Listening to the sound of music

Classical music — I prefer calling it ‘art music’, is constantly changing. Forget about what Amir Khusrau and his ilk did — every generation needs to understand the music of the generation that came before them. The intricacies of their music might elude us when we listen to them alone, but in listening sessions you have the chance to ask questions and clear your doubts,” says Suvarnalata Rao, head of programming for Indian music at the NCPA in Mumbai.
Rao organises a series of guided listening sessions called Nad Ninad, where the audience is led through a predetermined selection of music, often that of a single musician. These sessions are spearheaded by musicologists or people who may have interacted closely with an artiste in his/ her lifetime — as disciples, or sometimes, relatives.
Listening sessions are windows into older worlds of music making, and bring out oft-obscure points about technique and gharana. They are a means of accessing musical traditions within a contextual framework. Quirkily enough, it is modern technology, with its virtually limitless capacity to store, that gives us a greater access to the three-minute-long 78 rpm records cut by early 20th century greats. YouTube and other Internet portals host and disseminate a treasure trove of such music. This tremendous potential of the Internet, allowing collectors to upload and circulate prized recordings, excites Suresh Chandvankar immensely. Chandvankar is honorary secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors (SIRC).
“There are limitations to listening to music on your own — guided sessions often put things into perspective. The SIRC has been holding such sessions for two decades now. With modern technology, you can hold hundreds of hours of audio, video and textual matter on personal gadgets. If these are supplemented by information, context, relevance and music appreciation at different levels, it would constitute a great treasure for the future,” he says.
What is the focus of a guided listening session? Music and anecdotes about the lives of musicians often come together at such sessions.
Rao has definite views on the objectives of holding listening sessions. “Sometimes it helps to understand the nature of an artiste. We often screen small video excerpts during our listening sessions. Group participation really brings music alive — you feel as if you’re listening to an artiste perform live. On our own, you might not arrive at these insights,” she says. Rao finds that NCPA’s listening sessions are always well attended because there is an enormous amount of curiosity surrounding musicians who are no more. Listening sessions are also a way of disseminating material from existing institutional archives.
Anuja Ghosalkar, programme officer, arts research and documentation, at the India Foundation for the Arts, feels that listeners need to be more significantly involved in deciding what they want to hear, for which an orientation of the archive might help. “Listening sessions can only project a certain aspect of the archive... They must call for an ‘excavation’, which is to suggest that archives bury things,” she says.
Chandvankar, who is not loath to sharing music from his own rich collection, echoes her views. He says, “Present archives and institutions in India are one-way godowns where dissemination and public outreach is negligible. They are slowly opening up with listening sessions, but this mainly depends on the initiative shown by archivists.”
As a footnote, it is important to look at how listening sessions also intersect with debates on intellectual property, copyright and what constitutes “access” and “dissemination”. Institutions might be keen on airing archives conditionally, in controlled spaces, but are there ways to truly bring them into public spaces, free of archaic regulations restricting access to them?
For instance, the Digital South Asia Library hosted on the University of Chicago website carries gramophone recordings from the Linguistic Survey of India, with material from the early 20th century.
Excerpts from an introduction to the collection by Professor Shahid Amin of Delhi University explain the decision to put all these records on the Internet, “The putting of all these records on the Web will democratise access to this valuable sound archive of 20th century India. I am not sure whether Grierson, who did not ask the Government of India (GoI) to deposit a single set in an Indian library, or Risley, the senior functionary of the Raj, who in 1903 laid it down as official statement that ‘as the GoI is not aware that there is any newspaper, which is competent to review the volumes of the Linguistic Survey, the government has decided not to distribute copies in this country for this purpose’ — would have entirely approved. The massive Linguistic Survey of India was meant for the functionaries of the colonial state and scholars in England, Europe, and the US, not for Indians in India. For does the native really need to hear herself speak?”

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