A void in the airwaves

A void in the airwaves

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.

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 raagtime@livemint.com