As I entered the courtyard of India Music Experience (IME), a sense of silence, stillness and tranquillity was palpable. The myriad trees added to the bliss and breathtaking ambience. Sprawling across 50,000 sq ft, with nine interactive exhibition galleries, a Sound Garden with 10 musical sculptures, a learning centre for serious learners and hobby enthusiasts, a cafe, a gift store and a lot more, the Centre for Indian Music Experience is a multi-sensory journey into Indian music of all genres. What makes this museum unique is that there are no security guards warning you not to touch the artefacts but instead it is a ‘please touch’ museum.
IME is the initiative of the Indian Musical Trust and the brainchild of MR Jaishankar, Chairman and Managing Director of the Brigade Group. An avid art aficionado, he was particularly inspired by Seattle’s Experience Music Project which was founded by Paul Allen, also the co-founder of Microsoft. The design of India’s only hi-tech interactive music museum was put together by Gallagher & Associates, who also helped create the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The Sound Garden was co-created by Svaram, along with designer Michael Foley.
Explaining the concept of the museum, Dr Suma Sudhindra, Director, Outreach, says, “This one-of-its-kind museum portrays the entire story of India’s vast and varied musical heritage through digital content and cutting-edge technology. We have painstakingly researched and documented musical treasures from the far corners of the country. The museum runs on the formula of ‘see, hear, touch and discover.’ The technology driven interactives will allow you to dig deeper with the touch of a finger. Here one can play songs, touch the instruments, listen to the music, read about the artistes and know their work.”
The cafe inside IME
My musical tour began with the Sound Garden, which is a fitting prelude to the museum. The outdoor section, which features 10 installations such as wind chimes, xylophones, tubular bells, flower gongs and humming stones, introduces visitors to the principles of sound. An open space where a visitor’s every move will create music, at the Sound Garden you can strike a chord with nature. Step on a singing stone, sit on a musical bench, a touch of the gong – everyone can make music here, even if they have never touched an instrument before.
The Outdoor Sound Garden with 10 musical sculptures
Briefing me about the Sound Garden, Manasi Prasad, Museum Director, says, “The concept behind the Sound Garden was to create an immersive experience where one gets to feel the notes and vibrations, while ensuring that we put across the message that nature and music are inter-related, and that is expressed through installations. One can explore the principles of sound through 10 specially designed ‘playful’ musical sculptures and understand sound and vibrations, feel the concepts of resonance, vibration, pitch, frequency and timbre come to life.”
Dr Suma Sudhindra and Manasi Prasad try their hands at the xylophone in the Sound Garden
Inside, after watching a brief introductory film, I set out to explore the nine galleries. In the first gallery titled Contemporary Expressions I relived the early days of independent ‘indie’ rock music in India, watched a pop number in a colourful auto, and gazed at Daler Mehndi’s peacock coat.
One can traverse India’s musicscape from the contemporary to the classical and beyond. From there I moved on to the Living Traditions Gallery where I was introduced to the basic concepts of ragas and talas. I had a first-hand experience of Carnatic and Hindustani music through interactive touchscreen displays. In the Music of Devotion, Living Traditions Gallery, which celebrates India’s diverse and rich cultural heritage, I got a glimpse of the myriad forms of devotional music from across the country.
Songs of the People is all about Janapada (folk) music and tribal communities of India, their songs and the contexts in which these songs are sung. What impressed me most was the kaavad, an oral tradition of storytelling from Rajasthan.
Display of Kaavad, an oral tradition of storytelling and singing from Rajasthan
The Instruments Gallery has a stunning floor-to-ceiling display of 108 Indian musical instruments. I had glimpses of Vidwan Manjunath’s ghatam, Dr ML Vasanthakumari’s tambura, a peacock-shaped mayura veena, and intriguing metal horns, leather drums, stringed wooden creations and a variety of mouth harps. I was able to delve deeper into the origin, history, craftsmanship, material, sound, manufacture and performance of these instruments and musical tradition through a digital interface with audio and video clips.
There is also a Songs of Struggle gallery which transports one back to a realm when the music of the land had a powerful impact on the prevailing political scenario. It delves into music from India’s national movement, from Gandhi and his bhajans to songs of protest and patriotism in pop culture. Over 35 versions of the song ‘Vande Mataram,’ a replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to MS Subbulakshmi about her contribution, her version of his favourite hymn ‘Vaishnov Janato’, and patriotic songs from Hindi films across the ages are the highlights of this gallery.
Equally interesting is the Stories Through Song Gallery which transported me back in time where travelling bioscopes were used to screen films. I also had glimpses of vignettes from different eras of Hindi cinema displayed on inset screens, the landmarks and legends of Hindi film music, and the diverse influences of various genres of music in film songs.
The IME gift store
In the eighth gallery, I traced the journey of recorded sound in India from the gramophone to the mobile phone. The piece de resistance of this Reaching Out Gallery is the aesthetically designed and memorable photo-op featuring a Bengali household from the 1920s where the gramophone set occupied a pride of place. There are photo-ops where you can pose with a brass band.
The Stars Gallery or The Hall of Fame at the IME features 100 legends of Indian music from different genres. Occupying pride of place are the priceless artefacts that once belonged to Bharat Ratna musicians. Some of them are the Shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan, tambura of Vidushi MS Subbulakshmi Pandit and the concert attire of Bhimsen Joshi.
At the mock Recording Studio, one can sing karaoke-style by choosing a background track, record oneself, select the album cover, and finally email the final track to oneself. It is an experience that no music buff would want to miss. The three-hour musical tour was an enlightening experience for me.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.