Behind All India Radio's ambitious undertaking to document the songs and oral stories of India
All India Radio’s attempt to save the oral stories and songs of India is a project so vast, it will take at least four more years to complete an initial batch of recordings.
On the first floor of the Akashwani Bhawan, inside a room just wide enough to park two scooters, Som Dutt Sharma is coordinating a project so ambitious, it is preposterous to imagine it taking shape within this very modest office. Sharma has a catalogue that lists the names of people, their ages, gender, caste and religion — all standard information for a census. Except that this is a census of the songs they sing, the poems they recite, and the stories they tell. This is All India Radio’s attempt to save the oral stories and songs of India — a project so vast, it will take at least four more years to complete an initial batch of recordings.
That this is a mammoth undertaking even an optimist like Sharma cannot deny. “There are about 1,584 dialects in the country, almost 6,000 tribes. There is the cycle of change that occurs each day. A song that exists in one form today may change tomorrow. In such a case, we have to record both, make sure we get either version, but also, that we can differentiate between the two," Sharma says.
There are broadly three categories of songs that have existed in India: songs related to celebrating life or marking death; songs local to regions, seasons or festivals; and songs that narrate fables or stories (like Heer-Ranjha and Soni-Mahiwal). A fourth category of songs that AIR is studying as part of the project are those that have travelled beyond national boundaries, through the tongues of migrants.
From the outset, the greatest challenge in executing a project of this scale, has been its reach. “We have 214 stations all over the country. Every station has been slowly collecting these recordings from within their area of purview. It isn’t all uniform, because some stations are located in places where travel is more precarious as compared to another. In some cases, the local dialects are a barrier as well. For those, we take the help of a local counsel,” Sharma says. Each AIR outpost has for the last couple of years been recording local songs and oral histories. But the format, the modus operandi of each recording isn’t as straightforward as recording an indistinct sound with a phone. AIR is doing things the hard way.
From lugging heavy equipment (including cameras, recorders and so on) to going to the source itself, the nature of the task has been underlined by AIR’s impetus on keeping things organic. “The first thing we decided when we began the project was to not have studio recordings. We wanted to travel to these places and record within the local environment. Also, we have made sure we do not record professional singers. Because you see, that is a breed of artist most contaminated anyhow. He or she produces, and has probably already accepted the demand of a market. To find originality, we have to go to people who are untapped by the market, and sing because it is tradition,” Sharma says.
That said, sound is not the sole authenticator here. Any recording team from AIR comprises a recorder, a video cameraman, a still cameraman, a person who documents everything on paper and a counsel who helps establish connections with the locals. “There are two committees that effectively work in the authentication process. One works to certify the songs and recordings. Another, a state-level committee comprising academicians works on categorising and identifying dialects,” Sharma says. Perhaps the most challenging of all these is the task to analyse languages that do not even have scripts. “Some regions, like the North East of India, have languages that don’t even have scripts. We are hoping that we can record enough songs and stories from these (places) to be able to write them in Devangiri,” Sharma says.
The translations are pretty thorough. Each song is rendered, along with musical notes, and then translated into both English and Hindi. Each story is treated the same way. The challenges though are never ending. “It is tricky to enter high tension areas like naxalite zones, or Kashmir for that matter. We liaise with local people because it helps set up a comfort level for both sides. But there are infrastructural challenges as well. Many villages are still unconnected by roads or any form of public transport. The AIR teams have in the past had to walk for miles. Only this year one team walked 22 km for a recording in Leh!” Sharma recalls. The landscape is not the only possible hindrance to a project that in essence seeks to vaporise the notion of one. There is also the vastness of culture, and its most immediate implications. “Women in Haryana aren’t as comfortable talking to men of the team. There isn’t that culture of them coming out and speaking openly. Not all recording teams have a woman to make the others feel comfortable. So we have struggled in getting recordings in villages in Haryana, where it isn’t as difficult to reach, as it is to get people to sing and talk," Sharma says.
The project has so far aggregated 20,000 distinct clips in its database. Sharma says they had first assumed the final number to be around nine lakhs, but the repetitive nature of most of these tracks has brought the number down considerably. He puts it to somewhere around three lakhs now. Still, there is a long way to go, for something that perhaps has no clear, defined end. “It is a decision we have to make ourselves. We intend to finish the project by 2022. But that is merely an assumption. The songs and stories in our culture are endless. You could keep walking the length and breadth of the country for life, and won’t be able to summarise it through memory. We have to find that natural end," he says.
Beyond this act of salvation and saving that perhaps only an organisation as vast and grounded as All India Radio could attempt, there is a hint of the age-old self-congratulatory notion of celebrating multiculturalism that Sharma rejects. “What this project will eventually do is enable people to study and understand the country better. There is no better place to look for an image of the landscape than in the stories its people tell. And if you study these carefully, you will find that our stories, our songs, irrespective of caste, creed and religion have similar things to say," he says. "Anekta mein ekta nahi, hum hamesha se ek hain, isiliye anek hain.”
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