THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

6 posts categorized "South Asia"

01 October 2018

Recording of the week: a Tamil lullaby

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This week's selection comes from Christian Poske, AHRC Collaborative PhD candidate and Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The English musicologist Arthur Henry Fox Strangways recorded this Tamil lullaby with the title Lālishrīta in South India during a recording trip through the Indian subcontinent in 1910-11. An outcome of his research in India was his book The Music of Hindostan (1914) which featured transcriptions and translations of many of the songs he recorded, bringing Indian music closer to European audiences. In the book, he translates the first stanza of the song as: "Baby mine, light of my eyes, here in thy cradle bright with flowers, through sunny hours I bring thee sleep, I rock thee and sing thee to sleep, on the wings of my melodies."

Fox Strangways C72/872, song 2: Lālishrīta

Lullabies transcription (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Fox Strangways also included a photo of the performer, a school teacher from Tanjore.

Schoolmistress  Tanjore (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Professor Martin Clayton (1999: 104-112) reanalysed the song and Fox Strangways’ transcription of it, noticing that the six-beat scheme of the notation did not correspond to the rhythm of the song, which appears to be sung in a free metre. Fox Strangways may have assigned this rhythm to the piece to improve understanding for Western readers familiar with lullabies in 3/4 and 6/8 time. His inclusion in the book of only the English translation of the lyrics may also be attributed to the same reason.

Additional recordings from the Fox Strangways collection are available at https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Ethnographic-wax-cylinders

[Footnote: Clayton, Martin (1999). 'A. H. Fox Strangways and the Music of Hindostan: revisiting historical field recordings'. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 124: 86-118.]

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 June 2018

International research collaboration on South Asian audiovisual heritage

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In March this year the British Library began a new research project with the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE) in India, focused around our South Asian audiovisual heritage collections.

Funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

In this post, Dr Sangeeta Dutta, ARCE Archivist, discusses the research fellowship she has been undertaking as part of the project, in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive.

 

IMG_E6537
Dr Sangeeta Dutta

The ‘International Fellowship in South Asian Audiovisual Heritage: Preservation, Research and Engagement’ is a collective endeavour, involving the exchange and sharing of resources of two audiovisual archives - the British Library Sound Archive and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE), India. It aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge of archival practices and of collections, or information about collections, held in each location. A particular objective is to exchange historical recordings made in the first decades of the 20th Century on wax cylinders, and to make them accessible for users at both the archives.

In India, ARCE is one of the pioneers of audiovisual archiving. It was established in 1982, with a vision to bring together the recorded collections of music and oral traditions of South Asia. It has collections of field and published recordings, voluntarily deposited or donated by foreign and Indian scholars and institutions, which are preserved in climate controlled storage and made available for users in a well-equipped listening and viewing room. It has recording, transferring and audio and video archiving facilities, across different technologies and formats. It follows global standards of preservation in audio and video formats in the digital era.

Since I began my fellowship in March, I have had the opportunity to explore various South Asian collections, specially the recordings made in India, and to become familiar with the workflows of the British Library Sound Archive. This fellowship has also been instrumental in providing the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s major digitisation programme, the Save Our Sounds Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. As part of my contribution I have created collection preparation documents for 11 South Asian collections, which have been prioritised for digitisation.  

ARCE lab-3
M. Umashankar in the audio lab at ARCE

I have also been involved in the cataloguing process of both the field and published recordings in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive, creating catalogue entries, working with newly acquired collection items and dealing with born-digital collections. These experiences have been a brilliant learning opportunity for me as Rutherford Fellow. The project has also allowed me to compare, develop and share approaches towards making sound heritage accessible for wider dissemination.

During the Fellowship I have had the opportunity to attend various training courses, ranging from metadata creation to developing dissemination processes. Through these I have learnt something of the tools and practices that will be applicable at various stages of audiovisual archiving in future. The Fellowship has also made it possible for me to visit related institutions and exhibitions in and around London, and to meet scholars of various disciplines - archivists, museum curators, ethnomusicologists, etc. These meetings and discussions have immensely influenced my thought processes involving audiovisual archiving in relation to ethnomusicology.

