When he began to research a book on India's first recording artist, Vikram Sampath never dreamed it would lead to an even greater project – to preserve the country's rich musical heritage. Samanth Subramanian reports
Vikram saves the sound of old India
NEW DELHI // When the writer Vikram Sampath was researching a book on the life of Gauhar Jaan, India's first-ever recording artist, he ran into a particularly unexpected obstacle.
Between 1902 and 1920, the subject of his biography had recorded more than 600 performances on discs of shellac, yet none of the recordings were readily available.
In the process of tracking down some of Jaan's records, Mr Sampath found many other woefully ignored albums from the early 20th century rotting in antique shops or badly-maintained private collections.
"A little while later, I went to Berlin to study old gramophone recordings from India, and I would see these beautiful archives of music in other European cities," he said. "So I'd wonder: Why doesn't India have a national sound archive?"
That epiphany led to Mr Sampath's creation of the Archive of Indian Music (AIM) in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.
With equipment imported from the United States, Denmark and the United Kingdom, more than 600 shellac and vinyl records have been digitised since December, when the archive went online at ArchiveOfIndianMusic.org.
Online access is vital "because dissemination is just as important as storage", said Mr Sampath. "In every other archive, you have to go to some physical space and sit there to listen to the records. Here, it's accessible right on your computer."
For researchers of Indian music, this is a monumental breakthrough. Digitised collections are almost unheard of. India's national broadcaster, All India Radio, has an extensive archive of old music, but it is only now becoming widely available.
V Sriram, a Chennai-based writer on the history of south Indian classical music, recalled that until a couple of years ago, his research consisted of treks to the few institutions or private archives that would allow him to listen to recordings.
"Usually, those who have collections of these records rarely put them out there for public access," he said. This meant that when he was writing his book on Bangalore Nagarathnamma, an early 20th century classical singer, Mr Sriram could listen only to three or four of her recordings.
Sounak Chattopadhyay, a classical singer, remembers that Mr Sampath, his friend, had difficulty locating old recordings of Gauhar Jaan in Kolkata, where he is based.
"To be totally honest, if I were in his place, I wouldn't have done it," said Mr Chattopadhyay. "It was far too difficult. I don't know where he found the energy."
Mr Chattopadhyay, along with the eight other members of AIM's board of trustees, helps to find record collections that can be transported to Bangalore for digitising.
The archive did not come about easily. At first, Mr Sampath mentioned his idea to Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party. He thought that her enthusiastic response would help to open doors in India's culture ministry.
"But in typical government fashion, the proposal went around the various departments for two years," he said, "and nothing really moved."
Then, in early 2011, Mr Sampath mentioned his idea to TV Mohandas Pai, a former director of the software company Infosys and now the chairman of Manipal Global Education.
Mr Pai suggested that the archive, a not-for-profit trust, should rely on private donations. He backed up his recommendation with 2.5 million rupees (Dh169,000) as seed capital.
The archive's office in Bangalore is staffed by a technician who patiently digitises the old records. It takes two hours to create an audio file from one double-sided record, and about 20 are digitised each day.
"But considering that my own collection stands at around 10,000 or 12,000 records, he'll be busy for a long time," Mr Sampath said with a laugh.
The archive features not only classical music from south and north India, but also folk and theatre music, early cinema soundtracks and the speeches of great Indian leaders.
Mr Sampath points to two recordings that he considers particular gems.
The first is an interview with Mahatma Gandhi, recorded in 1931, when he travelled to London for the Round Table Conference.
"It's probably the only time Gandhi was ever recorded on a gramophone disc," said Mr Sampath.
The second is a 100-year-old recording of a choir singing Jana Gana Mana, the Rabindranath Tagore poem that went on to become the Indian national anthem.
To avoid copyright issues, the archive is concentrating on recordings produced before the 1950s, Mr Sampath said.
According to Indian law, a recording loses copyright protection 60 years after it is made.
The mission of compiling and cataloguing India's musical legacy is crucial to students, as well as performers of music, Mr Chattopadhyay noted.
"Much of the so-called golden age of Indian music, we've only heard about it or read about it," he said. "I'd always be told by my guru to listen to the old masters. And now we can do just that."