Are our archives corrupted?

The carpet area of the billboards advertising Doordarshan’s archival collection at its New Delhi headquarters, Akashwani Bhawan, exceeds by far, the area occupied by the booth selling these priceless gems. You could be forgiven for mistaking the ramshackle white booth adjoining the gate for a guard’s cabin. Inside, Kumar Gandharva and Kelucharan Mohapatra live in cramped, yet companionable quarters.
In that hallowed mess of cartons, one counted no more than fifteen dance DVDs. There are one or
two DVDs representing every classical dance style, none for Sattriya though. Then there is a DVD on the Natyasastra and one highlighting the spiritual dimension of Bharatanatyam. There are two long compilations of Dr. Sonal Mansingh’s work in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, beginning with recordings from her younger days. These recordings, give or take a few, seem to represent the sum total of Doordarshan’s archival output in dance in several decades of its existence.
This is only what the organisation has put out; talk of accessing government archives and one is met with widespread confusion. Cultural organiser and dancer Pratibha Prahlad agrees that archives are inextricably linked to the notion of dusty and old organisations. “These organisations do not know how to make their kin feel welcome. There is no accountability; instead they feel self-righteous and important about the little work they do. Any public institution that has archives should have a beautiful place for the public to access them. None of our libraries allow that to happen. They don’t have a worldview,” she asserts.
Rafiq Masoodi, deputy director general, Doordarshan archives, explains that their archival practices have only inched ahead until now, but are soon to be made a priority. “I
agree that our archiving process was slow, but it is now a priority for the Prasar Bharati CEO and things have been picking up. In the past six months, we have digitised about 800 hours of recordings. We must deal with different formats – there are reels, U-Matic tapes and so on. While restoring the old recordings, you often have to go frame-by-frame. As we digitise these old recordings, we patch them up too — our labs are like operation theatres. There are mouldy, spotted tapes that are painstakingly cleaned up before they can be turned into recognisable frames,” he elaborates.
The anger directed at the state-run archive is a multi-layered one. There is no comprehension of how they are to be accessed; also, one is hindered by the lack of information from the state. On gaining access, one often comes face-to-face with the mulish reluctance of the state to let go and disseminate. Artists are dissatisfied with the product of the archives. Prahlad complains about the static camera angles and the garish backdrops native to Doordarshan’s dance recordings. Several dancers share her angst at being forced to showcase an aesthetic arts practice in unflattering studio settings. Then there is the connoisseur, who knows that Doordarshan is sitting on a treasure trove of archival material, but is frustrated because little actually comes out.
Sometimes, these dilemmas are addressed in strange ways. A case in point is a dance website that lets users download recordings for a fee. Almost all its recordings are from the Doordarshan collection and have never been marketed by Doordarshan, only brought out for occasional airings on late-night television. Dancers who found their videos being sold on the site were outraged, but dance lovers were delighted.
Bharatanatyam dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant was flabbergasted when she found her videos being sold for a pittance on the site. She tried to discover the source of the leaks, but in vain. “I talked to officials at DD’s Hyderabad Kendra, but they were unaware of this leak. They were also unwilling to take it up and act on it. If you post your own videos, it is a different thing. But here, that choice is being taken away from you. This is not even about copying unlawfully; copying is generic to the arts! You can never put your finger on copying; this, however, brings up the larger issue of how we deal with someone else’s art and privacy. Why is it not okay to make a thousand crores but permissible to make two dollars off someone else’s work? Fairness, or corruption, should be measured by the same yardstick,” she argues.
This story mirrors the fable of the hare and the tortoise. Officials at DD, including Masoodi, claim to have no knowledge of the website. But the existence of downloadable videos proves that Doordarshan is sitting on a huge collection that they could make available at little production cost, if they were to make similar use of the internet. While they paid scant attention to their own archive, with a little enterprise and some inside help, the website got there first and did what Doordarshan should have done aeons ago, putting their own twist on events in the process.

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