2,000 hours of Indian classical music

As a monumental project to create a digital archive of Indian classical music and performing arts takes shape, ideator Devina Dutt talks to Frontline.

Published : Oct 12, 2023 17:20 IST - 14 MINS READ

The FEA has undertaken an ambitious endeavour towards the creation of Indian Classical Music & Performing Arts Public Digital Archive.

The FEA has undertaken an ambitious endeavour towards the creation of Indian Classical Music & Performing Arts Public Digital Archive. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

After a decade of active involvement in the Indian classical music ecosystem, which included documenting, filming, curating, and organising programmes across the country, Devina Dutt and Pepe Gomes, the founders of the performing arts company First Edition Arts, have undertaken an enormously ambitious endeavour. They are working on what can only be described as a monumental project: the creation of the Indian Classical Music & Performing Arts Public Digital Archive. This project is being carried out under the auspices of their non-profit organisation, the Kishima Arts Foundation. In an interview with Frontline, Dutt and Gomes discuss how the archival project stands apart from others, its vast scope, and the mix of excitement and apprehension that surrounds it. Excerpts from the interview:

Before we talk about the Archive project, tell us about the guiding principle that helped you identify the old masters as well as the new voices that you have been presenting on your YouTube channel under the First Edition Arts (FEA) banner.

Having been avid concertgoers for years in Kolkata and Mumbai, we had become increasingly disappointed, especially post 1990s, with the star culture and the big-stage spectacles that concerts had become. After years in business and arts writing, advertising, music, and filmmaking between the two of us, we were attracted by the idea of setting up an arts organisation. While working as an arts journalist, I had come to see just how hard lesser-known artists worked, especially in the performing arts. I thought a company or outfit with a different approach to the art, the artist, the performing spaces, and the audiences was an idea whose time had come.

With this rather idealistic approach, we entered this space in 2012. Looking back, I can say we naively assumed that the audience too wanted more authenticity and pluralism in their experience of art forms. But I think the overhang and reach of Big Entertainment had already begun to distort their expectations.

This became painfully apparent to us as we found ourselves struggling to understand the ecosystem—all the hierarchies and ”grades” assigned to musicians by the market, irrespective of the actual quality of the performances, the opacity, the extreme challenges of raising funds without wanting to play the “safe” game of aligning with celebrities—it was exhausting and yet deeply instructive!

In the first couple of years starting 2014 (when FEA was formalised though we were working since 2012), we arranged a few concerts with artists whom we admire, who have a certain artistic integrity, and who have a following too and were by and large in the mainstream and visible spectrum. We did a few concerts, perhaps just three or four in the first two years with Ashwini Bhide, Venkatesh Kumar, Kala Ramnath, Sahana Banerjee and so on.

Since Pepe is a filmmaker, comes from a Western music background, sings, and plays the guitar and the drums, he strongly felt that we should be filming and putting out professionally edited ICM concerts that we curated, and sharing them for free as a way of promoting the art form, especially among new listeners. This meant spending on quality technology for each concert, an expense I was not at all sure we should get into. But looking back, I am glad we stuck to this plan.

We started the FEA YouTube channel in 2015 with a Venkatesh Kumar concert—his Sakhi Mori Rum Jhum, a traditional and much-loved Durga bandish, has clocked 1.4 million views in the last eight years. In January 2016, we had a moment of truth. A fellow rasika [meaning, connoisseur] in Mumbai, the senior journalist and long-time music student, Sumana Ramanan, told us to listen to the reticent Arun Kashalkar whom she had heard recently, and she sent us some links. She told us there was a small home baithak [sitting] happening shortly in Mulund near Arunji’s home. It was unlike anything we had experienced in the concert circuit: an authenticity and austerity on the part of both artist as well as listeners and the host—a concert in a cramped living room without any of the usual frills and flurries of a ”classical music programme”. We knew we had stumbled on to something that we had simply not been privy to before. After the concert we walked with Arunji to his home close by and chatted with him and Sumana late into that night.

Buoyed by these discussions and the new reality of ICM that was dawning upon us, we decided to launch a series called Secret Masters, which would entail at least four concerts over the year in Mumbai with wonderful musicians and gurus who seemed to have been hiding in plain sight all along. The first such concert was at Karnatak Sangh in Mahim on April 9, 2016 with Arunji. Astonishingly, it was overflowing with seasoned listeners whom one did not see much at regular concerts. There were musicians too and young listeners. I think it was one of those inexplicable magical community moments and like everyone else we too felt we were just a part of something bigger and better.

From then on we had a different idea of what we ought to be doing in the ICM space in Mumbai. Raising funds for these four concerts with Arunji, Narayanrao Bodas, Jayshree Patnekar, and Sharad Sathe was extremely difficult, but we scraped through with infusions of personal funds whenever required. We were also able to film and edit the concerts and share them on our YouTube channel which was getting noticed among rasikas.

