Digitizing the raaga to immortality: Meet the archivist making Carnatic music accessible

Chari meticulously digitized thousands of precious recordings.
Digitizing the raaga to immortality: Meet the archivist making Carnatic music accessible
Digitizing the raaga to immortality: Meet the archivist making Carnatic music accessible
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December music ‘season’ in Chennai has a flurry of activities tightly packed into each day. Amidst ‘Sabha hopping’ to ‘Sapad tasting’, generally catching up with friends who’ve arrived from across the world to enjoy, listening to good, bad and ‘badder’ concerts is one more activity a few of us music enthusiasts do.

A few others are busy recording and documenting private memoirs of music connoisseurs, or ‘Rasikas’ as they are huddled into that encompassing word. Every season you meet many Rasikas. Those who have lived through the 1950s down till now and have not only heard several stalwarts preform but have also interacted with them. They are ready to reel into nostalgia at the drop of a hat. While the stories are ok, one wonders how the music concerts would have been. We hear stories of when Semmangudi shouted at someone midway through a concert or the mistakes a popular political figure might have made in his or her speech.

But you never really get to listen to the actual concert itself. For that experience, all roads lead to the Madras Music Academy’s TAG digital archives. More about that later. But the visionary behind this mammoth project is an unassuming gentleman named Mr R T Chari.

It all started when Chari couldn’t take part in a dinner table conversation with his family members who were staunch Rasikas of Carnatic music. He not only felt left out as they discussed the intricacies of Ragas and Talas, artistes and concerts and more but also decided to get into appreciating this difficult genre of music. As they say ‘persistence pays’ even the most untrained ears can eventually get around to appreciating something as complex as Carnatic music.

Chari began acquiring music records and listening to them. Over a period of regular listening he not only developed an ear for Carnatic music but also learned to revere it like few others have. He had amassed a large collection of recordings. Five years ago he made his own personal collection of several thousand recordings available to public by setting up the TAG digital archives.

The TAG digital archives are a treasure house of knowledge, information and history for those interested in classical music and dance. Housed in the premises of the prestigious Madras Music Academy, they are open to everyone for less than the price of a cup of coffee. The Academy has now in its possession its own recordings as well as those of about ten thousand hours of precious music donated by Chari.

There is no other place, no other institution or individual who can claim to possess a collection of recordings more brilliant than this. At his own expense, Chari meticulously digitized all these thousands of precious recordings. He also catalogued them in a rather easy-to-use fashion for a layman. You can browse music according to composer, singer, venue, year, accompanying artistes and more. It requires a great deal of magnanimity to have done so much hard work and give it away in public service. This was only the beginning.

Chari also helped set up other archives. In Rukminidevi Arundale’s famous Kalakshetra Foundation, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Madras University, the 150 year old Bangalore Gayana Samaja, Gayana Bharati in Mysore; Chembai Music College in Palakkad; Indian Fine Arts in Singapore; organisations in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Colombo in Sir Lanka; and the Hope University in Liverpool. In India, there are several other institutions who find archiving a tiring work. They need to look out of passionate mavericks like Chari who will make things work with his magic. The Madras Music Academy currently houses about 10,000 hours of music available on the touch screen monitors, comprising 4,490 concerts featuring 560 artistes.

The Academy hosts the best classical dance festival, year after year. They have introduced a viewing facility of these dance festivals by way of a digital archive. This archive now has 332 hours of dance performances comprising 208 video recordings. There are besides 36 hours of lecture demonstrations also available for viewing. As if all this is not enough, Chari keeps himself busy pursuing his passion with more work.

In addition to all this Chari also is a heritage enthusiast. All through the year, under the banner of Ramu Endowments, he organizes lectures to take South India heritage and culture to hundreds of schools. Chari has also produced and released a set of special CDs called ‘Charangi’ (named after himself and his wife Rangi) on raga identification, a most useful guide to help the layman develop an ear for classical music by gradually taking delight in identifying the most common ragas, and thus developing a love for Carnatic music. How much can one Rasika do? Thanks to Chari’s passion for music, the whole world is benefitting from it now.

Every December several thousands of classical music and dance lovers visit the city of Chennai. What started as a simple Christmas gift for select music lovers, close to a century ago, has now turned into an annual phenomenon. The devout celebrate the Tamil month of Margazhi on the traditional Hindu calendar. Chennai comes alive with many venues that host classical music and dance shows, from sunrise to sunset in every other nook and corner. Among all the ‘Sabhas’, the one place that stands out as everyone’s favourite is TAG Center on TTK Road in the heart of Mylapore.

TAG conducts some exceptionally good events, connected to the ‘season’. From talks to book launches to special Carnatic competitions featuring children below twenty-five, TAG has it all. But what beats all this, is the warm welcome that is disguised in the shape of a sumptuous breakfast that you are fed, free of charge, once you are in the TAG premises. The administrators of TAG believe in feeding the stomach before feeding the brain. The brainchild behind this social and cultural movement of sorts is once again Mr Chari.

There are pushy organizers and artistes. There are those who endlessly market themselves for zero contribution to the field. There are those who lobby for Padma awards and other popular recognitions. It takes all kinds to make this world. But there are also those silent cultural ambassadors who have been doing exceptional work like Chari has.

And the fruits of his hard work are there for everyone to cherish. In that sense he is a true Karma Yogi. What Chari is doing, may be unknowingly, is to create a silent cultural revolution of sorts. To make everyone aware of the power of music, the power of kindness and selfless service to the arts and the joy of sharing knowledge. More power to Chari and his vision. May his tribe increase.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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