Another component of the project has been the engagement of two Collections Assistants, one at the British Library Sound Archive (Christian Poske) the other at ARCE in India (Dr Divya Shrivastava). The assistants have contributed towards the preparation of the recordings shared between the two archives, exchanging knowledge around respective cataloguing formats, and developing a model for the classification and cataloguing of musical instruments. Both the Collections Assistants have had the opportunity to make short visits to the partner archives, thereby having hands on experience of archival processes in both institutions.  

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Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead, Curator of World and Traditional Music, centre) with Collections Assistants Christian Poske and Divya Shrivastava during her visit to the British Library  

One of the most useful outcomes of the sharing of recordings between our two audiovisual archives will be the wider level of dissemination, particularly where users cannot visit the actual site where the recordings are preserved. The project will make information and expert knowledge of ARCE collections available for the first time to British Library users and audiences in the UK. In India, on the other hand, where ARCE is one of the primary research centres for ethnomusicology, being able to provide access to British Library collections will be of great value to users – a mixture of Indian and international scholars.

Thus the Rutherford Fellowship has facilitated a substantial international collaboration between the British Library and the ARCE. This has enabled the Library to share resources preserved in London with the region of origin. At the same time detailed knowledge held at the ARCE, for example of particular instruments and instrument classification systems, will allow these resources to be more usefully described and discovered. We thank our funders for helping to create this new pathway for the circulation of knowledge among the institutions, building a bridge between the archives and their users. 

 

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

 

02 February 2018

Partition Voices wins Public History Prize

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August 2017 saw the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India. The ground-breaking BBC Radio 4 series Partition Voices documented this traumatic time through first-hand testimony, which were then crafted into three 40 minute programmes broadcast on 31 July, 7 and 14 August 2017. All three are available on the BBC iPlayer.

The series has had a legacy of its own as Kavita Puri (presenter) and Ant Adeane (one of the producers) then completed the additional work on the permissions forms, transcripts and content summaries necessary to archive 32 of the audio interviews into the oral history collections here at the British Library. The full interviews are available for researchers in the Library Reading Rooms, and will be launched for online access in 2019.

The Partition Voices collection (reference C1790) sits alongside many existing oral history collections which contain powerful testimonies of migration and the impact of the colonial British past. In what might be one of the last opportunities to gather these testimonies, Partition Voices recounted the first-hand testimonies from British Asians and Colonial British who lived through the partition of India 70 years ago.

The programmes documented the years leading up to the division and the bloody aftermath which saw up to 12 million people displaced and up to one million people killed. The final programme told of the legacy in Britain today, not only for those who lived through it, but for the second and third generations.

In my view the programmes managed the challenging task of reflecting the complexity of experiences: geographically within British India; reflections from women; as well as gathering testimony from many of the communities who lived through it, not only Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, but also Anglo-Indians, Parsees and Colonial British. I was impressed by the use of personal testimony to weave a compelling narrative which did not shy away from difficult subjects. Here is a glimpse of stories from just four of the narrators.

The series had a wide impact as it brought to the fore this seldom-told but shared history between South Asia and Britain, which provoked reflection on the role and legacy of the British Empire. In reaction to the series many British people spoke of how they did not know about this part of their history, and British Asians – many thousands of whom are descended from families affected by partition – said how the programmes made them think in-depth about the events and legacy of 1947 in their own families and communities.

I’m delighted to announce that Partition Voices has now been recognised by Royal Historical Society, as winner of the both the radio/podcast category and overall Public History Prize 2018. The oral history team have had previous success in the Public History Prize, winning the web category for Voices of Science in 2015.

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Back row: Ant Adeane (producer), Tim Smith (producer), Hugh Levinson (Head, BBC Radio Current Affairs) Front Row: Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History Curator), Kavita Puri (presenter) and Mohit Bakaya (Radio 4 commissioning editor, factual) Not pictured: Mike Gallagher (producer), David Govier (British Library Oral History Archivist)

It was a privilege to attend the award ceremony last Friday to see this series recognised, and hear about so many other admirable and powerful public history projects commended by the RHS.

Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History February 2018

25 May 2017

An Ode to Early Record Catalogues

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Thomas Henry is a collector of 78 rpm records based in Paris who has carried out extensive research on the history of sound recording through his blog Ceints de Bakélite and his interactive mapping project Disquaires de Paris. With a background in history and sociology of music from Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, he is originally a vinyl collector who converted to shellac a decade ago after finding a bunch of mysterious Armenian 78 rpm records at Yerevan’s flea market.

A member of Paris Phono Museum, he also holds the Vice-Chair position of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives’ (IASA) discography committee. One of the aims of the committee is to create a network of partners who will collaboratively create a bibliography of discographies including information about all current, out-of-print and in progress discographies published worldwide in print and electronic formats. Digital versions of discographies, including those which have thus far only been available in print, will also be made available through this bibliography. You can access it and add to it through IASA’s webpage.

A discography is a comprehensive and detailed compilation of musical recordings, particularly those of a particular performer or composer. It is also very common to find discographies dedicated to a music style or a label. Behind a discography, there is the will to provide more information about a body of sound recordings. Discographies are often created by a researcher, a collector or an institution. Some of them are printed and published, some of them are just excel sheets on the computer of private collectors, but all of them are created with the same purpose: increasing knowledge about an artist or an orchestra, a composer, a label, a music style, etc. Record catalogues, key sources for this type of research, are printed documents produced by record companies that can be used as valuable tools by discographers and music aficionados. They offer less information than a discography about the sound recordings, but are full of interesting elements that complement and enhance them. 

For this blog post, Henry takes a closer look at some of the record catalogues made available online by the British Library and through their rich visual iconography, illustrates their use and history. Thomas Henry would like to thank Jonathan Ward and Suresh Chandvankar for their assistance in writing this piece.

An ode to early record catalogues

While listening to a fox-trot from the mid 1920's, a Beethoven sonata from the 1930's or a calypso from the early 50's, one might want to learn more about it. Of course some information will be available on the record's centre label but this information can be quite limited or not directly comprehensible. The name of a performer or an orchestra, title of a song, name and logo of a record company, short description ("fox-trot", "piano solo", "tenor with orchestra", "birds imitation" etc...), language and some obscure figures and letters can still lead us to wonder - When was this recorded? Who is the singer? What did he/she look like? Was he/she famous? What were people listening to at the time? And how did they listen to their records?

Finding answers to all these questions might take time or even turn into a lifelong quest for some obsessive researchers. Such research can be somewhat akin to detective work and clues can be found browsing photograph, newspaper, poster or sheet music collections available in libraries. Another fascinating, often underrated but incredibly useful item in this research is the record catalogue. 175 record catalogues have been digitized and made available on the British Library website. They are focussed on the British market and cover the "acoustic era" - from the late 19th century to the mid 1920's - before the microphone’s invention. One might see these catalogues as just a simple listing of records, but they are actually much more than that and in this post, I'll try to show why.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVOX1925XXX-0000V0
New His Master’s Voice Operatic Records, 1925

From the very beginning of the phonographic industry, all recording companies published catalogues listing their published output: wax cylinders and later on, records. In most cases, "general catalogues" were published every year and these were sometimes completed by "supplements", published on a monthly basis. In addition, some extra catalogues were also published for specific repertoires or special occasions. Created for a commercial use, these catalogues firstly give an overview of a record company's output at a given moment in time and illustrate how this output was categorised and marketed. Indications on the label's colours assigned to each musical style and its corresponding price range give us a clear picture of what it was like buying records in the past.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-ZONXX1913X14-0000V0
Zonophone Record Catalogue, 1913-14

The very first catalogues from the late 1890’s rarely mention the name of performers and composers; potential buyers were more interested in the name of a popular melody or an opera. Their content gets more precise over time and later catalogues, provide much more detail.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-EDIGX1898XXX-0000V0
Edison-Bell List of Records, 1898

These catalogues do not just consist of a monotone alphabetically ordered list of artists, they let us discover a very rich iconography - photographs, drawings, advertisements - complementary to the sounds themselves.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