Devina Dutt, alongwith Pepe Gomes, founded the performing arts company First Edition Arts.

Devina Dutt, alongwith Pepe Gomes, founded the performing arts company First Edition Arts. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

And did the idea of the Archive flow from this process? Or was that a separate track that you always had in mind, and that you knew you will one day embark on?

By 2018, we had managed to get about 50,000 subscribers worldwide for the YouTube channel and it was clear that people were engaging with the full concert videos. We were discovering a richer musicianship in this vibrant Hindustani music ”underground” of home baithaks and guru purnimas, in smaller but far more intense settings. We were supported and received very warmly by this close-knit community of musicians, students, and their listeners.

The sheer khazana (treasure-trove) that these senior musicians had opened for us made us greedy for more. It was thrilling yet poignant to know that we had met them so late in their careers. Previously, so many musicians like Aslam Khan of the Agra, Khurja, and Hapur gharanas had passed away in Mumbai; the neglect in his last days was an absolute low point for a city which prided itself on being the hub of Hindustani music. Surely, we could do something to not let these hidden gems lie unknown to posterity.

The idea for creating an archive with a sizeable number of recordings and conversations with these musicians began to take root. It would be a documentation process that would set right many of the imbalances and missing links in the ecosystem.

But we dared not think about it because of the perpetual question of funds. Many sponsors were simply dismissive, some going so far as to ask, when there are so many crowd-pullers, what are you doing with these people ”who are finished”? Some even accused us of mystifying and romanticising the musicians who had failed to ”make it”.

Also Read | Can Carnatic music concerts stand alone without the violin?

When and how did it turn from an idea to a concrete plan – what was the moment that locked in your resolve to start an Archive?

COVID-19 and the stopping of all concerts and related activities gave us the time to do some introspection: where we were heading, what did we think we were doing right, what were we failing at. And how much energy and staying power we had to keep trying to resist larger market forces. We were getting older and tired. In 2020, we had completed six years as FEA.

Around this time, we were commissioned by Penn State University, Pennsylvania and the student bodies SIMA [Society for Indian Music and Arts], Nritya, and ICMSV [Indian Classical Music Society of Vancouver] to work on creating a compact archive of films on Kathakali. Since a troupe could not travel to the US due to COVID, they wanted to show a set of well-made performance and introductory films on the history of the form, its unique artistry, and the significance of its distinctive music. The university felt that the six hours or more of audiovisual (AV) material would also be useful to have as a part of their permanent archives, which would be soon available on the YouTube channels of the organisers.

We managed to put this together in June 2021 and deliver it by fall of that year.

Plus, in the first year of COVID, to our utter surprise, the western zone office of the Indian Oil Corporation asked us to create a digital series with young musicians across India as they wanted to demonstrate support at a critical time when all artists, but especially younger classical musicians, were faced with crippling uncertainties. We called it “Indian Oil Now Hear Us”, and filmed with 12 musicians in Mumbai, Pondicherry [Puducherry], Chennai, and Kolkata.

Both projects required us to work more closely and for a longer duration than required by a stage concert and it was a rewarding and satisfying experience. It felt more involved and we had a sense of process that involved thinking and planning.

Pepe Gomes, a singer, guitarist and drummer, advocated the idea of promoting the art form through edited videos of the ICM concerts.

Pepe Gomes, a singer, guitarist and drummer, advocated the idea of promoting the art form through edited videos of the ICM concerts. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

How does one decide the scope, the borders, of such a large canvas as an Archive? Would you like to share some of the parameters that you have set for the content?

Well, the success of our YouTube channel was a starting point. However, while the numbers felt good, it felt sporadic and fitful, as this channel was entirely dependent on the live concerts we were able to set up. Also, we had lost greats like Sharad Sathe, Babanrao Haldankar, Dinkar Phanshikar, Vijay Sardeshmukh, and Murli Manohar Shukla in the Mumbai-Pune belt alone in recent years. It seemed even more imperative to document many of the less-visible living legends.

From the time we began to seriously think about it, we have had multiple conversations with musicians, gurus, artists, arts patrons, and others in the ecosystem whose opinions we have come to respect. Also, we widened the circle of advisors so that we did not inadvertently promote cliques. This is a very real danger, as everyone wants to play kingmaker and everyone truly believe that their gurus and lineages are the best.

Gradually, the idea of an archive being an undifferentiated repository, an uncritically assembled storage house, has been replaced by the idea of a curated, compact archive. Our programming philosophy at FEA had already made us alert to the many omissions that powerful cliques—who set the sponsorship and artist selection agenda—had worked into the system. Since our Secret Masters concerts in 2016-17, we were already in the business of seeking out consummate but under-represented musicians across generations. Our two-phase project (2022-30) was preceded by a three-year period of intense discussions and contemplation.

