Two Hindustani artists reach out to the community of music lovers through a new web site.GOWRI RAMNARAYAN in Chennai
"WE want to bring out a CD of M.S. Subbulakshmi's 78 rpm recordings made originally under the Broadcast label. Can you help?" the woman asked. Her call came from Mumbai, and quite out of the blue. Since she had already located the records I did not know what more was required. "See what we've done and you'll know," she said. Soon, a compact disc arrived, labelled Underscore Records, with a sepia-tinted Kesarbai Kerkar on the cover, padded with lucid, sensitive sleeve notes. The feel of age, and age-old recording methods, gave the voice a vintage touch in raags Des, Khambavati, Gauri, Kafi Kanada, Kafi Hori and Bhairavi. You could guess that hours of effort, concentration and love had gone into the project of restoration.
But why should musicians as busy as Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan take on such a painstaking task as releasing records, old or new? Surely, there are other ways of losing money. "But we don't," they laugh, admitting that they have not quite become millionaires.
Shubha Mudgal is often described as adventurous. Not many classical musicians have taken such varied paths. Trained by Ram Ashraya Jha, Pandit Vinaychandra Maudgalya and Vasant Thakar, honed by Jitendra Abhisheki and the inimitable Kumar Gandharva, as also by Naina Devi in thumri singing, Shubha Mudgal established herself as a classical vocalist with an unusually deep-timbred voice before making pop hits like Ali More Angana or Ab Ke Sawan. A National Award for the film Amrit Beej preceded the scoring for Mira Nair's Kamasutra. Flamboyant in pop genres, she can be reverberant in sufi, nath panthi, pushti margi verses. Mysticism attracts her as much as the shringara of dadra and jhoola.
Trained by tabla maestro Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, Aneesh Pradhan has made a name for himself as accompanist, soloist and composer.
But these different tracks were creative. Surely cleaning up old records was a plodding job?
Shubha and Aneesh are happy to explain just how they stumbled into unfamiliar territory.
"We found that there are no recordings of several fantastic musicians we hear in concerts," Aneesh Pradhan begins. "Some famous artists are not re-released on CD format. Nor does much new music find publishers. In any big music store all you are assured of is film songs and the latest Indipop hits."
Says Shubha Mudgal, "In a country with such wonderful forms of music, so much is not finding its way into record labels. Sharing is easy today, but is just not happening in India."
Launching their own recording label seemed impossible as they did not even know the basics of registering a company. What propelled them into action was the urgent need to make some music of Pandit Ram Ashreya Jha available on his 75th birthday. "We had the software ready. Everybody said it was fabulous. But there were no takers!" In an Internet chat with Aneesh who was touring Laos, a desperate Shubha asked, "Shall we..." His gut response was that they should do it for others too. Underscore Records was launched. They set up a web site. Soon, the listener could browse through a range of products and place orders.
It is one thing to want to make the site a hub for all music lovers, but another to get the stuff in. Treasures in private collections or with institutional archives were not all ready for dissemination. What about re-issuable material in the public domain? Dr. Suresh Chandvankar of the Indian Record Collectors Society generously offered precious material for restoration, stipulating that the product be accessibly priced for the lay listener. All transference to the hard disk was done at the studio in his presence, and then digitised. "We absorbed the initial costs and share royalties after recovering them."
"Restoration is an exacting mission. You can't clean up to a point where sarangi or tabla is unheard. Or the pop and hiss may be ironed out at the cost of changing the pitch of the voice," Shubha Mudgal sighs. A time-consuming job was to check on the pitch of the singer, both from old-timers and other recordings by the same artist at that time.
There were other gains. Some of the gramophone `plates' had the raag continuing on the second side as well. Re-formatting made it possible to splice the raag into a continuous whole. Of course, maintaining taal accuracy where the parts are joined can be troublesome, requiring as much musicianship as technical skills.
"Also, we must put the past in context," warns Shubha. Aneesh wrote notes to tell the listeners about the importance of that recording. Kesarbai engaged the pair for six months.
How much success have they achieved with the old records? Says Shubha, "There's specialised software and hardware abroad that makes the quality far better. But right now its cost is prohibitive." However, from the sound engineer to the designer, everyone was exceptionally cooperative, fully aware of the value of the specialised work. "We admit a sudden pop or two. Many of the old records are not in top condition. The fact that they have been preserved is in itself a boon," says Aneesh.
Queries for artists led to the distribution of records made by others, such as Siddheshwari Devi and Sharafat Husain Khan from the Sangeet Kendra, Ahmedabad, taking the tally to 50 albums.
With so many established recording companies, why the need for a section on new music? "There's a sharp decline in such recordings, with room only for the top, media-promoted artists." Much of it is compilation of material from several earlier recordings. A "Kalyan ke Prakar" offers five expositions in different voices but assembled from other albums with different names. Shubha says indignantly, "The companies say times are bad, market is poor, we can pay you only a Rs.10 royalty per record. That statement lists 60 records being sold. I ask you, in this huge country where hundreds gather to hear concerts, and with the NRI [non-resident Indian] market boom, what kind of figures are these? And for popular artists? There is something wrong with their methods of selling, not with the artist or the music! Anyway, if times are so bad how come they haven't closed shop?"
"Talk to our artists and they'll tell you how happy they are. Everything is transparent," says Aneesh Pradhan. It was he who insisted on featuring experimental music. "Indian artists travel everywhere absorbing influences from many cultures. We must accommodate this heterogeneity." Some are straight jazz albums like Amit Heri's, others draw from Latin American rhythms, African beats or Blues. Some defy labels, like Shubha's and Aneesh's work with Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poetry, or "Re-Imagining Mira", done with Kiran Nagarkar (Remember Cuckold, his novel on Mirabai?), or Ulhas Bapat and Tushar Parte on santoor and guitar.
The list includes shorter pieces as well, even seven- or 10-minute single tracks. "We don't want to impose slots and limits."
Listeners' responses had the web site increasing its offers - music-related books, postcards, posters, photographs, video recordings, even research papers. Documentaries are in the pipeline. "We try to reach out to the community of music lovers in every way." You can order Ravi Kiran's books on Carnatic music as also a biography on Begum Akhtar. The web site offers a two-hour lecture demonstration on Amir Khan by his senior-most disciple.Dictionary of Hindustani Music
Does Shubha's and Aneesh's music suffer because of these demands? "You'll find out during my concert tomorrow," she says mischievously But the intensity was evident when she added, "Students of music know that learning a hundred compositions means that you are also absorbing the culture that goes with them. Singing by rote is meaningless, you must know the environment, history, tradition and ambience of what you sing." What seemed a taxing commitment became a life-enriching activity.
Meanwhile, eight tracks of 35 minutes by Miss. M.S. Subbulakshmi, singing Korisevimpa (Kharaharapriya), Sri Raghukula (Useni), Orutaram Saravanabhava (Ragamalika) and O Jagadamba (Ananadabhairavi), issued by Broadcast way back, await their attention. Among the challenges are the abrupt beginnings in the ragamalika owing to the record being chipped off at the start.