Beyond their aesthetic dimension, these graphic elements provide interesting information on the ways in which  records and talking machines have been used over time. In addition, they often include technical tips on the best ways to play and store records, information that can be useful for people interested the history of sound recordings and talking machines.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-PATGX1910X11-0000V0
Complete Catalogue of Pathe Standards 10 Inch Double Sided Discs, 1911

These catalogues are also full of photographs and biographical elements about artists that can be hard to find anywhere else. They reflect consumers' tastes of the time, showing what the hits and who the big stars of the early 20th century were. This gives us some clues about the music our ancestors were listening to. No talking machine nor record collection from that time has survived in my family, so I can only speculate: were my great-grandparents fans of the French soprano Emma Calvé or the baritone Maurice Renaud? 

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRARX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of “Red Label” Gramophone Records, February 1904

Or were they listening to marches by La Garde Républicaine and comic monologues by Parisian “Café-Concert” artists? Or were they actually lovers of rare or upbeat - yet popular - repertoires, such as animal imitations, whistling or hunting horn recordings?

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1910X08-0000V0
New Gramophone Records, August 1910

 At a time where phonographs and gramophones were still considered by many as amusing curiosities rather than a way to enjoy “serious” music, convincing famous artists to make recordings was also a way for record companies to legitimize the talking machine. From very early on, The Gramophone Company understood that and some of its older catalogues feature pages where some popular singers express their admiration for the Gramophone and its capacity to faithfully reproduce their voice.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVCX1915XXX-0000V0
His Master's Voice Celebrity Records, 1915

In the same vein, record companies also used their catalogues to promote some of their “sensational” or unusual recordings and demonstrate the superiority of their products. Lacking Lolcats at the time, lambs and dogs were preferred to create a buzz.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

As an object, each of these catalogues has its own history. If you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they have many stories to tell about their former owners and the period during which they were published. They might include personal hand-written notes by their former owners or references to the historical and political background, as illustrated by the following reference to the Russo-Japanese War.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAMX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of Twelve-inch Gramophone Monarch Records, March 1904

​Early recordings made in some regions of the world are less documented than those made in Western countries. In some cases, there is no longer an existing archive allowing us to discover more about an artist and the context in which he or she was recorded. For these types of records, the work of discographers becomes absolutely essential. Based on a systematic inventorisation and analysis of cylinder and record details - performers, title, language, label, genre, matrix and catalogue numbers - discographical research provides valuable elements to find out the date and the result of a recording session. Record catalogues are a key resource for discographers, as they feature dating and background information. Browsing these catalogues is often the first step in discographical research, even though some of them are very rare - in some cases much rarer than records themselves! The opposite also holds true: records listed in some catalogues might never turn up and  their presence in a catalogue remains the only evidence that they ever existed.


As a collector of 78 rpm records “from around the world” - some might call them “world music” or “ethnic” records - I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some beautiful examples from this area taken from the British Library’s catalogue collection. They let us discover some very early Indian, Persian, Arabic and Russian recordings made in 1899 by the Gramophone Company in London.

https://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAGX1901XXX-0000V0
Gramophone Record Catalogue, 1899

 As part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Program, a large collection of 1,408 Indian songs recorded on 78 rpm records were digitized and made accessible online in 2016. This unique material, focussed on the Odeon and Young India labels was sourced from private Indian collectors Suresh Chandvankar, Sunny Matthew and Narayan Mulan. Some very rare catalogues were also digitized, allowing us to enjoy their gorgeous illustrations and fascinating photographs while listening to some of the fabulous recordings available, such as this solo of Sundari, a double reed instrument, performed by Vithal More.

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Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
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Young India Catalogues - Gujrathi, March 1941

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

19 May 2017

The Sound Recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake at the British Library: A treasure trove of South Asian music

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This is the second blog from World and Traditional Music highlighting collections at the British Library  from India, as part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture

19th May 1899 is the birth date of Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake [1899-1963].

Today the British Library is launching the first series of recordings from his collection of music from South Asia which has been a great resource for many academics across several disciplines. The British Library is actively engaged with a number of international academics and communities who are working with wax cylinder recordings from the Arnold Adriaan Bake archive to enhance the documentation for these recordings. They are being released in regional batches as research progresses.

