Most of us grow up thinking that Indian music is synonymous with Indian classical music, aka the bhajans, ragas or keerthanams your mom forced you to learn to impress elders.
Other times, the defender must contend with something as abstract as taste. Music must stand the test of popularity and so either win against or lose to market forces. Do kids these days care about the difference between a tappa and thumri? It’s true that we learn about our musical heritage all wrong. We’re not given any context about class, caste or history.
However, there are a few archives that are filling in the gaps, one recording at a time to reconnect us with our roots. But the adversary is inevitable like dust and decay, or the ignorance that comes with the omission and commission of history.
Here are five initiatives that are fighting the good fight, guiding us back to the treasure we have lost and reminding us of the many human lives spent in practice so that tradition could grow and survive.
The Archive of Indian Music
A significant barrier to listening to early Indian music, whether classical, folk or cinema music, was that you had to have the right instrument. While the gramophone is credited with bringing the songs of the zenanas and rich men’s soirees to the public, the ‘public’ was still a group with disposable income. Voices such as Agrewali Malka Jaan, court musician at the durbar of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and Palanikunjaram, fondly known as Coimbatore Thayi, were recorded on wax cylinders, gramophone shellacs (78 RPMs) and vinyl LPs. They were muffled by the rarity of access to the gramophone. The Archive of Indian Music has been dead set on fixing this grave error. A serious music aficionado, Vikram Sampath has managed to source around 10,000 gramophone records and has managed to digitise over a 1,000 of them that are free and easy to listen to. Now you can listen to Gauhar Jaan declare her name resolutely at the end of her 600 songs.
People’s Archive of Rural India: Grindmill songs
Along with bringing stories of deprivation and drought, the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), has also been spotlighting the culture of rural India. Their Grindmill Songs Project is the largest conservatory of folk songs in India with recordings of over 100,000 folk songs composed and sung by the women of Maharashtra over generations, while hard at work at the grindmill and at home. Their musical tradition was endangered when the hand-operated machines were motorised. The songs reveal insights about the social, political and domestic life of women as well as their intimate desires and expectations. Some 30,000 Marathi songs have been digitally recorded and 40,000 translated into English. Around 3,302 singers across more than 1,000 villages collaborated to sustain this poetic-musical legacy.
Digging in India Archives
India has been covering music long before there was YouTube. If you need to refresh your zany playlists, check out a Bengali cover of Boney M, or Nandu Bhende’s Marathi disco bops from Digging In India Archives, available on Instagram and YouTube. Music collector Nishant Mittal dips into the cracks and spills of the country’s various soundscapes and fishes out psychedelic, new age, ambient, funk and electronic tunes such as Rickshaw, a soft ballad from ‘60s band called Cavaliers and ‘My Body Has A Surging Fire’ by Sharon Prabhakar. His mixes will acquaint you with things you didn’t know you needed to know.
Jaipur Virasat Foundation
The Rajasthan Rural Arts Programme and Hub is Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s concerted effort to introduce the world to the folk music cultures of Rajasthan. Watch contemporary folk musicians playing festivals, expressing their identity and reshaping folk traditions or watch videos of older musicians. Listen to Bhanwari Devi enliven the Bhopa-Bhopi way, Jamuna Devi pluck at the Iktara or Sumitra Devi’s jagran songs. The RRAP series of the Future Sounds of Rajasthan sees folk music fusion with rock and electronic genre elements or even Peruvian melodies.
Established in 2005, by Sambhav Bohra, De Kulture preserves vanishing Indian indigenous musical forms through the commerce of lifestyle products. Encounter rare instruments such as the Santaar, Tandoora, Algoza, Bhapang, Jodia Pava, and more. Or check out unheard of genres such Terah Taali, Waai and Rasudo. The initiative also contributes to the study of the Folkloristics, Performance Studies and Ethnomusicology in addition to preserving valuable art forms. De Kulture is also a full-services booking agency for the artists they represent.