[Entrepreneur at Heart] Vikram Sampath's endeavor to digitize and preserve India's cultural history in sound

8th May 2013
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This is the inaugural article of our series titled entrepreneur at heart - stories of entrepreneurial endeavors by non-entrepreneurs

"What is past is prologue" - William Shakespeare

Vikram Sampath has a great interest in History. More specifically, the history of music. This trained carnatic musician who is an author of four critically acclaimed books, is also one of the main organizers of the Bangalore literature festival. The astounding fact is that he does all of this when he’s not at HP leading a global team.


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Inclined to the arts and history, Vikram is at it again, with his latest undertaking of digitizing the oldest possible gramophone recordings of India. The Archive of Indian Music (AIM) contains a wide rage of genre, including classical music, speeches and folk music . Patronized and funded by Mr. T.V. Mohandas Pai, the Archive of Indian music website today has 10000 of India’s oldest gramophone recordings.

On a sunny sunday evening, Vikram hosted us at his Bangalore residence to get a better understanding of AIM, what it takes to run it and the reason behind this endeavor.

Doesn’t India have much music?

AIM
Image Credit - The Outlook

Vikram, a BITS Pilani and SP Jain Alumus, spent a lot of time in Europe as a fellow at the Institute of advanced study, Berlin. He says, “I studied about the early gramophone recordings of India from there. Most European countries had a sound archive, which had a lot of Indian recordings and many people there asked me why India didn’t have a sound archive and if India didn’t have enough music. Now this was disconcerting for me as I’m a student of music myself. But the truth remains that most of these old gramophone recordings are now with Raddi shops and Kabadi walas. This is the cultural heritage of India and it is sad to see how it lies in these places, mistreated and unattended to.”

Upon returning to India, Vikram approached the government to set up an archive of Indian music, but he says, “In typical government fashion, it took it’s own sweet time to reach the right people.” However, it was through a chance meeting, that Vikram met the then Infosys board member, Mr. T.V. Mohandas Pai, who offered to help Vikram with capital and space to work on AIM.

Because of Vikram’s relevant international exposure, the digitizing process that the worker’s at AIM follow is compliant with international standards of sound quality and fidelity. AIM has also partnered with Soundcloud, who have provided them with a premium account for free, which is the streaming mechanism for the audio on the site.

Screenshot from 2013-05-08 15:54:44
Gauhar Jaan's playlist on AIM

The Specifics - Who and How much?

We asked Vikram as to how many records he expects to find, if he were to get his hands on all of them. He says, “Recording technology came to India in 1902 and up to about 1960, the gramophone was the primary means of recording. As I said before, the main source of these recordings are with these Kabadi walas, but there are also these record collectors. Some of them claim to have close to 40,000 recordings. I don’t know to what extent it is true, but I think there can be anywhere between one to two lakh recordings which can be digitized.”

Vikram is the founding trustee for the AIM project along with co-founders Mr. Sampath Srinivasan and Mrs. H.N Nagamani. Apart from this, there are recording professionals who work out of AIM’s Bangalore office, who perform the day to day operations of AIM. Apart from this, AIM also has numerous trustees and advisors. These include Chinmaya Gharekhan, President of IGNCA, Delhi, eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal, eminent classical dance exponents Alarmel Valli, classical music exponent Bombay Jayashree and many more.

The launch and plans for the future

AIM is set for a formal launch on 10th May 2013 at 6.30 PM by the Honourable Governor of Karnataka Dr H R Bhardwaj, along with Mr TV Mohandas Pai, Chief Patron of AIM; Mr Chiranjiv Singh and Mr Umesh Ganjam. The launch would be accompanied by a week-long audio exhibition titled "Voices of India"- which will attempt to use the latest technology to access the oldest music of the country.

In the future, Vikram aims to open more offices around India -- “While the website is open to the world, the operations are only run out of Bangalore, and we’d be looking to expand to other cities, if we are to get the estimated number of recordings I told you about. This is going to need an investment and Mohandas Pai will continue to be the chief patron for this. However, we’d also be looking to set up some revenue channels. I hope that it becomes self sustaining to some extent at least.

Screenshot from 2013-05-08 15:55:50
The AIM website

The personal journey

As a student of music there have been many interesting revelations that Vikram has encountered while working with AIM. He says, “The way in which some songs that we sing today were sung back then, is very different and it is very interesting to see how it has changed. It gives you an understanding of the mind of the consumers back then. Also, the envelop of what we thought to be the old timers of classical music has just expanded. We are uncovering older voices, some of whom we can’t even identify.”

On the flipside, Vikram does admit that all his commitments is a little bit of a stretch. He says, “It’s the passion towards music that keeps me going. But it is eating into family time, sleep time etc. Between the things that I do, I really don’t know what to stop!”

Visit the Archive of Indian Music

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