Music for the archives: AIR travels deep into India in a race to document dying folk music
The urge to preserve a dying tradition has driven All India Radio to explore the uncharted territories of tribal and folk music in conflict zones like Kashmir, the Northeast and Maoist-infested districts.india Updated: Mar 13, 2018 16:30 IST
The village of Haransingha is a once-notorious Naxal stronghold in the densely-forested hills rolling upwards past Dumka, Jharkhand. The Santhals — a dominant scheduled tribe that have lived here for centuries — are preparing for some unusual guests, in the days before their blossom festival, Baha, in the end of February. A team of three All India Radio (AIR) personnel, with a suitcase full of recording equipment, have travelled for the better part of a day from Bhagalpur, Bihar, to this extremity of their listening zone.
Heavily regimented by value for taxpayer money, the team is conscious of needing to justify the recordings. Naomi Shanti Hembrom, Manish Kumar Thakur, both programme executives, and Mahesh Lepcha, a senior engineering artist, pick up an expert en route.
The expert, Father David Solomon, a Jesuit priest, Director, Resource Development Centre, Johar and a cultural anthropologist, has spent the better part of two decades in these villages. The institute houses a spanking library filled with three racks of literature on the tribe alone, their musical practices and notations, which is what makes him eminently placed to guide them. They needed to find musicians who sang a repertoire of songs undiluted by time, and with as many members in one village as possible, to reduce time spent running around.
Hembrom is herself Santhali, and like Father Solomon, speaks the local language. Communication is made easy and she transforms into the conductor of the orchestra, as the two-day recording unfolds. There is no electricity, but luckily for the team, there is a solar panel. It rains, and they must uproot the hard-to-settle tribals and rush indoors. Recording extends into the night, and they must cast the backlight of their mobile phones on the presenter to ensure he is visible in the video.
It would be simplistic to say these executives are just doing their jobs. There is no central fund for the folk and tribal music archive project. Their costs on hotel and food are reimbursed on a ‘need basis’ from AIR funds, with the approval of a supportive DG, but this engagement comes over and above their work at the radio station. The entire project depends on the enthusiasm of individual AIR executives. Many of them are manning two-man posts in the remotest parts of the country, equipped with rudimentary hand-held recording devices, and a willingness to trek into villages where roads haven’t been laid yet. Few other than the Election commission staff compare. Some tell them this isn’t AIRs job to undertake, but if AIR won’t do it, who will, they ask. Even Doordarshan doesn’t have the infrastructural and social reach that AIR has. All hands of the 214 full-fledged stations are on deck for this project.
- In 2014, All India Radio began recording folk and tribal songs across the country. It targets 9 lakh songs in 6000 castes, classes and tribes in 122 languages or 1,544 dialects. 20,000 songs are now complete.
- The work is undertaken by programme executives at their own initiative in 214 AIR stations. n There is no additional budget or resources set aside for the project. A three-member team in Delhi co-ordinates the all-India project.
- Songs are collected in four sections: songs of rituals, pertaining to family life, ‘other’ songs (of mountains, rivers, work, war, work etc), nomadic songs, and Indian songs that have migrated overseas. All songs are classified under 22 categories.
- AIR’s authentication process is rigorous: songs are certified by three community members, then reviewed by a state panel including cultural experts, professors and anthropologists, and is backed up by translations and notifications of the lyrics and music.
- The Sahitya Akademi will be printing the first selection of music and has also suggested that its members could undertake the translation work in the project. Working without advanced technology, AIR is saving everything as basic mp3 files so they may be digitised to whatever technology may be used at any point.
- Currently, the project is not for broadcast, but merely for research and documentation. It is the largest government-backed research project of its kind. All lead musicians recorded in the project are paid an honorarium.
