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Vikram Sampath likens the world of gramophone record collectors to a shady underworld. Or to detectives who rummage through scrap stores in a single-minded pursuit. "The most thrilling recent find was a record of a 9-year-old M S Subbulakshmi singing in a very unbroken, childish voice, from 1925. It was rotting in Moore Market (Chennai) somewhere. Another one was of the first recording of Jana gana mana, " says 32-year-old Sampath, who works at Hewlett Packard but is also a student of Carnatic vocal music and an author.
Sampath has collected over 10, 000 gramophone records over many years and is now building a large repository - an archive of Indian music that will be available online for anyone interested in browsing Indian music history from the early 20th century onwards.
The website (www. archiveofindianmusic. org), which went live this week (featuring about 180 artists and close to 600 clips), is looking at restoring close to 20, 000 records in the next three years. "It is a very optimistic goal. But we are losing these recordings fast. We have done about 2, 000 till now and we have opened the site with a thousand, " he says.
The website seeks to go beyond just being a music streaming and download site. It will be informative, interactive,with brief bios about the artistes, the photos on the gramophone sleeves, about where the recordings were made and anecdotes. The range of the recordings will include folk music, theatre and early cinema, from recordings of K L Sehgal to Devika Rani. "I was very lucky to get my hands on old speeches by Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, " says Sampath, who also wants to include speeches and dated Indian voices from foreign archives.
There is a background to Sampath's interest. He was a visiting fellowship in Berlin on a project to study old gramophone recordings in India which involved an intensive tour of sound archives across Europe. Most of them had sizeable holdings of Indian music. "Specialists there kept asking whether India has a national sound archive and that for me was disconcerting - there was none for old vintage music. But it wasn't just music I found. One archive also had voices of Indians from several years ago, " says Sampath, who found voices of Indian prisoners of war in Berlin from the World War I. "They were asked to talk in their language - in Pashto, Bengali, Tamil. And, of course, with German precision, there is documentation accompanying it. "
A few years back, Sampath did make a project proposal for such an archive for the Indian government. After the release of his book on Gauhar Jaan, the first woman in the subcontinent to record for a gramophone, he recalls getting a call from Sonia Gandhi. Unfortunately, the proposal got mired in red tape, bouncing from ministry to ministry. It was then that Mohandas Pai, former board member of Infosys Ltd and chief patron of the AIM Trust, agreed to grant the seed capital. The Trust has imported the equipment to digitise the recordings that meet global standards for fidelity for sound transfer.
For the archive, it is the sourcing of the records that is the hardest. The board of trustees is helping search old records and the sending them over to Sampath's office in Bangalore. He also works with various pockets of collectors who, like him, scope out kabaadi shops for discarded records. "These machines and needles are completely out of vogue, out of manufacture.
Most people don't know what to do with these. But there are also those who feel very proprietary about it - for instance, one gentleman in Chennai sits on a collection of 40, 000 records but doesn't even let a flea in to see it. It is a national treasure, " says Sampath. Mumbai-based Kushal Gopalka, one of the collectors who works with Sampath, had similar instincts initially. A bona fide collector, Gopalka says, "I don't see myself as a collector anymore. I consciously stopped buying records 10-15 years back because I felt I was getting the instincts of a hoarder. I was feeling greedy and selfish and constantly comparing myself with others and others' collections. " Sampath's tryst with records was serendipitous. Years ago, when he was researching on a book on Mysore, he accidentally came across Gauhar Jaan in the Mysore Palace archive in a box file of letters - the Gauhar Jaan Collection, the first gramophone superstar of India, from Calcutta. But thanks to that chance find, many more artistes will come out of the record-work. "The whole idea is to look at the Indian voice as an artifact. For us, museums mean visual objects but the voice is an artifact too, worthy of display. "
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