The first batch includes recordings from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. These recordings have been the focus of PhD student Christian Poske's research, the author of this blog. 

Bake_1

Bauls at the Jaydev Kenduli festival, West Bengal, India, 15.1.1932.

(Still of film by Arnold Adriaan Bake, British Library, C52/FO/12)

 “Kees, Charley and I enjoyed the silence, and headed towards a small camp much closer to the way, where we had heard such nice flute playing. It was quite unreal. Some women and men, marvellous figures, sat in a circle, and a quite old man warmed a pair of long, thin hands above the small fire. Facing with his back to us, a man played on a bamboo flute, (…) completely detached from the outer world. It was splendid. We remained standing for quite some time and listened (…) The flute player stopped, and one of the others sang a song that was also very nice. To my great surprise, they agreed to come to the tent in the afternoon of the next day to record songs. I was very happy. It was the first really good thing that we had heard.” (Arnold A. Bake, Letter to his mother, 20.1.1932)

 

 C52_1757 Eman sādher bāgāne āmār

Listen: C52/1757, MP3 “Eman sādher bāgāne āmār” (engl. “In the garden of my desire”): Song performed by three Bauls, vocals with percussion accompaniment (Jaydev Kenduli, 15.1.1932, phonographic cylinder recording by Arnold Bake). This song belongs to the category of dehatattva (lit. ‘principles of the body’), the philosophy of the role and function of the human body, perceived as dwelling place of the divine, in attaining spiritual salvation. In its lyrics, aspects of human life are expressed through natural symbolism and personification: the six human sentiments of kāma (lust), krodha (anger), lābh (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (attachment), mātsarya (jealousy), known as ṣaḍṛpu (six enemies) in Indian philosophy, are described as six gardeners with corresponding character traits who influence human nature.

The Dutch ethnomusicologist Dr Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963) was a pioneer in the study of South Asian music and dance. Initially trained in Western music, Bake was perhaps the first Western scholar to fully realise the wealth and diversity of South Asian music and dance traditions, which could be found not only in urban salons, theatres and concert-halls, but also in temples, monasteries, small towns and remote villages, across the sub-continent and at all levels of society. Taking advantage of the latest developments in audiovisual recording technology, and with the devoted help of his wife Corrie, he set about documenting this diversity - from Sri Lanka in the south to Nepal and Ladakh in the north - with unprecedented dedication and energy. The World and Traditional Music Collection of the British Library holds a unique anthology of material recorded by Bake. Its Bake collection spans not only many decades but also many formats of audio and visual material including wax cylinders, tefi-bands, open reel tapes and 16mm black and white and colour silent films, providing a complex and detailed document of music and ritual in South Asia from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

Bake_2
Arnold A. Bake recording women of the Mannan tribe, Kerala, 17.11.1933

(British Library, C52/FO/12)

            In the course of my AHRC-funded research at SOAS and the British Library Sound Archive, I am studying Bake’s fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. In the last few months, I have evaluated his audio recordings and silent film recordings from these regions with the support of World and Traditional Music curators, Janet Topp Fargion and Isobel Clouter. Bake’s overseas correspondence, which is stored in the India Office Records and Private Papers collection of the British Library, provides much information about his fieldwork. Through an evaluation of these letters, new information related to Bake’s fieldwork and recordings has emerged so that previously uncatalogued recordings could be identified.

Bake_3
Arnold A. Bake with tabla and tanpura, Santiniketan, around 1926-27

(Bake collection, SOAS Music Department, SNK 55)

Presumably, Arnold Bake's interest in Indian music was sparked by the visit of the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to the Netherlands in 1920. Having studied Sanskrit and other Asian languages in Leiden and Utrecht, Bake decided to complete his doctoral thesis, a translation of two chapters of the Saṅgīta Darpaṇa, a seventeenth-century treatise on Indian musicology, at Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s university in Santiniketan in West Bengal. While completing his thesis at the university, Bake also learned to sing Indian classical music and Rabindrasangit, the songs of Tagore, from 1925 to 1929. After his return to Europe, Bake held lectures on Indian music in Europe, providing practical demonstrations by singing Indian songs. Bake also sang some of Tagore’s songs at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1930.

