Story of a Forgotten Melody: Restoring the sound of Bishnupur Gharana
Email: budhaditya.chattopadhyay @ gmail.com
budhaditya_chattopadhyay @ rediffmail.com
I’m Budhaditya, a student of Sound Engineering in Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata. For the last two years I am actively working in the area of Audio Restoration. I feel a very strange fascination for sound with an old look. And I always would like to share my love for sounds with that warm and worn out texture. For me, digitally generated sound has its own kind of odour that I’m not comfortable with. Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong to the world of cold, clear and stiff binary sound.
So I decide to work with analogue recordings: the forgotten, misinterpreted and dusty bunch of old spools and shellacs. They are piling up in dustbins without care.
I discover some of them from chorai market of rejected commodities, some of them from dark and farthest corner of cupboards. And I develop a pitiful love for them.
But they are unplayable. Years of neglect has put bruise marks on them. Even if some chemical treatment follows, it is difficult to make them play, either the players are not available or they are pretty expensive. What I need to do is to make them playable for at least once and dump them on the all pervasive work stations. Then the rigorous task of critical noise reduction, keeping originality and warmth, and then processing them to extract the quintessential sound quality and finally mastering them to take them up on a storage device for further listening pleasures and archiving, for re-reading and re-searching and for the so called posterity. Obviously the whole process needs time, dedication, concentration and money.
In any casual visit to Bishnupur one will get struck by the indifference of people towards their own history. Drawing rooms, pan stalls, fare grounds and street corners are always blaring out the same tunes of the latest item number. It’ll seem that the sameness of a mundane soundscape is all the city of red-dust now capable of. But this land was a land of antiquity – of heritage architectures, finer crafts, a hundreds of years old music style and a handful of amazing voices. This particular style of music is one of the oldest gharanas in northern India and the only established one in the music history of Bengal. The tradition is dying as people don’t care about the practice and performance of the gharana.
If somebody seizes to memorize, then he is forgetting himself. And if a community starts to forget the roots then it denies the very basis of its collective unconscious. A small girl on the way to her new school for music lessons with a heavy school bag on her back is never aware of the treasure of music close to her. Only in some corners of the city a few people of another generation are talking in soliloquy about the magnificent sound that was once heard. Then where is it if somebody wants to hear it again?
It might be lying on the garbage, inside an old almirah or in a dead personal collection, as hardly playable tapes, scratched discs or dementia.
Between memory and oblivion stands the chronicler, who reminds of forgotten melodies. Every society needs the chronicles to look at their own bodies at least for once.
My job is to help remembering some lost sounds: lost from a community of singers, musicians and musical practice. For my project with SARAI, I am going to locate, document and restore the recordings of the exponents from Bishnupur Gharana to make an audio archive for everybody. It can be used as the resource for any further research work on the gharana system itself. I’m thankful to SARAI for supporting me.
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My second posting is coming late because I was in Germany for the last one month and was traveling a lot. I was invited to the Berlinale Talent Campus of the Berlin International Film Festival, 2006 from India. It was wonderful to be with fellow film makers from around the world to share views on cinema and allied arts over fuming cups of espresso.
To me the most important part of my stay in Germany this time was a short workshop and visit to the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv of Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. It was a workshop on preservation and restoration of cylinder recordings from late 19th century.
The archive posses around 20,000 such cylinders from around the world when recording techniques were still in incubation. It also has a good number of 78 shellacs. I found a few recordings from India as well, mainly from the Bake cylinder collection, recordings from theatre songs of Bombay Jews settlement. And surprisingly I could also locate a couple of recordings of Sangeetacharya Satyakinkar Bandyopadhyay from Bishnupur Gharana. I did a digital transfer of the recording to an uncompressed wave file in the archive and now working on the noise reduction of the same. In one recording he performs Khayal in raga Malkaus. It is an amazing demonstration of his mastery in Khayal. The composition is set to Taal ‘ada-theka’, the pattern of which is unique in Bishnupur Gharana. In another recording Satyakinkar sings a ‘Bangla Khayal’ in the raga Multani set to drut ektaal. Sangeetacharya Satyakinkar is one of the pioneers of ‘Bangla Khayal’, a very Bengali rendering of a north Indian raga in Bishnupur style with song-text in Bengali. As an additional bonus piece he sings a ‘Nidhu Babu’s Tappa in the raga Sindhu.