Som Dutt Sharma, former Programme Director, who now coordinates ‘Akashvani Lok Sampada Samrakshan Mahapariyojana’ says, “This is not a job. It only works as a labour of love.” They insist on recordings led by elders in the communities, people above 50 years of age, to ensure the link to the traditional form, and avoid new compositions. Each recording session is certified by three community members or tribesmen for authenticity. It is reviewed again by a panel at the state level, typically comprising anthropologists, professors from the cultural departments of local universities, and subject matter experts with many years in the field.
The bio data’s of individual musicians, instrument players and singers, are meticulously taken down, as are location details, down to village, tehsil and district. The songs are recorded in four categories: sanskaar geet (pre-birth rituals to death), other songs, including those of mountains, rivers, war, play, work, etc. Then there are songs that have travelled from tribe and region to other areas and fourth, songs historically taken by bonded labourers overseas and preserved as part of cultural heritage on foreign shores. The last category is being recorded in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in countries ranging from Ghana and Suriname to Fiji and the Caribbean. Once recorded, these are then categorised under 22 subheads, ranging from the first lines, to the emotions expressed, the occasion when sung, to other unique identifying criteria. All songs are also videographed, as evidence of being sung and recorded authentically. The songs are translated into Hindi and English by the AIR executives. Back home, the songs are allotted musical notifications. The accumulated collection is now being printed by the Sahitya Akademi, which has also suggested engaging their network of expertise to make the translations more refined.
AIR has always engaged with tribes, but many recordings by executives in the fields have been lost over the years without regimented documentation. The project took seed when Sharma himself was stationed as a humble executive in his first posting at Ranchi in the 1980s. There, he found himself trekking to different areas, to record the songs of 32 different tribes. In the forests surrounding Mundari, he met a tribesman, a hunter, who was reciting what he realised, was the Rig Veda. “If even 50 such recordings were preserved, it would be plenty” he says. He was struck by the fact that nine of the major tribes were vanishing, and if they were not documented, they would be lost to history. Even as he recorded interviews and the songs of over 250 singers in that first tenure, he realised he knew little of their history, their language. It remained an idea and he was transferred, but he left understanding the value of documentation. They’ve arrived at 22 categories of detail by trial and error, he says. They began with seven. They’ll add more if required.
The project is too massive and vital to rely on the enthusiasm of the few who see its value. Thanks to support and allocations made out of the central budget by current DG Fayyaz Sheheryar, it crawls along. Even so, it’s taken three years to establish a three-member cell in Delhi. This team coordinates the national recordings. Ideally, the project should have a separate budget, and manpower allocation in each of the stations.
The team began recording in 2014, with a major workshop in Shillong. Musicians and troupes from the North East, Kashmir and Haryana congregated for the first recordings. Since then, it’s been dependent on who can take the initiative. “To make it easier, as far as possible we try to locate people from specific communities who work with us and ask them to begin there. It makes translation easier. But we’ve devised the methodology of documentation because even if the local executive understands the community and its language, it’s not necessary the person receiving the files back in Delhi does. So it has to be so systematic that anyone picking up the file can understand, and more importantly, verify.”
AIR sought the Supreme Court’s permission last year, to record with the vanishing Jarawa tribe of the Andaman’s, but was denied permission. The government of India put a three mile buffer zone around the tribe to protect them from tourists in 2010. DG Shashi Shekhar has written to local officials again to ask for permission. Once the tribes really do vanish, there will be no official state recording of them. If not now, they fear, it may never happen.
The project is unique because it is not intended or slotted for broadcast. It is pure preservation driven by the fear of losing the heritage. It’s a drive that’s even pushed executives into conflict zones. They’ve recorded in Kargil, in remote and conflict-ridden parts of Kashmir, in Naxal infested districts and in virgin territory in the North East. The sourcing of information pours in aplenty, from local executives, from the community and from their network of musicians built up over the years.
Hembrom tells the story of the famous anthropological surveys conducted by late IAS officer NK Verma, studies that have been vital to her own community’s understanding of itself. “So many of his papers are lying unpublished at his home, since his death. Information is only preserved for posterity when the government puts its might behind it.” This thought alone drives her and others like her.