The history of sound recording in India goes back more than a hundred years. Knowledge about the vast body of recorded music that has accumulated over the decades is still patchy and incomplete: for example, there is no single available list of gramophone records made in India. There is also no public archive of any note anywhere in India where sound recordings are stored and are made available to researchers into music, musicology and cultural history.
Kolkata has traditionally been one of the main centres of musical performance, patronage, commercial recording, and music collection. A major incentive to the circulation of classical music in Bengal was the arrival of the exiled Nawab of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah, in Kolkata in the mid nineteenth century. This supplemented existing practices of music patronage among aristocratic families of the region. Commercial recording began in Kolkata and the city continued to be the hub of activity for the Gramophone Company until the 1960s. In the mid 20 th century, the majority of the most important public concerts (music festivals) were regularly held in Kolkata and nearby towns (like Serampore, Uttarpara, Howrah, Vishnupur, Agarpara and so on) at which all the greatest artists of the country regularly performed. We also know that an affluent mercantile class in Kolkata patronized classical music and were instrumental in creating new patterns of patronage for music. Consequently the region is rich in terms of private collections, both of commercial recordings (from 1902) and concerts and private recitals (from the 1940s).
These collections strongly reflect personal tastes (some collectors spent their lives collecting the work of individual artists, or particular styles of music). The circulation of recordings also has a strong local character, showing the popularity of artists in specific geographical regions.
Many collectors built up large personal collections battling against the difficulties of locating, acquiring, documenting and preserving records and recordings: working entirely out of a commitment to the preservation of music, and with no external means of support, they have often made these recordings available to serious listeners. Collectors are however now finding these collections difficult to maintain, and have welcomed the possibility of digitisation. A full set of digital copies would be given to the owners of the collections so that they are able to listen to the music without further compromising the original material. This may also be the last chance to access the work of a whole range of artists: some were never recorded commercially in their lifetimes (in some cases posthumous recordings were commercially released from private recordings). In fact a very large body of music exists entirely in private collections, and whatever knowledge about them exists is on the basis of the limited circulation of these private recordings.
It will be possible ultimately thus to create an archive that contains illustrative examples of most if not all the major recorded artistes in the last 100 years or so. This is particularly necessary with regard to music recorded in the 78 rpm phase, the great bulk of which was never transferred to any other kind of recording medium. Large collections which are known to have existed even a few decades ago have simply vanished: records have been sold off as junk, or even melted down for their raw material. It needs to be stressed that a large proportion of musical recordings have been destroyed through neglect and want of care. This includes some of the most brilliant and valuable musical pieces and performances ever made. If an effort is not made at this point of time to preserve records of the past, there will be even greater loss, and invaluable records of our cultural history will disappear.
The estimated size of the digitised collection at the end of the proposed two year project will be a minimum of 1,500 listening hours, preserved in CD format as well as on hard disc, and these new recordings will join the collection already held by the Archive of Sound Recordings in the School of Cultural Texts and Records. Additionally it will be necessary to solicit the help of musicians and musicologists with technical questions of artist attributions, song-texts, styles and genres and dates and locations of landmark recordings. Other technical information, such as recording pitch will need to be verified.
It is to be stressed that the recordings will be made available to listeners under the normal conditions of a public reading library: that is to say, for consultation and study within the archive itself. No copying or public use of the recordings housed in the Archive will be permitted.
Approximately 2780 tracks were digitised, amounting to about 1.1 terabytes. Work was done on a number of major collections, notably those in the possession of Anindya Banerjee, Ashis Bhadra and Sarbari Ray Chaudhuri. Material was also received from the Estate of the late K P Mukherjee; the family of the late Pulin Pal, Steve Lansberg; the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, as well as from a number of smaller, but very valuable, collections in the possession of other collectors. Though most of the material was located in West Bengal, which was the target area of the present project, the project was deeply indebted to collectors who, on their own expense, brought recordings to the Archive from other parts of the country - and indeed the world. To name just one, Mr Steve Lansberg brought his entire collection of recordings of the late Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan from Venezuela while on a trip to India and Nepal. This material has been painstakingly collected by them over decades, but they have been most generous in sharing them with the Archive. All of them approved of the idea behind the Archive: to preserve and make available for research and study recordings of the greatest exponents of North Indian Classical Music in the last 100 years.
Much of the material, understandably, was already in an imperilled state. However, surprisingly, on the whole, the material in early gramophone discs (78 rpm shellac discs) proved in a better state of reproducibility than either reel tape and cassette tape. The damp climate of the country causes magnetic tape to acquire fungal deposits as well as undergoing iron oxide loss and warping. The first task was therefore to clean and dry the material before recording it digitally and in most cases was able to produce a recording of acceptable sound quality. The original quality of the recordings is inevitably varied, ranging from very high quality takes on professional equipment to recordings made by collectors with amateur equipment at concerts. In all cases, it is the intrinsic value of the recordings that has been the guiding principle in acquiring recordings. Much of the material included is unique, known to exist in only one copy.
A full set of digital recordings (with back-ups) is with the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University and another has been deposited with the British Library. Each collector has been given a set (or more than one set) of digital copies of the music contributed in the format preferred (audio CD, wave file, etc).
The original material has mostly been returned, along with digital copies, to the contributing collectors. In certain cases, where this was not possible, they have been housed safely in the School of Cultural Texts and Records.
All the material, including metadata, is available for on-site consultation. No conditions on listening have been imposed by the participating collectors, and the Archive, being part of a public institution, has no restrictions of its own.
The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:
The catalogue is available here.