If it weren’t for someone hiding under a stage or bribing the sound technician to secretly record Kesarbai’s voice or Annapurna Devi’s Surbahaar, these formidable musicians would have faded out like Polaroid pictures. All we’d have is some elderly patron’s nostalgic meanderings or a hagiographic biography. If we can listen to the music of many veteran wizards today, it’s because of underground music collectors.
They are a small group of obsessive music lovers. And, they have in their custody what collector Rohit Desai describes as “a slice of national heritage”. Some of them have behaved like audacious burglars – but even those whom they robbed have sometimes been grateful for their misdemeanours.
Shobha Deepak Singh, who runs the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi and describes herself as “the biggest chor of music”, recalls how Ravi Shankar once called her in the middle of the night and asked her for a recording of a concert he had just given after he realised it was one of his best ever. She mischievously told him that she would check the tapes in the morning and get back to him. Singh today has more than a thousand such tapes of archival music lying in her home – including the recording of a performance at which Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan played together, at the Constitution Club, in Delhi, in another era. “Those kinds of concerts just don’t happen any more,” she says, justifying her recording obsession. “What else are we going to leave to posterity?”
Like Singh, there are many who have risked angering musicians by secretly recording them. While some have been blatant music burglars, others have more discreetly scoured footpath stores and second-hand shops to get discarded 78 RPMs. They have a system of exchange and bartering among themselves – a Rasoolanbai chaiti for a Faiyaz Khan dadra. There is also an unwritten code of conduct between collectors. “If someone has given me a recording, I will never part with it without his permission,” explains musicologist Deepak Raja.
We sourced but a few of these archivists – Sharbari Roy Chaudhuri, a professor of sculpture at Shantiniketan, Geeta (nee Sarabhai) Mayor, of Ahmedabad, Kishore Merchant of Mumbai, Rohit Desai, a retired botany professor from Nadiad, the late Babubhai (nee Hargovind) Raja whose collection was bequeathed to the NCPA, connoisseur Shobha Deepak Singh – and tried to understand what compels them to turn their homes into musical libraries.
Says Deepak Raja, “None of them is in it for money. In fact, they have invested huge amounts of money in their collections. Is it listening pleasure? Not likely. Their collections are so huge that they won’t be able to hear them even once during their remaining lifetimes. The motives vary, but there is a common thread running through – it is the love of music. Theirs is basically, an advanced level of connoisseurship.” Raja, who runs a blog (swaratala.blogspot.com), has collected 1,000 to 1,500 hours of music over the years, including rare recordings by Vilayat Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar.
Merchant, an obsessive collector, realised that it was impossible to go to every concert by every artiste, and didn’t want to miss out, so he gradually started building a collection that he could listen to at leisure. Today, his collection is so vast that musicians routinely come to him to collect not just their own older recordings, as did the Gundecha brothers, but also when they wish to listen to another artiste’s music. When Vilayat Khan wanted to hear the desi Todi of Omkarnath, Merchant produced it for him in 24 hours.
Desai of Nadiad inherited his collector’s instinct from his father. It was furthered by numerous walks through city bazaars, from where he sourced rare old records. His collection includes 1885 recordings of Husna-jaan, and 28 other tawaif singers from Varanasi, the kind of material that a William Dalrymple could transcribe into a fascinating tale. Desai spends his retirement listening to bits and pieces of his collection, late into the night, and is gradually organising them into digital format.
One of the big concerns for these collectors is, what will happen to their treasures – along with music, many have collected old photographs, articles and posters. Says Desai, “I hope to give the collection away to anyone interested. This is not my property, this is national property, and it is the heritage of India. It should go into good hands.”
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