On New Year’s Day, the Indian arm of WorldSpace Satellite Radio, having soldiered on bravely for several months after its American parent went bankrupt, finally ceased operations. Among my first sensations of 2010, therefore, was regret for the loss of Shruti and Gandharv, 24-hour Carnatic and Hindustani music channels of the sort that are unfortunately all too rare in our country. I was sorry that they went off air, and I was sorry that their hours of programming—music, of course, but also intelligent interviews of musicians—would now lie inert in archives. Then I was reminded of the one truly massive vault of recordings in India: 11,000 hours of music by one estimate and all free of copyright hassles, and yet mostly just as inert as WorldSpace is today.
For most of the 20th century, All India Radio (AIR) was, by virtue of its singularity, the primary stage for classical music. Musicians flocked to it for multiple reasons. For graded artists, it provided a source of steady income and employment. For young contenders, it was the best—and really the only—means of wider publicity. The musician Rama Varma once told me that without AIR, there would have been no way for a boy from a small town in Andhra Pradesh to become a stalwart of his age, the way his guru M. Balamuralikrishna did.
But for very long, AIR also often possessed the best-equipped recording studio in the city; when M.S. Subbulakshmi wanted urgently to record a song especially for Mahatma Gandhi, one story goes, she headed without hesitation to the AIR station in Chennai. In these studios, every single leading Carnatic musician of the past century, as well as a host of worthy but lesser-known ones, cut albums and tracks for broadcast. A small fraction of these have made it to CD releases and a smaller fraction still have been copied directly off the broadcast by enthusiastic listeners to be circulated as rather illicit cassettes and then MP3s. Their quality, just like the quality of AIR’s Carnatic broadcasts today, is remarkable: A measured, unfussy voice announces each track and the music plays with strong acoustic fidelity.
The guru: M. Balamuralikrishna. Hindustan Times
Which is why the stories bandied about in Carnatic music forums about those many kilometres of spool tape deteriorating or being overwritten are so distressing. Last year, an AIR spokesperson said that the Carnatic music archives were slowly being digitized and that 700 hours of music had already been converted. Which is good news, as far as it goes; but what happens after the digitization? AIR is notoriously slow to release its digitized music as CDs, ostensibly because tracking down the legal heirs of many performers—for permissions or royalties—proves a big challenge.
Surely, there must be some incentive for AIR to rescue its archives from both damage and dormancy. I can think of a paid Web streaming model or a pay-per-track download system, both of which can be simple and popular. With more ambition, AIR could even consider the satellite radio route itself, particularly now that WorldSpace’s demise has left a void. Best of all, as the BBC has done, AIR could become a prolific classical music label all by itself. It has the resources, it has the music and it has us listeners; if only it had the imagination.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org