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Archiving the sound of music

  • The Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology has been preserving rare collections of Indian music for 30 years
  • The Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology has been preserving rare collections of Indian music and oral traditions for more than 30 years

An archivist at the Ethnomusicology in Gurugram. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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The noise of NH48 gets left behind as soon as you enter the institutional area in Sector 32, Gurugram. On either side of leafy avenues are tall glass-panelled towers. Amidst these high-rise buildings a compact, pristine structure stands out—exposed bricks, green domes and terracotta sculptures scattered on the front lawn. This structure is home to the American Institute of Indian Studies, which has two centres -- the Centre for Art and Archeology, and the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (Arce). I am here to visit the latter.

As you enter, it’s so quiet that you can literally hear a pin drop. It’s a bit unsettling initially, but the hush makes for an ideal environment for deep listening at the archive, which houses over 226 collections of Indian music and oral traditions—ranging from work songs, diaspora music from Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius and Fiji, to rare musical traditions from Rajasthan and a comprehensive audiovisual journey of the Jazz Yatra, a week-long jazz music fest held in Mumbai annually between 1978 and 2003.

The Center is part of the American Institute of Indian Studies. The permanent staff includes a director, one technician and an archivist, with a state-of-the-art storage vault and preservation facility that is well-equipped to handle the collections. They hire technicians for specific projects, if they need to.

On this summer afternoon, a project staff of four is hard at work—creating audio logs and filing away notes and journals. This task is part of the recent Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) of the British Library to work on the archive belonging to the late Komal Kothari, who was known for his immense knowledge of the oral traditions, folklore and ethnomusicology of Rajasthan. There are over 500 tapes to digitize and restore, besides numerous boxes of documents, which need to be documented and digitized.

It is such work that the archive has been doing quietly for over three decades. Arce came into being in 1982 as part of the American Institute of Indian Studies, after a group of ethnomusicologists from the US realized the need for an ethnomusicology archive in India. “This group was headed by Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who was of Indian origin, and a student of the famous Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake,” says Shubha Chaudhuri, director of the archive.

Jairazbhoy realized that valuable recordings of Indian music, made largely by foreigners in the pre-independence era, could be found in archives across the globe, and there was a need for them to be available in India. The first collections to make their way to Arce belonged to his teacher, Bake, and him.

The American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurugram, which has two centres -- the Centre for Art and Archeology, and the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (Arce). Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurugram, which has two centres -- the Centre for Art and Archeology, and the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (Arce). Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Soon, the team began to work with scholars, researchers and institutions from India and abroad for the repatriation and preservation of such recordings. Today, one can find a varied collections belonging to Helen Myers, Susan S. Wadley, Regula Qureshi, Roderic Knight and Frits Staal. There was a major effort in the earlier years to contact foreign scholars before they left India to deposit their collections with Arce. This continues even today.

Repatriating collections remains a goal. In March 2018, the archive embarked on another collaborative project—again with the British Library—titled “International Research Collaboration On South Asian Audiovisual Heritage”. As part of this knowledge-exchange programme, Arce received digital copies of valuable wax cylinder recordings from the early 20th century. These belonged to the Linguistic Survey of India, made by the linguist George Grierson between 1913-29, and to the Madras Museum Cylinder collection, put together by ethnologist K. Rangachari and Edgar Thurston (1905-10). Then there were the Baluchi cylinder recordings, made in 1911.

Depositors can choose the degree of access they want to allow to their collections, ranging from zero access for up to five years, listening or viewing only at Arce, or making copies available for research or educational purposes.

As one walks through the premises, from the vault containing precious archival material to the listening room, a poster from the iconic Jazz Yatra comes into sight. In 2014, Arce veered from its normal scope of work and did an exhibition on jazz in India at the India International Centre in Delhi. The trigger was the arrival of two collections—one from journalist-author Naresh Fernandes, who was writing the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot at the time, and the other from the estate of Jhaveri, who ran the Jazz Yatra in Mumbai. “He was also an avid collector of jazz music and memorabilia. Unfortunately, a lot of it was locked in a leaky loft. His son was thinking of sending the collection to an archive abroad. That’s when I stuck my paw in,” smiles Chaudhuri.