C52 2022-2 Nāi nāi bhay

Listen: C52/2022 (song 2), MP3 “Nāi nāi bhay” (engl. “Don’t be afraid”): Rabindrasangit, performed by Arnold A. Bake (Berlin, early 1930, phonographic cylinder recording by Georg Schünemann). Tagore originally wrote this song during one of his European journeys in Munich in September 1926, inspired by the struggles of Jatin Das and other leading figures of the Indian independence movement. The song praises the strength of the human spirit in the face of difficulties. In 1935, Bake published a transcription of the song in his book Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts.[1]

During his second stay in India from 1931 to 1934, Bake was again based in Santiniketan. From there, he made several recording trips to festivals in the vicinity to record folk and devotional music such as Santal music and dance, Baul music and Vaiṣṇava kīrtan. To reach the recording locations in the morning, Bake and his wife often had to travel overnight on bullock carts:

We took our two mattresses with us so that we had camping beds (…) - first straw, then two mattresses, then our bedding. It got cold quickly, so we wrapped up in the blankets nicely. Nevertheless, the cold still got us and we got out again in the middle of the night. (…) Around 6 am we climbed down from the cart and ran ourselves warm. At 7 am, Ganapati made tea somewhere by the side of the way, and at 8 am we started again and walked in front. It was around 10 am when we arrived in Kenduli (…)

(Bake, 20.1.1932)

Bake’s third fieldwork trip in South Asia was prolonged by the outbreak of the Second World War and took place between 1937 to 1946. His last fieldwork in South Asia took place in 1955-6, centering on Nepal. Bake also found the time to revisit Santiniketan for a few days, where he recorded Indira Devi Chaudhurani (1873-1960), the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who had helped to establish the music department of Visva-Bharati University. Recorded when she was 82, her rendition of Tagore’s song “Katabār bhebechinu” has a striking intensity.

C52_NEP71-1 Katabār bhebechinu


Listen: C52/NEP/71 (song 1), MP3 “
Katabār bhebechinu” (engl. “How many times have I thought”): Rabindrasangit performed by Indira Devi Chaudhurani (Santiniketan, 8.3.1956, reel-to-reel recording by Arnold Bake). Tagore originally wrote this song in 1885, modelling its melody after the English folk song “Drink to me only with thine eyes”. The Bengali lyrics speak of surrender to the beloved one and are a fine example of how Tagore merged expressions of human and spiritual love in his compositions, inspired by the concept of bhakti (devotion) of Hindu Vaiṣṇavism. In 1961, Bake published a comparative musical analysis of both songs in his article “Tagore and Western Music”.[2]

Bake’s cylinder recordings of his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1931-34 are now available for listening online at British Library Sounds, where they can be listened to for enjoyment as well as for further exploration by ethnomusicologists. Many of Bake’s recordings from other South Asian regions still await further evaluation, and thus provide fertile ground for further research.

 

[1] Arnold A. Bake, ed., Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts, Bibliothèque musicale du Musée Guimet. (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1935).

[2] Arnold A. Bake, “Tagore and Western Music,” in A Centenary Volume: Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1961 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961), 88–95.

 

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

08 February 2017

2017 UK-India Year of Culture: Praise music of Rāṛh, India

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2017 is the UK-India Year of Culture. It marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and, through a varied programme of projects and events – led by the Ministry of Culture in India, the Nehru Centre and other Indian cultural organisations in the UK and the British Council – aims to highlight India-UK cultural relations. World and Traditional Music will publish several blogs through the year that will spotlight various musical traditions from India through the prism of collections and projects at the British Library. The first is a guest blog from Jyoshna La Trobe.

Jyoshna gained her PhD in Music from SOAS, University of London in 2010, on “Praise singing and the Performance of Ecstasy, in the Purulia District of West Bengal, India”. Her collection at the British Library (C1211) comprises over 140 hours of audio and video recordings made primarily as part of her doctoral research and in continued projects to date.

