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Untold stories of classical music

Vikram Sampath looks like he is just out of college. His sense of humour and the sparkle in his eyes when he laughs hide his prowess in history and classical music. Sampath, who prefers to call himself a classical musician with a historical bent of mind, is a software engineer and a mathematician by profession, and a singer by passion. He was awarded the prestigious Visiting Fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, where he researched the early gramophone recordings of Indian music. The author of three acclaimed books, Sampath has taken up the task of preserving the history of Indian music.

Sampath doesn’t like to be called a collector of old Hindustani classical music. Rather, he says, he is a preserver of the dying art form and is happiest when he burrows into pockets of history, searching for untold stories. He has established the Archive of Indian Music (AIM), a repository of gramophone recordings from all over India. As the founder-trustee, Sampath is looking at least four major hubs, including Delhi and Mumbai, for the Bengaluru-based AIM. In true corporate fashion, chief patron T.V. Mohandas Pai has set targets: a hundred thousand records to be digitised and uploaded initially; a portal and a revenue stream that would make the venture self-sustaining. Sampath, who was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s first Yuva Puraskar 2012 in English Literature, also founded the Bangalore Literature Festival. He spoke with Weekend Review. Excerpts:

What made a student of mathematics and engineering leave his job for music and history?

I have never been a very meticulous person to maintain a 9-to-5 job, as I get bored with the routine very easily. Music, writing and history has been a part of my life since early childhood, which I have blended to create a niche of my own. I shudder to think where I’d be without music. I feel that classical music is rightly called “sadhna” because it has an inherent meditative quality. It is the language of the soul, the purest form of expression.

Writing was never a conscious effort for me, frankly. I come from a multilingual family background and language was always a plus point for me right from school days. I would in fact write a lot more in Hindi then and also poetry in both Hindi and English. My essays would be read out to the rest of the class as model essays. I attribute this flair largely to my parents who inculcated the reading habit in me from a very young age. I feel that to be able to write well, one must read a lot — several authors and genres — before you can assimilate it all and create a style of your own.

History, too, has fascinated me since I was a child. As a child, I would go on self-motivated and self-financed research journeys to dig out information about things that intrigued me. Every vacation meant a trip to neighbouring Mysore, a visit to its palace, library and archives. In this, my parents and maternal grandmother were active collaborators and without their help I couldn’t have done what I did — for more than 12 years.

Why did you choose to write on classical music and history when everyone wants a bestseller?

I never started writing with the wish of being published. I never planned to be a published author. I just wrote for the joy it gave me. My now defunct blog had so many followers then and would get listed in several popularity charts. I toiled with ideas but never for once with the goal of converting it into a book. The idea was to understand the subject to my satisfaction.

But I agree to the theme of your question as I virtually seem to have so little competition in this area as there are very few authors of my age-group who write on subjects like this. That actually has both pluses and minuses. You get to set the trends in a way as a pioneer but at the same time the disadvantage is that you have so little to read, learn and emulate. I wish more people took to themes like these as I have always felt that every corner of India is teeming with stories waiting to be told. These are fascinating accounts that have been obliterated. And young people, with their persistence and vigour, could play the role similar to that of a investigative journalist.

Books has become so money-centric that writing has become a casualty. We have over-the-top writing, stale themes and excessive marketing tactics. I think whoever coined the term ‘bestseller’ must have done it to rig sales. There are a lot of innovative ideas that we need to explore. Pandering to the market falls flat eventually and we need to restore dignity to writing.

Tell us about the three books you have written so far.

“Voice of the Veena: S. Balachander” is the first official and authorised biography of this genius of Carnatic music, Padmabhushan Dr S. Balachander. I was very distressed that despite his mammoth contributions to the world of music — someone who was self-taught and mastered so many instruments, cut the largest number of long playing records in Carnatic music, created his own unique style of playing the Veena, a pole star of the Tamil film industry, a chess champion of repute — his life had gone undocumented and he is not as celebrated as he deserved to be. He was the first musician of the South to take Carnatic music to the West in 1961-62.

“Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of The Wodeyars” is an unbiased, definitive account of the Mysore dynasty, sketching a long and fascinating regime replete with wars, palace intrigues, romance, valour and deceit. This is a book for history lovers and people who are artistically inclined and recognise art in any form. There was a television serial on the life of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. A lot of people were aggrieved at the misrepresentation of historical facts in the serial. That made me work on this book.

“Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician” traces this celebrated singer’s journey right from her Anglo-Indian and Armenian roots to her conversion to Islam, to her making it to the prestigious soirees of the royal courts of India as a tawaif, to her achieving success as India’s first gramophone star and her eventual doom.

I found myself drawn to Gauhar Jaan also because she was the first Indian and woman who recorded on the gramophone, and she had quite a flamboyant life. The few snippets that I gathered about her seemed to indicate a stormy and eventful life. For someone who was a celebrity in her heyday and known all over the country, the fact that she had to resettle in distant Mysore from Calcutta, and that too on a measly pension, seemed to indicate that she had gone through a lot in life.

Why is there a dearth of biographies of Indian musicians?

Even a seemingly simple literary genre can be very tricky especially if you take on writing about somebody very famous. In India there is culture of cult worship and anyone telling the truth can be sermonised by family members and people with vested interest. Also, there is hardly any documentation, which makes research difficult. Secondly, there is always the danger of the writer getting so emotionally entangled with the subject that biographies often end up becoming hagiographies. This is especially true in the world of classical musicians. People start associating musicians with miracles, such as “they sang and it started to rain”, as if they were demigods. But in reality, they are just people like us.

While researching for my book on Gauhar Jaan, I went to Berlin on a visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. I chanced upon some recordings by Indian artistes across Europe’s Sound Archives in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London. The constant refrain everywhere was why India does not have a national sound archive. I strongly felt the need to do something about it. I got support from T.V. Mohandas Pai, then with Infosys, and now, chairman, Manipal Global Education. He advised me to establish AIM as a private non-profit trust. And that’s how AIM was born with my parents as founder trustees. Today, there are many others, such as my gurus Bombay Jayasri and Jayanthi Kumaresh, Shyam Benegal, Sonal Mansingh, Alarmel Valli, Nandini Ramani, Chinmaya Gharekhan, Shyamala Bhave and Lalith Rao, whose invaluable contributions have helped the website grow.

Today, I have with me nearly 24,000 tracks of recorded sound, of which I have so far uploaded 600 pieces. Digitising the gramophone plates is no mean task. They were all in the original analogue form of a 78rpm or a vinyl disc (EP or LP). We imported special equipment for the digital transfers. My technician Chethan Kumar tirelessly cleans the records, digitises and catalogues them on a daily basis. The whole journey so far has been gratifying because in just the month and a half since the website went up, there have been 35,000 plays by people from Iran, Pakistan, Australia and the United States. We have so much more material, such as tribal recordings by artistes from Chattisgarh. It has been a learning experience at every step.

What is your vision for the Bangalore Literature festival?

Recently, we concluded the second edition of the festival, which in my mind was a bigger success than last year. In comparison to other festivals I would say our USP is that we focus on regional languages and dialects from Karnataka, such as Tulu, Kodava, Beary, Konkani, Arebhaashe, some of which may not even have a script, but can yet boast a lot of literature. There was a feature on Mattur village, where Sanskrit is a vibrant, living language.

Bangalore [Bengaluru] is the most cosmopolitan city. We wanted a festival that would reflect that. At Jaipur [Literature Festival], some celebrities get more attention, due to the press. Yet there are some 200 other writers, apart from Salman Rushdie, who sadly go unnoticed. We are at least clear that we do not want to make this festival an exclusive elitist event but one where everyone can take part.

Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata.

Visit for details on AIM’s efforts to preserve Hindustani classical music.