A sojourn into our precious heritage

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0A whiff of old fragrance wafted through the air as avid connoisseurs, patrons and curators walked through the Bengal Gallery of Tagore Centre at Kolkata’s ICCR.

Memories and nostalgia flowed in thick and fast as an array of neatly arranged vintage records, erstwhile furniture pieces, perfume bottles, lamp-shades, lanterns, chandeliers, olden days’ telephone models, musical instruments, photo-frames and other antique items with intricate designs wooed in curious visitors to the venue, thus transporting them into a different era, time and space.
Voices of India — a first-of-its kind audio-visual exhibition was unveiled on a recent evening in the culture capital amidst an august presence of dignitaries and legendary figures. The enlightening display smells of the rich, ethnic heritage of India with a priceless treasure-trove of rare memorabilia, mementoes and valuable collectibles.
The exhibition is curated by the Bangalore-based Archives of Indian Music (AIM), which is a Trust that seeks to digitise, document, curate and preserve old and exceptional gramophone records of our country from early 1900s so that, it is easily made available through an on-line portal for researchers, musicians, students of music and the concerned public at large. “We need to preserve our national history in the most sophisticated manner so as to generate a great deal of awareness and a massive level of genuine interest amongst its takers and listeners,” remarks Vikram Sampath, whose painstaking efforts have churned out a unique on-line portal of musical voices from the forgotten eras of the early last century.
Artistes like Gauhar Jaan, Zohra Agrewali, Ustad Imdad Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Salem Godavari, Coimbatore Thayi, Pandit Narayanrao Vyas, G.N. Balasubramaniam can be heard singing out their haunting old melodies and classical gems. “There has been hardly any availability of a definite archival storage for vintage recordings of Indian vocalists, which could benefit hordes of researchers, musicians, pupils and the musically-inclined public at large. Hence, the urgent need to create a virtual space for the yesteryear records was felt, whose covers have turned yellow with time,” he reasons. Adding further, he recounts: “This endeavour began a good five years ago when I started gathering essential material and doing an extensive research work on the first commercial Indian vocalist Gauhar Jaan, who had her debut recording over the gramophone way back in 1902. Thereafter, I thoroughly studied and rummaged a pile of old gramophone records of other artistes and much to my dismay, found out a discernible absence of a warehouse of Indian musical sounds.” From a collection of 200 Indian soldiers taken as Prisoners of War from the First World War (which broke out in the year 1914), wherein, Sampath could amass an array of songs sung in Pushtu, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali and several other sub-continental languages, to a segment of Hindustani-Carnatic recordings, songs of cinema, classical strains, folk music and speech recordings of celebrities, great leaders and statesmen — significant items such as these claim a big section in the cyber-slot. “I was astounded to spot old records lying rotting in deplorable conditions with the scrap dealers or in chorbazars and flea markets as well as in the dingy, dilapidated music shops. Look, any pristine art should fall into good hands for enhancement and preservation. A bad, negligent inheritance can further spoil the aural-treasure in this case. I embarked upon this magnum opus project, keeping in mind its importance and relevance in today’s times. So I decided to be the change myself that I had wanted to see. Because works like this when put under the government’s wings and patronage, may get stuck in the tardy bureaucracy that slackens the entire process from making any constructive progress and ultimately accumulates dust in the red-taped files,” notes the talented young Sahitya Akademi award-winning author/historian, who’s also a diligent student of classical music.
Undertaken by the Weavers Studio Centre For The Arts, the main objective of this expansive gallery showcase is to invite the school-college going Gen-Y and indulge them in a dekko to give them a new perspective of looking at the Indian history and its rich musical heritage via the sound route. The exhibition is designed by the adroit art director Narayan Sinha, whose eye-grabbing decoration and a keen sense of aesthetics has managed to leave his signature touch at the plush venue.
Eminent collector Schiraaz Tanksalwalla, the man behind an impressive row of European, Oriental artefacts, rugs, carpets and other furnishing stuff, comments: “A lot of the furniture comes from the old zamindari Bengali mansions, which prominently reflects the mishmash of European with local Indian styles. For example, many carpenters back home would fondly carve out furniture under the heavy influence of the baroque movement, then witnessed in Europe. Even the solid impact of the British Raj was conspicuously noticed, both in terms of interior decor and architecture.” As a result, the regal Rajasthani structures were finely blended with a sagacious mix of French, Doric and Regency styled architecture. From a costly Burma teak to an expensive and lustrous mahogany wood from Honduras or South America, the raw materials got imported in huge heaps. As far back as in the 17th century, the seeds of the trees producing such refined piece of wood in bulk would be planted in the Indian soil to get acclimatised to the climate here. “So the art of fine-tuning had already started a couple of centuries ago. The freight was either being shipped or traveled across land. Roughly, an assortment of 75 to 125-yearold furniture has been put up for display at this address,” affirms Tanksalwalla. On matters of preservation, he attests that since the “eastern zone falls under a humid grid where moisture floats in bounty into the air, the task of conservation gets a bit difficult. Add to this, the perennial problem of dust and pollution. So a polish of protective coating or a lacquer pointing upon the furniture surface can lessen the damage and save the exquisitely crafted items from wasting away. Of course, the normal wear and tear ensues with the passing ravages of time. The geographic difference also affects a lot. Suppose, if you place furniture on a fairly dry condition, it doesn’t atrophy much. But, if you keep it against the elements, obviously, it would be weather-beaten. Even a closed confined room with no ventilation can cause a lot of problems. An unattended piece for decades can be battered with termites or white ants.”
From old-time merchant princes to formerly Bombay-based Parsi families who traded off with the Chinese businessmen to royal palaces bearing the iconic designs of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations — furniture and artefacts of all shapes and sizes from innumerable corners have sneaked their ways into several curio shops over the years. “We have tried to rope in the best of both the worlds. Even the intricate fusion is pure and unalloyed as it retains bonafide originality,” he shares.
Tucked away in a small pocket of the Kidderpore area in Kolkata, this music store attracts legions of ardent listeners who come sniffing in search of old records. And the veteran humble collector Mohammad Ilyas by no means lets them down. “I own a modest music shop in my vicinity for the past ten years. But the knack for music grew since childhood,” he informs. Recitals of stalwarts like Gauhar Jaan,
Indubala, Angurbala, Kesarbai Kerkar of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana find a special place of pride in Iliasbhai’s stockpile. “I have a repertoire of 3,500 voices in total,” he reckons. From gramophones, records with 70 RPM, long-pins, speech recordings of Nazrul, Netaji and Tagore in their own voices, everything is accessible to today’s musically avid students, who are eager to learn and appreciate the old classical music.
Elucidating on the encased record covers which have turned brittle and sepia-tinted, collector Ashis Bhadra briefs: “In those days, many renowned record companies would drop in at the respective artiste’s place to record his/her voice. True, these are no longer playable but they represent and recall the historic events. From a matrix of musical masterpieces by Kavi Nazrul to public addresses made by Swami Vivekananda and Gandhiji, one may just dig out a goldmine of hidden jewels from the pit of history. I think the hunt should be on, as more is yet to discovered.” The high-profile show shall remain on till September 5.

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