 

Fig 1. Rarh kirtan team, India
Rāṛh kīrtan team, India

It’s been twenty years since I began this journey of researching the music culture of Rāṛh in north east India, particularly kīrtan ‘praise music’. Though I had been practicing kīrtan for many years I could not begin to grasp the depth or scope of the music tradition of which I was a part until 2006 when I was able to embark on detailed research for my doctorate at SOAS. Informed by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar's seminal book entitled Rāṛh, translation into English from Bengali in 2004, I ventured to this region with some knowledge of its special significance in Indian history. The mechanics and structure of the kīrtan music, I soon discovered, were unknown to anyone outside the region at the time. Hence my endeavour was to explore how the musicians could create such ecstatic heights of devotional expression.

What is kīrtan?

Fig 2 Kirtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kirtan team
Kīrtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kīrtan team

Kīrtan (Sanskit. kiirtana) comes from the Sanskrit word ‘kirt’ which means ‘loud’. In the panorama of music traditions all around the world, ‘loud’ calls or chants to the deity can be heard, whether a Hallelujah chorus, a Hari Bolo kīrtan, or any other sacred chant sung by a congregation at a ceremonial gathering. In essence, kīrtan is the musical expression of spiritual longing and a horde of other emotions, all directed to the deity whose name is being sung, through song, chant, music and dance (samgiita). Calling only the name of god or nama kīrtan is also known as marai kīrtan in this region.

Marai Kīrtan

My research is not the whole spectrum of Rāṛhi kīrtan, which is too vast to cover, but is focused on Rāṛhi marai kīrtan meaning ‘circular’ or ‘grinding’ the name of god. “Marai is not a Bengali word, it is local Purulian or Rāṛh local word, it means to move in a circle, while the internal meaning is ‘to grind’, for if you grind Hari’s name, in your heart, like sugarcane, then it will melt and become nectar for God” (Jagaran Mahato 2007: personal communicaton).

Textually speaking, marai kīrtan could not be simpler: musicians devise a multitude of ways of singing god’s name with only two words, Hari Bolo. Hari is the name of god, and bolo means ‘speak, say or call’. As a musical structure its complex form is not dissimilar to a western classical or jazz piece with specific instrumental parts, rhythmic patterns, melodic and drum compositions (katan). What sets marai kīrtan apart from western classical music, however, is the continuous or repetitive singing of Hari bolo that melts away any sense of separation between the singer and the sacred name. To achieve this state of ‘melting’ marai kīrtan is performed without break for many hours, weeks, or even longer. “Kīrtan is a type of music that you can’t compare with other types, you can’t bind it, you can’t make a boundary line or limit it, or say that there is an end to it” (ibid.).

In marai kīrtan, then, one observes chanting, dance and instrumental music, interwoven into one dynamic form of sacred performance that is geared towards arousing devotion.

Chanting the divine names, can inspire a ‘supra’ aesthetic or ‘transcendental’ experience, for in Rāṛh, kīrtan’s predecessor is the mystical Baul song tradition (Baul is from Sanskrit word batul meaning ‘mad’ in the sense of ‘mad for god’). These ancient Baul mystic songs are full of double entendre masking references to their secret Tantric practices, although understood by those who have been initiated into the intuitional science of Tantra. They represent the earliest form of spiritual culture in the region and possibly the world. [Tantra is Sanskrit for ‘liberation from dullness’ with Shiva being the adi guru or 'first lord'.] Rāṛh is the homeland of both the Baul and the kīrtan traditions.

The boundaries of Rāṛh

Rāṛh or Rāṛho, means ‘reddish soil’, says local expert, Acaryā Kirtyananda Avadhuta. He says the territory, mostly in Bengal, and border lands of Orissa and Jharkhand, was known as Rāṛh bhum, with bhum meaning “land or country” (1966: personal communication).

Rāṛh existed as one kingdom until the seventh century yet still exists in the memory and imagination of the Rāṛhi people today. Though Rāṛh is one of the most economically impoverished areas in India, it remains extremely rich in music culture with at least five indigenous music genres: kīrtan or praise music tradition; the masked dance of the ancient warrior or Chhau; folk or jhumur songs and dances; Baul or mystical songs and nacini nach or ‘dancing girls dance’.

