The wedding brass band, Lata perennials on the paan shop transistor, deshbhakti songs at rallies, amplified M.S. at the roadside temple — wanted and unwanted, beautiful and cacophonous, music surrounds Indian life at all times and in all places. But there have been few efforts to document its all-pervasive and powerful place in our lives.
You could walk into the Kelkar museum in Pune and marvel at the sight of Hirabai Badodekar’s tanpura, linger over the instrument collection at Sangeet Natak Akademi’s collection, or catch a priceless 1940s recording in the Music Academy archives. But music as a lived, eclectic experience, beyond the artefacts, that hasn’t been showcased enough.
Some of this is set to change with the distinctly designed structure that sits in a corner of south Bengaluru’s J.P. Nagar. Indian Music Experience (IME), opened late last year, seeks to gather the bewilderingly rich history of Indian music, both modern and contemporary. You can call it a ‘museum’ only in the widest sense of the word, for here music is meant to be touched, heard and absorbed intimately.
Walk in, and you enter the sound garden that leads you through the basic mysteries of music. How does sound vibration create music in a xylophone, why does a hum uttered into a rock cavern echo around our heads, and at what point can two hands rubbed over a stone produce a sound like the ghostly theremin? There are ‘answers’ here to experience.
IME is the brainchild of Brigade Group’s head, M.R. Jaishankar, who wanted to recreate something along the lines of the fascinating Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.
It took nearly a decade to be set up and cost around ₹42 crore, pooling together the collective effort of some of India’s best-known musicians, musicologists, and sound and design experts. Spread over three levels, you will find here an avenue to explore almost every musical genre India has known, through displays, listening stations, documentaries and do-it-yourself digital interactives. Classical, folk, protest, indie, pop, fusion, rock — this is an inclusive, eclectic homage to Indian music.
More than a museum
“The moment visitors enter IME they are disabused of typical notions about a museum. It is not all artefacts, not all traditional, nothing is off-limits, people are encouraged to touch and engage with the music around them,” says Manasi Prasad, museum director and Carnatic singer.
A vast hall houses India’s now respectably old tradition of ‘Western’ music: Sample Mohiner Ghoraguli’s rock classics of the 70s, Agam’s Carnatic shredding of a Thillana, Pentagram’s revolutionary sounds, Lou Majaw’s Bob Dylan tributes from Shillong; gawp at Daler Mehndi’s dazzling costume at a Madrid concert. This is the ever-evolving world of popular Indian music.
Then there are stories of the evolution of classical forms. How the divas of the earliest phonographic recordings, from Salem Godavari to Janaki Bai of Allahabad, put Indian music for the first time on record for pathbreaking European sound engineers. Or how ‘Hindostannie’ airs made their way back to the West when colonial memsahibs tried to make sense of Indian music.
“What we were attempting was unprecedented in India, and that was a big challenge. But right from the start we were clear that this was to be more about musical forms than personalities,” says Bengaluru-based veena musician and director, outreach at IME, Suma Sudhindra.
There is stuff to excite the connoisseur in the classical section where both Hindustani and Carnatic music come together as Living Traditions: gharanas, time cycles, lives of stalwarts, and rare recordings. But if you would like some demystification of the dense forms of music, head for the interactive displays.
Here you can record your voice and locate your pitch, match it to one of the legends and, better still, hear it sung in an immortal composition. With a lifetime of training your D could have been Kumar Gandharva’s awesome tarana in raga Shree — theoretically, of course.
In the 90s, A.R. Rahman’s prodigious talent brought new production values to Indian film music, and these influences percolated every genre. Those layered tracks he brought in, how are those pulled off in recording studios? You can pick up sarangi, djembe, sitar and guitar strains and mix them here to see how the fusion happens.
Songs of protest
Music as politics has been an integral part of the Indian soundscape since the early decades of the 20th century. From multiple renditions of Vande Mataram to the rousing sounds of IPTA’s cry against war and communalism, Gaddar’s rebel songs to the raucous patriotic songs of the 80s, you can hear the sounds of political statements in the Songs of Struggle section.
“I would never have imagined protest music finding place in a museum, so I am delighted it has been given the place it deserves,” says social scientist Sumangala Damodaran, who curated the section. “I picked theatre troupes like Janam that use music, groups like Parcham, and individuals like Gaddar to tell the story.”
The large section on film music is a treat. But if artefacts are what excite you, there is Gandhiji’s letter to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bismillah Khan’s starched white topi and shehnai, and Bhimsen Joshi’s trademark red and brocade shawl. And, of course, a rich gallery of instruments.
With an annual operating cost of ₹3 crore, it remains to be seen how Indians will respond to the museum, which was inaugurated last November. For now it is a quiet place to wander in and soak up the sounds.
Malini Nair likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.