The Archive is an attempt to hold on to and celebrate some of the fast-fading material as well as the aesthetic values—in the form of compositions, ideas, and works of great composers—that are in danger of being lost to the ”concert mafia”. We are trying our best to approach these AV recordings as not just drab one-camera exercises. We would like to film in locations that make these films more cinematic, Especially in the long biographical interviews usually conducted by a close friend or colleague or by a set of younger musicians.

One of the parameters is to work with diverse musicians who can help create a fuller picture of ICM. This means actively seeking out the gurus as well as the prime disciples of past gurus, and accessing the treasure trove of compositions. These are musicians and thinkers who are willing to put together representative sets of their musical inheritance, overlay them with commentaries, and enliven them with freewheeling but informative conversations.

After many discussions, a compact but vital blueprint representation of ICM that is meaningful to the contemporary ICM ecosystem is the idea we are proceeding with.

We have sessions planned over the next year in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Thrissur and Vijaywada. Our parameters cannot be rigid or overly templatised. We want to retain the flexibility to change our approach as archivists as we go along.

Also Read | Sudakshina Sarma (1934-2023): Assamese music legend leaves a profound legacy 

Besides these recordings, who and what are the adjunct people and processes that you need to make this a dynamically different Archive?

We are seeing this as a two-part project from 2022 to2030. Phase 1 is 2022-26 in which we will create a minimum of 500 hours of filmed, edited, peer reviewed, and annotated AV material with senior musicians in Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi, and Kerala. We plan to unveil the first set (the entire project will be a minimum of 2,000 hours) on a public website by September 2026.

We are also making efforts to ensure that the archive is user-friendly.

From September 2026, we plan to reach out to the community of musicians, smaller ICM groups, institutions, museums, and university music and arts departments with a mix of online and offline programs, conversations, and discussions with musicians and other artists. All of this will generate fresh material which can be put up on the site.

Earlier this year we launched First Light, a parallel initiative of the Archival project, in which we present emerging musicians every other month at the Bangalore International Centre. We encourage them to present material which has archival value and is less performed on concert stages today. We hope to take this series to Pune, Mumbai and Delhi soon, creating a network of young musicians invested in the documentation project and to also build an intergenerational connect among musicians.

Vlogs and behind-the-scenes snippets, short conversations with musicians as everyday people, work-in-progress sessions, challenges faced by instrument makers, old photos, and historical concerts remembered by elderly rasikas as an oral history component will all find a place on the site. We see it as an activity helmed by a rotating group of young musicians who we hope will be at the forefront of these initiatives.

“The Archive is an attempt to hold on to and celebrate some of the fast-fading material as well as the aesthetic values—in the form of compositions, ideas, and works of great composers—that are in danger of being lost to the “concert mafia”.”

From a recording session in Kashid, Maharashtra

From a recording session in Kashid, Maharashtra | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

What do you see as your biggest challenge in this work, and what do you see as the biggest asset?

The biggest challenge comes from the difficulties that we face with fundraising, which is stressful and often downright humiliating.

Although the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Rules under Section 135 of the Companies Act 2013 have identified spending on the arts on par with spending on education, health and sanitation, ecology, and women’s empowerment, most CSR departments have chosen to stay away from the arts. They say they do not understand the arts, do not see them as life-sustaining, and also because the difficulties of specifying outcomes make it difficult to answer auditors’ queries. While I can’t possibly argue with companies looking to support the more obvious needs of education and healthcare, this refusal to engage with the arts in India while paying lip service to “Indian culture” is very distressing.

Till just a few decades ago, public sector organisations had an old-world commitment to supporting concerts. Many of their senior managers and other staff had a personal connect to the music and attended concerts. That has eroded significantly.

Recently, a senior official in one of the largest bank foundations in Mumbai asked us why our documentation efforts had budgets for payments to artists and gurus. “You are doing them a favour by recording them, so they should also cooperate and not charge a fee,” he thundered. He also dismissed the endeavour by saying that his own teenage kids were proof that no one has the patience to watch anything for more than a few seconds. What he stands for is a challenge to us, as is the younger smarter set of MBAs in multinationals who suffer from a pointed ignorance of culture and who end meetings with that old chestnut: “I need hard outcomes, can you ensure that?”

Another of our invisible assets are the valuable few who support us in vital ways. These are people who have watched our work, ask pertinent questions and make meaningful suggestions. Swati Apte is one such, a business strategy consultant and Odissi dancer associated with the Kshirsagar Apte Foundation, a non-profit founded by her and Alok Kshirsagar, her husband. We received our first grant from them in July 2022, which allowed us to set up the first set of recordings in Pune.

Particularly in the early stages, when we don’t have much finished work to show, this kind of faith and understanding of the project is an incredible asset.

We have been lucky to have the steadfast support of Paula Mariwala, a businesswoman, mentor and philanthropist in Mumbai, whose father-in-law, the industrialist Kishore Mariwala, has also supported us.

Finally, our passion for the work is itself an asset.

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