor Bazaar and other local flea markets. Gradually my interest widened. Later I went to Berlin on a visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. I also visited Europe’s Sound Archives in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London where I came across some recordings by Indian artistes. The constant refrain everywhere was why India doesn’t have a national sound archive. It’s sad that abroad there are national archives to preserve vintage recordings while here in India, we allow our auditory treasures to rot. I strongly
felt the need to do something about it.”
After returning home, the BITS Pilani alumnus drafted an elaborate proposal and sent it to the government. But he failed to evict any response from them. Fortunately, around the same time, he met TV Mohandas Pai, then with Infosys, and now, chairman, Manipal Global Education who showed an interest and provided Sampath with a feed capital to import the necessary machinery to digitise the gramophone recordings. Sampath gradually started sourcing the records from flea markets and convinced collectors of old records to donate their stuff.
Explaining how the clean up process of the recordings work, he says, “We got around 10,000-12,000 records which were cleaned to remove all dust, played and then amplified from analogue to digitised format. My technician then catalogues them on the basis of year, raga, uploads them on the site along with biographical details of the artistes and their rare photographs.”
Sampath, who is also a trained Carnatic singer, elaborates that apart from archiving and preserving these records, disseminating information about them is also significant. Understandably, he organised an audio-visual exhibition in Bangalore when the site was launched two months ago. He now plans to take this exhibition to Kolkata in August and to New Delhi in October. “As visitors enter the exhibition, they will be given mobile phones with a pre-loaded android app with the artistes’ pictures and biography. Once they click on the photo and the bio, they can listen to the songs,” Sampath says.
The Bangalore resident, who is also an author, admits that setting up the online repository was replete with challenges. “When I conceived the idea at Berlin, it seemed like a mammoth task. I had no clue how to go about the project. As we didn’t have enough people on board, I had to make my parents as founder-trustees. Sourcing records was tough as I had to convince people that my idea was genuine and gradually earn their goodwill.”
Today, though Sampath is happy with the way the site has shaped up, he is not willing to rest on his laurels easy. “I want to set up listening kiosks at the Bangalore airport and metro rail. I’m keen to conduct lectures in schools and colleges. The whole idea is to bring these songs in the mainstream public domain.”
Though AIM is a private non-profit trust, Sampath admits that in the long run he would need the government’s support.
“Unfortunately in India we don’t take archiving seriously. I want to set up a centre in Bangalore that would be a space for musicians, performances and also provide a diploma in archiving to aspirants. The idea is to create a cadre of skilled archivists who will help us preserve our rich cultural heritage,” he concludes.