Satyakinkar Bandyopadhyay hailed from a musical family from Bishnupur and a pioneer of Bishnupur Gharana Dhrupad.
I am now consulting a few available texts mostly rare on Bishnupur Gharana to construct a genealogical tree of the Gharana. And planning to visit Bishnupur within next two weeks.
Good wishes for a Bengali new year. Here is my belated posting.
Third Posting : Budhaditya Chattopadhyay
I took a local bus from Burdwan junction heading towards Bishnupur.
It started late with passengers overflowing the capacity of the bus. There was one goat keeper and a kirtana singer as I came to know later. Bus was running slowly over a narrow and uneven road and it was cloudy outside. I was seating behind the driver, so all the dialogues around me was mixed with the continuous sound of engine. Once I overheard something about a local music concert somebody was talking about. He was telling about a performance he heard long ago and comparing with a recent one. I looked at him; he was a man around 55 with clean shaven, lean and crude face line. I saw with what intense involvement he was describing how the singer he heard in that concert was performing kirtana, the religious love songs for Krishna. He was talking to a younger man opposite to him about the quality of singing nowadays that’s inferior to the past exponents. I felt like to barge into their conversation. And I asked the man about the kind of kirtana he is talking about, whether it is Goudiyo or something different. He looked at me intently and asked where I am coming from and where I am going to. He and the others around him looked at me. I was feeling like an alien in front of so many curious eyes. I described that I am going to Bishnupur to search for resources for the forgotten gharana which will help me out in my research project on the sound restoration of the dying Bishnupur style of classical music. He took a long repose and then asked why I am going their. I repeated my answer and realized he didn’t understand my words. I asked him if he knows anything about the gharana. He made a gesture of respect, looked outside the window and slowly said with a sigh ‘those were the days’. I asked him how the days were. He didn’t answer but looked at the younger man opposite to him and said that music survives for the listeners. There are no listeners nowadays, only consumers. Another man beside him asked about his own performance of kirtana, whether he still finds pleasure and get money. He readily answered that nowadays people want to hear only the film songs. So he performs the film songs in kirtana style. Or kirtana in film song style! – I thought.
The younger man now spoke up. He seemed to have a deep insecurity in what he is saying. But he could anyway put his point that Bishnupur style flourished under the shadow of kirtana as Bishnupur is the land of ancient kirtana music of thousand years. The Bishnupuri Dhrupad developed into a particular style of classical music, but it couldn’t survive with all its past glories, though kirtana is still alive. It’s because kirtana is closer to the people, but the gharana was for the kings, not for the masses. The kirtana singer opposed and said that kirtana is alive but in a distorted form. There is little connection to the earlier with what is performed nowadays. The younger man was looking outside; he brought back his shy and somewhat melancholic face to me. He asked me what kind of resources I am searching for. He meant whether it is new singers still performing the style or the old surviving exponents; if I am searching for the new performances then there is a Dhrupad festival in proper Bishnupur tonight. I told him that I know it and that’s where I’m going to. I descibed that I’m searching for the sound recordings made in the heydays of the gharana. He looked at me blankly. It seemed that he doesn’t have any idea what sound recording is. I tried to explain the legacy of recording art to him. It was quite clear that he was completely unaware about recording sound for memory and posterity, and the possibilities of archiving audio.
I asked him what he does for a living. He told very politely that he looks after goats and lambs. In a stopover we had tea together and the goat keeper paid for it. He got down one stop before me along with the kirtana singer.
I reached Bishnupur Jadubhatta Stage in the evening to attend Gopeswar Dhrupad Sangeet Sammelan. It was a tribute to Gopeswar Bandyopadhyay, the maestro from Bishnupur Gharana.
Gopeswar Bandyopadhyay was the son of Anantalal Bandyopadhyay, court singer of the king of Bishnupur. He was a prolific performer of Bishnupuri Dhrupad and a well known recording artist in the early days of cylinder, 10 inches and 7 inches disc recording, three of them from the Gramophone’s Far East expedition of 1904-1905.
2722h 2-12861 Babu Gopeswar Banerjee [Hindustani]
2723h 2-12766 Gopeswar Benerjee [Hindustani]
2724h 2-12833 Gopeswar Banerjee [Hindustani]
There was a small gathering, hardly 10 people as audience and a few numbers of performers, mostly from non Bishnupur origin. The organizer and close student of Acharya Gopeswar was Sri Debabrata Singha Thakur, performing a small Bishnupuri Dhrupad. I recorded the performance and saw with amazement how the style is being performed with this ageing exponent of the gharana.
