Musical Saga in the Making
Musical Saga in the Making…
“Like most great inventions were a result of some accident, Bajanaama and the series also just happened,” says Amar Nath Sharma, former civil servant and an ardent music lover. “While strolling down a street in Kolkata, I stumbled upon records that had been dumped at a Kabadi (junk) shop. My passion for music led me to enquire about that heap and something within stirred and I decided to take up the herculean task.” The incident took place 25 years ago; Sharma has been excavating musical records ever since. And in this journey, he assiduously collected some of the oldest musical records in the world.
Sharma has penned two books on the old musical recording instruments. The first one, Bajanaama, elucidates the history of gramophone records that date back to, as early as, 1906. It also explains the socio- political scenario of the time giving an insight into the challenges that the early recorders faced and how the recordings played an important role in the independence struggle. The second – The Wonder That Was the Cylinder, deals with the now mostly forgotten cylinders which was one of the first recorded devices.
The best part of Sharma’s books is that it was not written to become a bestseller, or to win awards; it was written solely for a noble cause. It was an attempt to preserve incredible wealth of music that our country is endowed with. It is Sharma’s contribution to the borderless world of music. It’s aim was to help researchers preserve the musical glories of ancient India, which sadly does not attract much attention these days.
“I want that these books make their way to the libraries across the globe and help researchers and music lovers preserve the rich musical tradition of our country,” says Sharma.
Initially, Sharma was approached by Kathachitra publication to write an article on the subject but when the publishers realized vastness of the subject, the idea of a series of seven books was conceived. Early history of sound recording in India cannot be summed up in one book and therefore the series. Actually, the number of the books may go up.
“Records are basically V-books (Voice books). These are documents representing the aural history of our country and are needed to be heard, deciphered, appreciated in context to their history and be accorded the niche place they deserve in the evolution of the society,” explains A N Sharma.
Reception of books post-publication
“When my first book ‘Bajanaama’ was published, I was not very sure about its acceptability by readers. However with time, the book received wider recognition and respect. This encouraged me to think about the next project, which on publication, received the same admiration and acceptance as my first book. I feel that these two works are proving to be stepping stones towards establishing the aural history of the Indian sub-continent. It is just a beginning; many more are expected to join the series.
“As this field needs missionary zeal to collect, co-relate, collate and contribute, a sense of responsibility has ascended over me and I am on a mission to bring forth elements of this hidden treasure,” said Sharma.
Ongoing research for other books in the series
At present I am working on three projects simultaneously
I) Aural -History of Indian Freedom movement
The book is on pre-independence India and recordings related to it. It shall deal with recordings related to freedom movement, British crown and officers, rajas and nababs and their subjects. It will also chronicle characters whose recording are linked to freedom achievement from a sub-altern angle.
II) Aural – History of colonial nautch girls
This book on colonial Nautch girls shall be an in-depth study of politico-economic and sociocultural history of these women of our sub-continent who despite humiliation and sufferings helped to preserve our great cultural heritage. It will primarily revolve around those characters whose records are available. Some of these women were born around 1850s.
III) The History and Documentation of the Indian Silent Cinema (1913-1934)
The third topic that is being dealt with is work on Indian silent cinema. It is a four to six volume encyclopaedic work that aims to
bring forth details of quite a number of Indian silent movies, a genre considered long lost. More than 1,300 silent films were produced in India between 1913 and 1934. However, less than one per cent has managed to survive the test of time. Even their storyline, photographs have vanished. “In last 25 years l have gathered invaluable material on the subject and plan to publish the work”, shares Sharma.
The journey of Bajanaama
The journey of ‘Bajanaama’ was full of struggle, says Sharma. It took him around eight years to get the final work published. But of course once it got published, it was accepted well. Pointing to the fact that publishing such works is a costly affair, he says that the task was made even more challenging as there wasn’t any institutional or philanthropic support. The hard work is reflected in the book which contains materials collected over two decades. “During this period, I had to virtually search every possible KabaadKhaana (junkyard) of our country. I felt pity to see some of the invaluable cultural heritage scattered on footpaths, uncared and unattended,” rues Sharma. He also feels sad saying that during this entire endeavor, he hardly came across any library or institution that has bothered to collect and preserve such documents of historical importance. Such apathy has caused irreparable loss to our national Heritage, he laments.
