Archiving Indian film music

Chetan Vinchhi

On the challenges faced by any serious archival efforts and possible ways of mitigating these

Introduction

The history of a music reflects the history of its people. The evolution of a genre of music narrates vivid stories that often go above and beyond the written word. We can identify with and relive these sagas through the music. And all this happens organically. It is not a history lesson. It is woven into the social fabric over the years, even generations.

The Indian film music is a special genre of music that combines the sensibilities of many other styles of music and poetry, both ancient and modern. Its meteoric rise coincided with massive social and political changes our country experienced and is therefore representative of the country’s collective consciousness like no other art form has ever been.

Yet film music is accorded a secondary status – if that – in the cultural pantheon. This has been a result of misplaced moral judgments and condemnation in mass vs. class comparisons. In spite of its cultural and sociological significance, film music is not recognized as a worthwhile subject for study or research.

An unfortunate outcome of all this has been that the quality of archival of this music is abysmal. But it is not too late to do some damage control in this area.

The current state of affairs

Formal archives remain a distant dream for this kind of music. It gets archived in a number of other ways: second-hand due to affiliation with some other kind of formal archive, private archives and collections of individuals.

A primary source of second-hand archiving is the film archives. The music available on the soundtracks of films is preserved. However, effort towards completeness from a music perspective is limited. For example, deleted songs, songs of incomplete or unreleased films etc. are excluded. Also, in order to view (in an abstract sense) music in this form or archives, the information about songs needs to be gleaned from other sources.

 Private archives belong to film studios or recording companies or any other outfits that own the copyright to the music. Since the vast majority of songs up to the golden period of film music are owned by a handful of recording companies, it would seem that the archives of these companies would have most songs. However, evidence to the contrary exists.

Collections of individuals form a kind of ad-hoc archive of this music. This forms a rich but chaotic repository, rich in terms of variety and coverage, chaotic in terms of quality and completeness. As discussed later, this has tremendous untapped potential to contribute significantly to archival efforts. Recent years have seen the proliferation of internet-based communities that allow users to share this music, thereby expanding the ad-hoc archive base.

In spite of the disparate natures of the above types of repositories, all of them face similar problems in terms of access, losses and lack of completeness.

Irreparable losses

What can be a more embarrassing indicator of this than the fact that we do not have a copy of the most significant landmark of Hindi filmdom - Alam Ara? The film prints are lost, the music is lost. We just know the opening words of the six songs and a few couplets from a couple of the songs. This is just one among a thousand such instances. We will never know what those songs sounded like. Horror stories of the way these losses have occurred abound. Fires and other such calamities – even our formal archives are not designed to withstand such onslaughts; Negligence – we sometimes lack the will, sometimes the resources to take proper care of these treasures; Theft – master tapes have been recycled for petty profits. And there is no way of undoing the damage.

Exponential depletion

What is perhaps even worse than the losses that have already happened is the fact that the remaining material is prone to depletion at an alarming rate.

For the formal archives the ways of incurring loss have been mentioned. It is very difficult to even partially replace the material lost. There is no guarantee that such losses will not continue.

Private archives suffer from a similar fate. In addition, they also suffer due to apathy, commercial or otherwise. The bottom line is that there is no real interest in maintaining or adding value to the archives and hence the danger of depletion.

Personal collections have flourished under individual devotion. As individuals pass on or grow powerless to maintain this fragile treasure, these types of repositories are vulnerable to massive depletion.

Media (78s, film soundtrack)

The bulk of the material of interest is in the form or 78rpm shellac discs or soundtrack recordings. The 78s are extremely fragile and prone to damage if not stored properly. Old film stock is prone to extreme damage ranging from spontaneous combustion to degradation beyond retrieval.

The material should be transferred to more robust media, but such transfers should be done with extreme care and often at great expenditure. This type of care is often not exercised in the sporadic transfers that have been done. Any future archival efforts must take this into consideration.

