For a nation with the wealth of art forms and musical genres that India has, it has never shown too much concern for the preservation of its artistic heritage. Or for creating channels of dissemination for the traditional art and music that has survived against the greatest odds.
I apologize if my statement offends some, but this is not about individual efforts or the efforts of a handful of organizations that have struggled to preserve diverse forms of traditional music. It is about the general apathy with which we continue to let many musical forms and genres fade away while we often blithely blame paschimi sanskriti or Western culture for their disappearance.
Not for a moment am I considering joining hands with the brigades of buffoons and goons who—in the name of upholding Indian culture—bash people up in parks for holding hands or indulging in a bit of necking. I am merely suggesting that it might be a good idea to emulate paschimi sabhyata now and again, especially when it comes to the organized manner in which the West preserves musical and artistic heritage.
Take a look at this site set up by the Smithsonian, which is among the most prestigious museum complexes in the world: http://www.folkways.si.edu/ The record label Smithsonian Folkways Recordings was set up by the Smithsonian Institution in 1948 to preserve and document the world of sound in all its diversity. The label’s mission statement, as articulated on the website, says: “Through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials we seek to strengthen people’s engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others.” Are the goons listening, please?
When I searched for music from India on the Folkways site, my search results revealed collections and albums that ranged from Drumming Traditions of Kerala to Folk Music of Kashmir, released in 1962. Registered visitors to the site can buy tracks or full albums in three formats—cassette, CD or download. Other intriguing albums include Indian Love Rites: Durga Puja and Kali Puja in Calcutta and Dr B.R. Deodhar Presents the Ragas of India. Extensive liner notes accompany many of the albums and can also be downloaded as PDF files.
Saviour: The Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Robin Weiner/Smithsonian Institution/Bloomberg
I registered and bought a download of Marathi Songs from the Arnold Bake Collection sung by Madhumalati and Sneha Dhopeshwarkar, released in 1938! Bake was a Dutch scholar who spent several years studying and documenting music in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He was also appointed lecturer in Indian music at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Among his students was Nazir Jairazbhoy, an authority on the folk and classical music of South Asia.
The Marathi song album from Bake’s collection contains three tracks: a Palna, Mangalagaur Arati and Hadga. There aren’t any accompanying detailed notes, and yet there is enough information to give an idea of the content of the tracks as well as the recording techniques used. None of the tracks would make it to the charts today. Far from it, no record company in the country today would agree to release such content in its unpretentious, simple, documentary form. Thank heavens, therefore, that someone from the much-maligned paschimi sabhyata thought fit to travel the seven seas to record this material and deposit it in the archives for posterity. Incidentally, the album found its way to the Folkways catalogue through the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (Arce), of the American Institute of Indian Studies. Next time we go paschim bashing, we may want to pause and think a bit.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org