Shail Jhaveri flew in from Mumbai to check out the facility and assure himself that the collection wouldn’t be locked away in a cupboard. “Then, one day, someone called me saying that a courier parcel has come for you. When I walked out, I saw this huge truck backing into our gate. Fifty-one crates of material were left into the driveway,” says Chaudhuri. Opening every crate was like unpacking a Christmas gift—CDs, reels, cassettes, books, posters, journals tumbled out, waiting to be dusted, cleaned and listed. The collection came with all sorts of “archival dangers” as well, with the staff falling ill due to the noxious fumes and dust emerging from the reels and fungus-laden papers.

Meanwhile, Fernandes informed Chaudhuri about the sketches made by Mario Miranda during one year of the Jazz Yatra. It took some time, but Arce managed to acquire coloured copies of these works, thanks to a gift from Jhaveri. “We have a video of a performance and corresponding sketch by Miranda. It’s amazing,” she says.

The jazz collection, particularly the Taj Mahal Foxtrot one, has been referred to by scholars over the years. In some ways, Arce forms a conduit between collectors, scholars and artists. For instance, Priya Sen, a Delhi-based film-maker who has worked on various aspects of displacement, wanted to engage with the music of the indentured population from east India and Uttar Pradesh and its migration to Mauritius and Trinidad.

“I had been going to the archive since 2003 while making a film on the young qawwals of Nizamuddin, and the archivist there, Umashankar Mantravadi, had become my sound mentor. So, when I got a fellowship from the Indian Foundation of the Arts, I chose to work with the ‘diaspora collection’ to figure out ways of creative engagement with an archive meant mainly for preservation and scholarship,” she says.

Sen decided to work with three collections, including one by Myers, who has worked a lot with the Indian diaspora in Trinidad earlier. Her collection included a lot of congregational music such as jagrans and prayers. The second one was by Laxmi Ganesh Tewari, an anthropologist and a scholar who had done recordings with older people on how they reached Trinidad, and whether they remembered old songs from back home. After a year of deep listening, she came up with two projects—one was a listening session at Khoj, a space in Delhi for artists run by artists, for which the material travelled from the archive on kiosks.

“The other one was an exhibition of sound, video and projections at the archive itself, which I called Seevbalak’s Echo Chamber. I had come across this 1977 recording of 94-year-old Seevbalak, whose parents had come to Trinidad from Kashi. He spoke and sang in a mix of languages, and kept interrupting himself and saying that he was forgetting everything,” says Sen, who continues to listen across collections at Arce to find newer ways of engaging with these recordings.

Besides facilitating such creative interventions, the archive does its own fieldwork, which enables it to have a direct relationship with artist communities. One example is the Archives and Community Partnership project funded by the Ford Foundation, which saw the team explore the pluralistic traditions of the Manganiars, Sarangiya Langas and Surnaiya Langas. Then, there was research into the music of the Gavda community and the Mando in Goa. Arce also began contributing recordings to the Global Sound project by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a digital archive project of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, launched in 2005

Archival work on the Komal Kothari collection in progress. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Archival work on the Komal Kothari collection in progress. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“During our fieldwork, we realized what the artist community was seeking from the archive. For instance, for the Global Sound project, we asked Karim Khan Langa, a very fine wind instrument player, to identify a couple of his recordings. He said his fingers had become stiff and these recordings would help in teaching his son,” says Chaudhuri. These instances give impetus to the Archives and Community Partnership to record the core repertoire and share it with the communities in question.

Even with such projects in place, the archive continues to struggle for funding. “We were lucky that the Ford Foundation supported our work for many years. But that has stopped now. Thankfully, due to the EAP grant for the Komal Kothari collection, we have money for a year to do the audio digitization,” says Chaudhuri.

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