The fourth posting here,
I joined Dripta Piplai, another I-Fellow from SARAI in a visit to All India Radio archive in Kolkata; she is working with the power structure within the politics in rendering the songs of Rabindranath based on archival materials. Our journey inside one of the biggest national archives in India was a shared experience for us.
At the gate of the historical building the gatekeeper asked us our whereabouts, particularly looking at my unkempt hair. ‘You have to dress yourself properly to enter the house’ He said with authority. He was a middle aged man with a malnourished look. Being arrogant is not always an insensible thinking. At least it proved to be helpful in this eerie situation. We entered and met one top official in charge of literary programmes. Without knowing somebody inside it is impossible to get entertained. He was an approachable person and willing to help us to have a visit to the archive but was skeptic about using the archive for our research programme. He insisted us to meet the station director.
The station director was an interesting person, small, lean and bespectacled with a shrill tenor voice. He asked what SARAI is, whether it’s a non governmental organization working with social welfare. We tried to answer that SARAI is an initiative to help independent research programmes based on the studies in developing societies having a head office in Delhi. We allowed a glance at our respective certificates that SARAI provided us. He seemed to be reading every word of it keeping the specs at his forehead. He looked at our face and said that we need to get permission from Delhi to see the archive. The word ‘Delhi’ seemed to us as a metaphysical name signifying power and hierarchy. We were a little bit perplexed, unable to proceed on the subject of using the archive for our research. We tried with our juniority and youth to impress him to a point of melting down before being harsh to us. Ultimately he instructed his subordinate to show us the archive, but without touching anything. Most of the time he was mentioning us as ‘social workers’.
The archive consists of a room for the commercially released discs as the music database and a long corridor with rows of old almirahs full of tapes from live recordings most of which are reused erasing the previous recordings as the new tapes are a scarcity as being told. There is a small room for so called important spools most of which is lying on the old floor covered with dust, visibly forgotten and neglected. One young guy was seen searching for a spool in that heap containing an illustrated talk on Amadeus Mozart by the composer’s one of the most famous Indian fans – Mr. Satyajit Ray for broadcasting. There are no arrangements for temperature, moisture and climate controls though most of the existing tapes are post 80’s being highly prone to damage due to sticky syndrome. It was unofficially told and for our part is not within our ethical right to disclose publicly but with great pain and concern we are unable to hide the fact that all the early live recordings in discs and spools have been thrown away as the authority ordered to clear storage place. Some of the recordings have been taken by a few unknown private collectors and most of them were made damaged to get free space.
After the demoralizing journey through the archive we came back to meet the station director and to ask for some technical details about the archive regarding the catalogue as our concern was to look for some live recordings made inside the Akashbani studio by the great Bishnupur Gharana stalwarts like Gopeswar Bandyaopadhyay, Satyakinkar Bandyopadhyay and Jnan Goswami in the conference era and a few performances of some important Rabindrasangeet exponents made in the early days of radio. We met with hostility and were told that the authority is not willing to share the documents with outsiders.
Anyway, we managed to get the number of storage formats they have but it was not at all helpful to our expedition.
Our next venture was Rabindrabharati University Archive. Dripta is going to write in details about it as our main concern there was to search for some important recordings of Rabindrasangeet. But somehow I could locate two very old spool recordings of live Dhrupad performances of Rameshchandra Bandyopadhyay, son of Gopeswar Bandyopadhyay, in that small and cozy university archive.
We together and I separately explored a good number of private collections with remarkable results. The private collectors are maintaining there own collection with care though in a non-professional way and mostly in the analogue formats that get damaged with time. They are more or less cooperative from the point of view of sharing their collection as samples for archival research. It could have been a different attitude if I approached them as another collector. It is the normal collector’s psychology. However, private collection in a way is an intimate affair with large number of archival materials kept in the warmth of a living room. The collectors are somewhat proud of their collection, ready to show the most interesting pieces.
They usually don’t have any systematic catalogue, everything kept in their head.
I managed to locate a few rare recordings for example a collection of Bishnupuri Khayal by Aghorenath Chakraborty, a contemporary to Gopeswar Bandyopadhyay, otherwise unavailable publicly.
I am going to start restoring the sound from the old recordings within next two weeks and the process will continue at least for the whole of the next month.