It’s no secret, within the community of Carnatic music enthusiasts, that the most enviable recordings are to be found not in record stores or iTunes, but in private collections—in boxes and boxes of mouldy cassettes or in portable hard drives, containing hundreds of live concerts recorded over the decades. Last year, one of the most formidable of such collections —owned by a gentleman named R.T. Chari, to whom we owe bushels of unfading gratitude—went public, entirely on his own coin and initiative.
The Tag Digital Listening Archives is located in a lovely, wood-panelled, slightly too ferociously air-conditioned room on the Madras Music Academy’s premises. The archive holds, at present, 3,000 hours of Chari’s music, newly digitized; I was told that, as soon as the academy’s own cassettes are converted into digital form, that database will swell to 15,000 hours. At an average of 3 hours per concert, that translates into 5,000 concerts; at an average of two concerts per day, that translates into seven years of listening. I think I’ve now discovered a new plan for my post-retirement life.
Golden oldies: The listening room at the Madras Music Academy. Courtesy: Tag Digital Listening Archives
Lining one wall of the archive is a row of 10 touch screens, with a pair of enormous headphones hanging off a hook next to each screen. For Rs 23, anybody can buy a day’s worth of listening in the archive; a monthly membership costs Rs 111, and an annual one Rs 552. The stark oddity of these prices, I was informed, had to do with the contours of sales taxes. Even more puzzling, though, is the fact that the archive receives perhaps three daily visitors during the week, and a peak of five on weekends. I saw no one else during the half-day I spent there. Given the riches of Chari’s collection and the comforts of the archive, I had really expected to wait in line even to pay my admission fee.
The touch controls of the software running these listening kiosks are a little sticky, but the software makes for easy browsing—by artiste, composer, song or raga. The archive’s truest worth lies in Chari’s vast, deep, extremely catholic tastes. Sitting right under a photo of D.K. Pattammal, I listened to one of her concerts from 1967. Then I dug around a little and came up with some truly offbeat gems: compositions of Rabindranath Tagore and Guru Nanak, sung as part of full-fledged Carnatic concerts, and an English hymn set to music by C. Rajagopalachari, sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi to the accompaniment of a piano. Then I found not one but two jugalbandis, fine blends of south and north Indian classical music, featuring the resonant, pliant voices of T.N. Seshagopalan and Ajoy Chakraborty.
I’ve grown so resigned to the thought that there are only half-a-dozen known concerts of my favourite singer, Balaji Shankar, floating around that I searched for his name only as I was leaving to keep an appointment. I found a mother lode: four absolutely unfamiliar concerts from the mid-1990s. So I sat on for another 2 hours, listening to a 1994 performance during which, among other pieces, Shankar sang a long, complex Bhairavi. He seemed to have a cold, but he still sounded magnificent. My appointment, predictably enough, remained thoroughly unkept.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org