December 13, 2019
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Meghdoot: Culture On The Cloud

Harnessing digital technology, a new breed of archivists is spreading India’s soul-stuff

Meghdoot: Culture On The Cloud
Jagadeesh N.V.
Meghdoot: Culture On The Cloud

On Record, And Online

  • Archive of Indian Music ( preserves rare recordings in genres like Hindustani classical, Carnatic, theatre and early cinema, folk etc
  • Rekhta ( publishes Urdu poetry, classic and contemporary, in Urdu, Devnagari and Roman scripts
  • Women On Record ( archives women singers of the gramophone era
  • The South Asia Archive ( archives reports, rare books, publications of  colonial and early post-colonial India
  • The Panjab Digital Library ( presents photographs, manuscripts, books, magazines of the region
  • The Kerala State Library ( has put up 480 rare English books through its digitisation drive
  • The Osianama (, to be launched this month, will provide free content on Asian arts, culture, cinema


Aaj naya maal aaya hai,” declares the caller to Vikram Sampath over the phone. Sounds sleazy, like a line from a B-grader. But for Sampath, an author-musician and archivist based in Bangalore, an agent’s call about a new consignment of rare recordings is like, well, music to the ears. At 12,000 records and counting, Sampath’s online Archive of Indian Music is driven by the motive of “democratising music”—all genres, Hindustani and Carnatic classical, folk, early film and theatre music, you hum it out.

The momentum behind Archive of Indian Music is  matched by the diligence we witness at the Rekhta Foundation, which archives Urdu poetry. On a weekday afternoon, Shamiim Abbaas, a 65-year-old poet who has travelled to their Noida office from Mumbai, is reciting his latest couplets into a hand-held recorder with all the nuanced intonations of a shayar. Later, the technical staff at Rekhta will begin a detailed process to archive it on their new digital forum,, including a transliteration and a complete glossary. Rare books from across the country, meanwhile, will be restored, photographed and catalogued using imported equipment and sent back to the owners. Sanjiv Saraf, the entrepreneur and Urdu poetry lover behind Rekhta, says, “The­re is a large population of non-Urdu speaking poetry enthusiasts who want to access Urdu poetry. While there are hundreds of websites on the subject, they are not accessible in Hindi and English. I saw a yawning gap there.” Saraf’s self-funded Rekhta website now hosts some 3,500 ghazals, 400 nazms, 50 e-books and over 350 poets, covering cla­ssics and contemporaries. Rekhta’s initiative, along with those of others across India, could well be the boost archiving so needs so much. Most importantly, these initiatives offer free access.

Archive mavens Davinder Pal Singh. (Photograph by Anil Dayal)

In Chandigarh, Davinder Pal Singh has his hands full at Panjab Digital Library, which will soon get into fifth gear as it transitions from digitising 5,000 pages a day to 50,000 pages a day. Singh’s aim is to “make accessible the accumulated  wisdom of the Punjab region”, in the form of manuscripts, documents, books in many Indian languages and scripts. “It’s a 9 am to 9 am job,”  quips Singh. He says there’s great wealth out there, but only few archivists.

Recent years have seen a lot of accelerated activity in archiving circles, says Pramod Kumar K.G., an archivist-historian. Many private and public institutions are going the digital way, riding on a technology that is easy to use and access. The Kerala State Library has just released 480 rare English books on its website. The *itc* Sangeet Research Academy has been doing some good work in music and culture. All India Radio has also just set up a committee to look into digitsing its wealth of archival material. The Osian Group is launching The Osianama later this month, which will provide free content on Asian arts, culture, cinema online. But on the sidelines are a bunch of smaller, more personalised initiatives. “Archiving is an effort that needs momentum, so as to not get stuck in a loop,” feels Delhi-based musician Vidya Shah, who founded Women On Record with husband Parthiv Shah to highlight the lives and times of women singers of the gramophone era. Among the female performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries they archive are Jaddanbai, Mehboobjan, Anjanibai Malpekar, Zohrabai, Amirbai and others. “On the one hand, you have private collections which are not accessible to everyone, and on the other hand you have libraries which are largely des­igned for academics. So you have to look for an alternative and package it in a way that makes it all interesting for a new audience. To source material, we travelled to Lucknow, Calcutta, Bangla­desh and Pakistan, and found that there are stories everywhere,” says Shah, who has had to dip into personal finances to keep the effort going.

Urdu electronic Poetry being digitised and archived at Rekhta Foundation, Noida. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Digital archiving is the antithesis of the old idea of a physical structure that houses archives, large, imposing—and largely inaccessible, says Sampath, who set up his not-for-profit trust with seed capital from Infosys’s Mohandas Pai. In the last few years, Sampath has trawled flea markets and private collections, building a trove of out-of-copyright work (more than 60 years old), including Abdul Karim Khan, Devika Rani, Hirabai Barodekar and Gauhar Jaan. “One of the highlights is the first recording of M.S. Subbalakshmi, when she was nine, and the only recording of Gandhi in England,” says Sam­path. At Rekhta, Saraf lists Ghalib, Kaifi Azmi, Mir Taqi Mir as the highlights, besides video recitations of contemporary poets.

A kindred venture in the textual field is the South Asia Archive, started by a group of academicians who saw a gaping hole in archival material from the region. “At present, South Asia Archive hosts five million pages, including reports, documents, catalogues, rare pamphlets and books related to history, politics, sports, culture, cinema from colonial and early post-colonial times. We have tied up with Taylor & Francis for dissemination to libraries across the world. In India, we have had support from the UGC. Some of the material we found was fascinating. For example, there was a report on rotten fish, and another on Indian and Australian snake poisoning in colonial Calcutta,” says journalist Boria Maj­umdar, a founder-member. “Econ­omi­cally, digitisation is so much more cost-efficient and if we don’t make the shift, we stand to lose rare and important material,” he says. 

But archiving is challenging, as those in the business know. Says Pramod Kumar, of Eka Cultural Resources and Research, “Taking a photograph of a rare document and uploading it is not archiving. It requires meticulous cataloging to make it searchable. There’s a method to it and it needs a consistency that can only come from following a manual. For that, we need more archivists. In India, we’re seriously short of trained professionals.” It’s also cost-intensive. At the Arc­hive of Ind­ian Music, for high-quality sound transfer, Sampath and his team had to import machinery from the US and Europe. “The upkeep, of course, is expensive. The player needle, for example, wears off soon, and needs to be repla­ced. So sustaining an archive is a cha­­llenge, as is scaling up. We’re trying to find a way to monetise it,” he says. It’s still in incubation.

Kumar, who is currently working on half-a-dozen archiving projects, including at City Palace Museum, Udaipur, says it’s tough to convince private collectors to make their material public. “They get paranoid about losing control, but we try to tell them that the rich heritage they own needs to be out there. I’m optimistic about the future of the archiving movement in India.” Given that we’ve only yet explored the tip of the iceberg, that’s probably not the last we’ll hear.

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