New technologies such as mp3 and real audio have enabled individuals and companies to make old songs available for easy access on the Internet. Paradoxically, this has a potential problem with respect to the preservation of the material. The above-mentioned audio formats used lossy compression schemes to achieve efficiency in storage and transmission. Availability of these formats causes a tendency to neglect the material in the original format. However, these compressed files are not amenable to digital restoration efforts. Therefore, care should be taken to make sure that the original media is preserved or at least stored in CD-quality wave format.

Incompleteness (editing, fading off)

One form of transfer happens when the old music is released on tapes or CDs or old films are put out on DVDs or VCDs. The material thus transferred is sometimes subjected to arbitrary or irrational omission or editing or sometime simply bad transfers leading to irreversible problems such as saturation or other forms of distortion. Thus the tapes, CDs etc. do not represent the best possible source of the music.

Yet another aspect of the incompleteness issue is that different versions of the same song may exist on the 78s and on the film soundtrack. For archival purposes, both versions are valuable but often one of them is not accessible.

Prestige

The prestige issue was touched upon in the introduction. It is not glamorous to study or think about or even listen to our film music. Classical and even folk music is readily approached as a topic of research in India and elsewhere. Film music is largely looked down upon with apathy or contempt. This is unfortunate because it represents the very best in creativity in singing, composing and songwriting. The golden era is so named because it represents the coming together of such colossal talents in these fields that it is highly unlikely we will see anything like it in the foreseeable future. We seldom realize that we have very little time to start respecting this art form. Beyond another generation or so, nobody will recollect the beauty of these compositions. And there will be no way of reconstructing it. That is a real tragedy.

Ownership

For the amateur archivist, there is a perennial question of ownership of the material. Since the music is not accorded the status of a national treasure or something, one cannot access material to which somebody holds the copyright but is not willing or able to sell the material. While a lot of activity can happen below the radar, any large-scale efforts will face this issue of ownership.

Technical challenges

Given the current state of affairs, it is best to have a two-pronged approach to archiving. The first approach would be to consolidate all possible material and ensure that there is no further degradation. The other one is to do any conversion and processing of the material and making it available.

Challenges to the consolidation of material are in the form of difficulties in storage and preservation of original media (78s, film etc.). This type of material may need special techniques to ensure no (further) degradation.

Given the fact that much of the material is scratchy or noisy or otherwise distorted, there is tremendous challenge in mitigating such effects. Many tools (hardware and software) are available to help in this regard, but they may be prohibitively expensive especially for the amateur archivist. Availability of adequate levels of expertise in utilizing these tools is a potential issue. The sheer volume of music that needs to be handled is daunting and therefore it is important to take care of the preservation aspect of archival and continue the time-consuming restoration efforts.

It is clear that any useful database of songs should be in digital format. Fortunately, nearly complete information about the songs is available, thanks to the efforts of Shri Harmandar Singh ‘Hamraaz’. His monumental work ‘Hindi Film Geet Kosh’ contains the opening words and information about the composer, singer, lyricist etc. of almost all Hindi film songs. The challenge now is to convert this information into a comprehensive database format and use this as the anchor for filling in information about the availability of the media.

Recommendations

While we have already talked about specific guidelines for achieving the desired results in archiving, here are some overall recommendations.

To ensure the preservation of the existing material, it is recommended that a repository with at least dual redundancy be set up. If multiple copies of the material are not available, appropriate conversion must be performed to maintain two copies of each piece of music in two different locations.

The repository must be fed through all possible sources. An environment must be created to induce formal and private archives to donate material. In addition, for such a labor-of-love activity, a wiki type of model will also work well as long as there are dedicated individuals who are able and willing to maintain such a repository.

Government and academic agencies can play a crucial role in this activity by according the status of fine arts to film music and possibly funding archiving activities.

The ultimate goal is to have a place to go to for looking up a film song, to listen to it and to add valuable information to it. Here is hoping this can be achieved in the near future!

© Chetan Vinchhi. Please request permission before reproducing.  vinchhi@hotmail.com