Fig 4 The Ulda Samkirtan Team, winners of the Rarhi Mari Kirtan competition 2016
The Ulda Samkīrtan Team, winners of the Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition 2016

Kīrtan and Social Egalitarianism: Caste - a ranked, hereditary and endogamous group, ordinarily of people of the same occupation - is usually ascribed at birth and is immutable. Even though there is a professional kīrtan caste called the Vaisnavites (such as the Ulda team in the photo on the right) no one is barred from doing kīrtan on the basis of gender, caste, “tribe” (used in an official governmental sense) or social group. Kamaladev from the Lalgar Youth Group, says, “In Hari nam kīrtan there is no question of castes, creed or colour it is open to all, if you come with a pure heart and mind” (2007: personal communication). In a caste society that undervalues “tribal” values, kīrtan can create a sense of equality and respect.

The first Marai Kīrtan competition and festival, June 2016

Two years ago, Sanjay Mahato, my research partner, and I became aware of how many local kīrtan groups were singing more rang (popular song melodies) than the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We decided to hold a kīrtan competition and offer prize money as an incentive for these ‘teams’ (a term the local kirtan musicians use) to continue performing the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We took our inspiration from the late kīrtan expert, Sri Rishi Das, who had shown me a printed poster of a kīrtan competition where his father’s group had won second prize. To our utter amazement, 42 kīrtan groups entered into the competition. The teams came dressed in full paraphernalia, with their spotless white, orange or blue dhotis (traditional men's garment), light coloured sashes tied tightly around their waists or hanging loosely around their necks, sandalwood markings on their forehead, and bare feet. Teams generally consisted of three lead singers (mul gayaks), two khol double-sided drum players, and dancers who play large cymbals (kartal), as well as other instruments that have been adapted from western music ensembles, such as the harmonium, clarinet (replacing the traditional bamboo flutes) and the casio keyboard. They came to do kīrtan in the hot summer sun, or in the late midnight hours, depending on the time they had been allocated some travelling long distances in rented trucks, bringing with them their own village supporters. As each team did kīrtan they were assessed by four local judges and me (as the only international observer). These judges were experts in their field and representing north, south, east and west Rāṛh. Each team performed with utmost sincerity, expertise and devotional expression.

While transcribing their interviews, I was deeply touched by their humility and their depth of knowledge. One such team said, "Our team has been running for 52 years, that means my father and grandfather were there. Only people are changing. Our team is continuing generation after generation. It keeps us healthy, our mind peaceful, and in our family life there are no problems because of kīrtan" (Bhubanipur Samkīrtan team personal communication 2016). Another team discussed the social effects of kīrtan,“Kīrtan helps to bind the society, when we are doing kīrtan we are 15 people, it means 15 families are together, all sharing our joys and sorrows. All social problems can be stopped if you do kīrtan (Dumurbaid Samkīrtan team, personal communication 2016).

Fig 6 The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the Competition
The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the competition
Fig 7 The Panjonia Kirtan team, third place in the Competition
The Panjonia Kīrtan team, third place in the competition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kīrtan team from Amrabera, talked about kīrtan providing solace and “heavenly pleasure” for “through kīrtan we stay in touch with spirituality” (2016 personal communication). Some kīrtaniyas are known to fall into samadhi or ‘complete absorption into the divine’ and others report that they experience a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment while doing kīrtan. In the end, though it was a difficult task, the judges decided on the three winners, the Ulda Team who came first, the Rupapaita team second and the Panjonia team third.

Watch a summary posted on YouTube by Kavita Neumannova. 

The next Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition and festival in Rāṛh will be in October 18 - 21 2017 where everyone is welcome, and treated as family. As expressed by an American visitor to the Kīrtan Festival, “Rāṛhi Kīrtan has changed my life in just two days; where I find maximum unfettered ecstatic expression to the lord, it is beyond words” (Suniita Schaeffer: personal communication 2016). For my part, I am also very grateful for the inspiration this mystical land and people have given me.

Jyoshna La Trobe (jyosnalatrobe@gmail.com) 07/02/2017 

 

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