Anubrata Dutta is in her fifties, holds a master’s degree in library science (a fact she is careful to point out), knows little about jazz, Blues or Carnatic, and is a fastidious librarian. She presides over a team of two workers at the music library of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), a place she has managed for the past eight years.
In sync: A visitor tunes into a listening console at the library. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The day we meet, Dutta is seated in a large wooden chair, and hunched over a newspaper on an equally large wooden table. This is where she always sits and guides visitors to this 500 sq. ft library: how to open the doors of the glass cabinets where vintage LPs are preserved, how to operate the LP players fitted on wooden tables (“the mini listening consoles”) next to the library’s windows, and what kind of music is stacked where.
Everything about NCPA’s music library is charming and antiquarian, even its librarian. The furniture bears the stamp of passing time — the edges of the tables have rounded with age, their dark brown polish has faded to shades of ochre. Dutta speaks in a hushed, halting voice and keeps a handwritten list of more than 5,000 LPs preserved in this library, some dating back to the 1920s. All of them, sitting snugly in overcrowded glass cabinets, have been donated by families, music connoisseurs and individuals, mostly from Mumbai.
JRD Tata’s collection, donated by the Tata family soon after the library opened in 1972, takes up one cabinet and is listed under the “restricted access” category. JRD mostly listened to Western classical music, but he did, perhaps, develop a taste for pop later on: There are a few Barbra Streisand records, including My Name is Barbra, which, Dutta tells me, was “a very popular one at that time”.
Then, there’s an LP collection that belonged to yesteryear’s actor Nadira “Hunterwali”, stacked alongside the jazz and Blues records, away from the “restricted access” section.
Some names that immediately jumped out at me: Richard Wetz (1875-1935); The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution by Seth McCoy, Sherill Milness, James Richman and Jon Spong; Come Josephine in my Flying Machine—Inventions and topics in Popular Song (1910-1929); Wallace Stevens’ poems (his own readings); Radio Canada International Travelogues; Blues Story: Ray Charles, Freddie King, Joe Turner and Josh White; Genesis: Memphis to Chicago, the Beginnings of Rock; Troilus and Cressida by Janet Baker and Richard Cassidy, recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Muddy Waters; Bukka Whilte; Big Bill Broonzy.
Most of these riches are alien to the lady who meticulously preserves and protects them. “There is so much here for different musical tastes and generations. People are still donating LPs to us, and we have run out of space. We’ve had to stack up about 600 records in a garage,” she tells me.
The lack of space is obvious as I pick my way from one cabinet to another past tables, listening consoles and two other visitors, also busy rummaging the racks on that rainy afternoon.
I first pull out a special edition, two-LP set of Satyagraha, an opera that ran in New York’s Metropolitan Museum early this year, composed by Philip Glass, America’s most famous living composer of classical music. Dutta doesn’t know who donated it to the library this year — “You can’t keep track of everyone who comes.” (Dear anonymous collector, if you’re reading this, could I have a peek into your collection?).
So, with Glass clutched in my hand, I head to the console next to the largest window. Outside the two drawers of the polished, reddish brown wooden table are the volume control keys. The LP player is placed on the table, and I put on the big headphones. The whir of the ceiling fan, the sneezing of the man sitting at the console next to mine and the librarian’s admonishing voice fade out, and the haunting minor-key progressions of Glass’ music stream in. Rain patters on the window pane in front of my eyes. My day at this invaluable little library has just begun.
The music library, part of a larger performing arts library situated on the same floor, is obviously not on the priority list of the managing trust that runs it. K.N. Suntook, vice-chairman of NCPA, says, “We are planning a revamp of the library, and will allocate more space to it.”
Much of Suntook’s attention is now turned towards the other great music preservatory at the NCPA — its music archival, a recording studio-cum-archive. Since the early 1970s, NCPA has recorded thousands of Indian artistes, mostly classical musicians, either specially invited to this studio or recorded while performing at the centre. Recently, the management decided to tie up with UK-based arts consultancy firm C-Sharp to market its recordings (currently, visitors can neither buy nor borrow LPs and CDs from the archival or the library).
Flashback: Some of the Western classical LPs date back to the 1920s. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Quite rightly, it invited ire from the music community. Musician Aneesh Pradhan, who is protesting the move, says, “Using these archives for commercial purposes will amount to huge copyright violations of the artistes. Most of the artistes are not even aware that this is happening.”
I visited the archival a few days after the visit to the library under Dutta’s surveillance. It was largely uneventful, except that I realized it was a feat in archiving and preservation. Access to the music here is slightly more difficult and requires an advance request.
Back at the library that day, I switched to Big Bill Broonzy after Philip Glass. The raspy voice of the 1920s Blues singer from Mississippi boomed into the headphone: “Now look here blues, I wanna talk to you/You been makin’ me drinkin’, gamblin’, and stay out all night too/Now you got me to the place, I don’t care what I do/Now blues, I wanna have a little talk with you”. Priceless.
That day, I also became a member of the library for a year by paying Rs100. So, here’s my chance to educate my ears in Indian classical music. The library has rare LPs produced by the Gramaphone Co. of India and recordings of artistes such as G. Balasubramaniam, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi, among many others.
The cover of a Kumar Gandharva LP from 1960 was particularly striking: It says, “Kumar Gandharva sings Dhun-Ugama”, and has a photograph of the young, dapper Gandharva clad in a blue shirt, posing with a Pomeranian.