I’m an optimist—one of those people who just walk into a music store looking for new releases of classical Indian music even though their numbers have continued to dwindle at an alarming rate over the last few years. All you can ever get these days—if you’re lucky—is compilations, re-compilations and, of course, re-re-re compilations with newer, shinier album covers. But since optimism does not always go unrewarded, guess what I found recently? Not one, not two, but six new releases of classical music! All of them feature old music, namely, recordings sourced from the archives of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the country’s premier organization for the arts that houses a large archive of music and photographs related to Indian music and theatre.
All six albums have been published in collaboration with Sa Re Ga Ma, India’s biggest record label, with possibly the single largest collection of recorded music. Among these musical treasures are the Akademi’s archival recordings of master musicians such as tabla legend Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, path-breaking Hindustani vocalist Ustad Amir Khan and shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. Thematic compilations of recordings of wind and string instruments also form a part of this lot.
The album covers not only look shiny and new, but are also at least twice as large as any I have seen before. And what does that do to your optimism? It just makes you feel that along with some vintage music, you are getting a bonus of rare photographs with some great liner notes. But that’s where the optimism ends and reality takes over. Open the album featuring Thirakwa Khan sahib, and all you get for liner notes is a paragraph eulogizing the Sangeet Natak Akademi, another paragraph in praise of Sa Re Ga Ma and a much smaller paragraph giving you some anaemic information about the legendary tabla maestro. Oh well, you can’t have everything, can you? So, slide the CD into your player and wait eagerly. You hear the beginning of an interview with the Ustad. Wow! So you ask yourself who it is that’s interviewing him. It’s a lady, for sure, but there isn’t any information identifying her.
But I knew that voice so well that I didn’t really need album notes to tell me who she was. The lady interviewing Thirakwa Khan sahib was none other than the late thumri diva Naina Devi, who taught me for several years and, therefore, there could be no mistaking that voice. Why did both Sa Re Ga Ma and the Sangeet Natak Akademi do such a shoddy, dodgy job of publishing archival music? However, I would still like to thank the Akademi for finally starting this process of dissemination. And I would also like to thank Sa Re Ga Ma for bringing us these treasures of Indian music in collaboration with the Akademi. But how about answers to some of these questions?
Why is there no mention of the year/years in which the recordings were made? Surely, the Akademi has this information in its records, so why are we deprived of it? Could this lapse have something to do with the prickly issue of copyright and the term in which archival material can legally be declared as being in the public domain?
Were the artistes told when they were recorded by the Akademi that the recordings would some day be available for sale?
If, indeed, the Akademi wishes to make its archives accessible to the public, why is it not making its contents available in an open archive on the Net? Why has it opted for an “exclusive” licence with one single record label and on what terms and conditions has this licence been granted?
We’re waiting—for the music and the answers.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org