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From the archives of "India Today", May 14, 2009
Back in the 1960s when the Beatles were strumming the sitar in Norwegian Wood and dabbling in Hindu mysticism at Rishikesh, a teenager in West Bengal was discovering north Indian classical music. In the days of few available recordings on vinyl, Amlan Dasgupta nursed a passion for the likes of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Aladiya Khan and Aamir Khan. By the time he was in college, Dasgupta was hooked to week-long concerts of contemporary maestros; and his rapture for vintage classical singers grew. When he started working as a lecturer in English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Dasgupta’s pie in the sky fell literally into his lap. His mentor, Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri, asked him to take charge of the School of Cultural Texts and Records in the university.
“This was a great opportunity to start preserving forgotten voices,” says Dasgupta. “After a decade of painstaking research and networking, I have 22,000 MP3s that are not available anywhere.” The archive room of the university has stacks of old records and boxes of forgotten cassettes, spools and computers that remaster scratchy recordings. Says Dasgupta, “Whatever has been commercially released is just the tip of the iceberg. There is still a huge treasure trove with private collectors.” It was from these collectors that he got the first strains of Gohar Jaan, HMV’s first recording in 1902 in India, and Johra Bai (1905). With collaborator Subrata Sinha, Dasgupta has spent over 10,000 hours digging into forgotten archives and creating the digitised music bank. Three major grants from the British Library too have helped him.
Dasgupta is clear about his mission. “Our archive allows anyone to listen to songs here, but we never lend them out.” In his youth, Dasgupta had been turned away by collectors because they felt a “strange possessiveness” about the music. Sometimes, authenticity does create a problem but record labels help. The ultimate authentication is the ear, which spots a fake from a genuine. “We call those internal characteristics. It takes years to tune yourself to a level where you can hear a scrappy rendition and say whether it is genuine,” says Dasgupta. Music to his ears, most certainly.