For the last few years, the truest friend of the avid Carnatic music listener has been Shruti, the 24-hour WorldSpace satellite radio channel devoted exclusively to the genre. For the price of an inexpensive, dinky little receiver and a surprisingly low annual subscription, Shruti offers Carnatic music on tap. The recordings are of sparkling quality, there are no advertisements, and while the radio jockeys display roughly as much animation as they would if afflicted with sleeping sickness, they are nonetheless knowledgeable. Shruti has thus earned itself some loyal fans. I know of families, such as my own, which have subscribed to WorldSpace for years and have not once turned the dial past Shruti to any of its 30-odd other channels. I know also one friend who keeps his set on 24 hours a day; when asked about this, he said: “Oh, if I happen to get up for a few minutes at night, for a glass of water or a trip to the bathroom, I like to listen to Shruti as I do that. There might be a good piece on.”
Shruti’s wisest move has been to invest in its music—to gather, like a giddy harvester, as vast a swathe of recordings as possible (but it hasn’t been indiscriminate in this process. There are musicians on Shruti who will appeal to some tastes and not to others, but largely, the calibre of performers is consistently good). It was on Shruti, for instance, that I first heard the early 20th century singer Tiger Varadachariar, in a recording that crackled and popped like corn but was otherwise marvellously intact. It isn’t easy to find a Tiger recording, and that is essentially the key to Shruti’s success. However large your collection of Carnatic CDs and mp3s, there is still a further ocean of music out there to listen to, and Shruti keeps a window open 24/7 on much of that.
In this role as access provider, though, Shruti has merely modelled itself after the original king of Carnatic content: All India Radio (AIR). Forty years ago, the number of high-quality recordings in circulation could not have been even a twentieth of what we have today, so listeners depended even more on AIR than we do on Shruti. Aspiring musicians looked to AIR for professional succour: They learnt songs and ragas off the broadcasts, and later, they vied to become graded artists, assured not only of a certain number of recorded programmes per year, but also of the prestige associated with the grade. For its part, AIR’s music library grew year after year by accretion, as generations of musicians passed through its studios; aficionados sometimes discuss the rumoured size of the AIR Carnatic collection with envy and lust, the way bibliophiles must talk of Umberto Eco’s personal library or oil barons of Saudi Arabia.
Timeless: Radio still matters in music.
In 2007, AIR launched Ragam, a dedicated Carnatic channel on its direct-to-home platform. I haven’t heard Ragam yet, but if AIR is using its archives intelligently, it must be terrific. I wish, however, that the government would hurry up and clear WorldSpace’s plans to stream its content on its website. It is clearly the next logical step, and if AIR were to do something similar, we listeners would be far, far better off for it.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org