The journey of the Wonder that Was the Cylinder
“The journey of my second work was both fascinating and frustrating; Fascinating, because it is a first of its kind and frustrating because we witness loss of some invaluable heritage of our culture’ says Sharma.
The book explores the noncommercial era of sound recording of the Indian Sub-continent and recordings that have been discovered for the first time in the world. It deals with India’s oldest voice recordings of 1899; a treasure to keep especially for research on the subject. Till this book was published, it was believed that the earliest recordings began from 1902.
Till publication of this work, it was almost unanimously accepted by scholars, ethno-musicologists and sound-archivist that no Indian voice recorded on Cylinders existed, except those lying in the British and German Museums. Furthermore, Sharma feels proud to say that these recordings are in India and not in any foreign land. “With the publication of my second work we are able to trace and take History to few steps backward. The book, through a documentary DVD also gives its readers, an opportunity to listen to unheard voices of Ustad Alladiya Khan, Pdt. V.D. Paluskar, Bhaurao Kolhatkar, Dada Saheb Phalke and Bhaskar Boa Bakhale, among many.
What frustrates Sharma is the callousness and carelessness with which we have allowed such invaluable gems of our cultural History to perish. Worse still, whatever has been documented could be lost too as they are not being cared for. “There is a need for an initiative to preserve these. The western nations have preserved such elements of their cultural History by opening museums. They did this almost 125 years back and we are still to initiate. I would like the experts of Indian Music to take a call and contribute towards preserving these priceless objects for posterity,” he says.
‘Labor of love’
Ever since Bajanama was published, appreciation has been pouring in from all quarters including research scholars, music-lovers, performing artists, publishers and academics, many based overseas. The critics have given the book the title of “Labour of love.” Sharma says, “They invariably appreciated my commitment of 25 long years and towards my efforts to create and rewrite the History by giving it all together a new dimension.”
Institutions like Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) New Delhi, FCT (Faculty of Contemporary Theories) Vadodara, Association of British Scholars, Vadodara and Film Heritage Foundation, Mumbai have invited Sharma to talk on the subject. In addition, there has been huge support and appreciation from the media.
Two and a half decades, and counting
According to Sharma, this time span of 25 years and the dedication is still insufficient for the work. It needs a battalion of dedicated workers with sufficient resources to preserve and archive these invaluable cultural heritage pieces. “I took a month’s leave to write this book and worked religiously from 7 PM to 7 AM, everyday. My wife’s moral support and that last cup of tea at 2 AM was really an experience worth remembering. Nobody then believed that I can write a book on such the subject but now I have it and more are in the pipeline” says Sharma proudly.
Daughter’s helping hand
Anukriti, daughter of A N Sharma, has been a partner to him while working on the second book. With a background in English literature and editing, her contribution helped Sharma research better and narrate better.
On his experience of working with new generation, he says, “The added advantage was an opportunity of discussing the subject with eager and inquisitive minded person. It was also great experience to watch new generations work on old and archival subject.”
There are seven to eight books that are a part of the saga of the musical history. The subject is vast. Its encapsulation in few chapters doesn’t give satisfaction. Each record is a book in itself. Sharma says that the concepts are very clear in his mind and that the books will follow one by one in due course. He also says that a lot of work needs to be done on musical history of the country. For instance, a number of female singers who were prima-donnas of their time have just been forgotten. It will be a befitting tribute to them, if we choose them as a subject and write on their voice as well as social, cultural and economic environment in which they lived and worked, he adds.
We Indians take immense pride in our cultural history and traditions of which music is a big part. It will be a travesty if we lose our revered musicians, their works and their legacies simply because of our negligence. Amar Nath Sharma has shown that with concerted efforts, we can still salvage a lot of our great musicians’ works. It is incumbent upon Indian government, art institutions, art historians and public at large to encourage such individuals who are toiling to preserve the country’s cultural heritage, and present the same to people, to whom this wealth belongs.