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DOCUMENTATION, PRESERVATION, PROMULGATION: GOALS IN RECORDING THE TRADITIONAL MUSICAL HERITAGE OF VRAJA, NORTHERN INDIA

 

Saurabh Goswami and Selina Sharma

Vraja Institute, India


          The region of Vraja, located in the northwestern corner of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is widely appreciated for its abundant heritage of music, literature and fine arts. Given its mythological significance as the legendary homeland of the popular Hindu deity Lord Krishna, Vraja has naturally inherited a theological weight befitting the geographical manifestation of the timeless cosmic realm. Since in India, religion and art are closely interconnected, the advent of Vraja as a pilgrimage center for Krishnaite Vaishnavas inevitably led to the development of a colorful spectrum of art forms of which musical traditions – both classical and local – constitute an important component. The arts of Vraja have enriched the cultural heritage of North India since their emergence during the 15th/16th centuries, and many of the indigenous arts are nowadays recognized as the foundation for classical art in the northern hemisphere of the South Asian sub-continent. We may mention in this context the dhrupada style of North Indian music, the Vraja style of miniature painting later popularized through the Rajasthani and Mughal styles, and the extensive repertoires of devotional poetry in Vrajabhasha-Hindi, which form the literary fundament of North Indian vocal music to the present day.

          Notwithstanding their crucial rôle for the historical progress of classical art, many of Vraja’s unique art forms are nowadays on the verge of extinction. The reasons for the decline are various, ranging from the discontinuation of royal patronage after India’s independence to general public disinterest and lack of awareness. Over the past decades, however, concern about the survival of the traditional arts of Vraja has prompted individuals and institutions involved in the cultural life of the region to initiate activities directed at the documentation and preservation of the threatened art forms. Recording constitutes one of the core tasks of documentation, and audio recording, again, represents the vital medium to capture sounding realities so as to transform the fleeting experience called music into a permanently available and recallable sound preserve. Moreover, we should not forget that audio recording used to be the only way to document musical events during the pre-videography era.

          The present paper, discussing questions related to the task of recording the traditional musical heritage of Vraja, intends to throw light on the relevant aspects from the combined viewpoint of the insider-performer and the outsider-documentalist. As artists and scholars directly involved in the revival of the traditional arts of Vraja, both of us have been actively participating in the audio-visual documentation of musical and festive events in the region for over a decade. Our newly-founded academic institution, Vraja Kala Sanskriti Sansthana (Institute of Vraja Art and Culture), has made the documentation, preservation and promulgation of Vraja’s cultural heritage its prime objective and often, the institute’s activities are conducted in such a manner as to enable documentation and revival as parallel, simultaneous processes. For our personal contribution to the accomplishment of the larger goal, this implies that we are frequently required to document our own artistic efforts while at the same time practicing them.

          While the dual task of concurrently performing and recording poses doubtlessly a challenge in terms of the required concentration, it also allows us to tackle the aspect of recording from the perspective of the artist who is being recorded, thus making the latter an active collaborator in the documentation process rather than remaining the passive subject he often is. Insider knowledge becomes thereby an important factor, determining the concrete approach to the task inasmuch as it facilitates the selective identification of certain criteria under consideration of which the recording is made.

          Any professional recording activity, whether or not it is supported by preliminary scholarly insight into the concerned tradition, is directed along the lines of three aspects or problem areas to be identified right in the beginning. In the concrete, we have to answer the three fundamental questions of (a) what is being recorded, (b) why is it being recorded, and (c) how is it going to be recorded, before we are able to successfully proceed with the recording as such. That is to say, the scope, purpose and manner of the recording must be specified before the actual commencement of the task. Among the three factors, again, the purpose constitutes the primary factor which determines both the scope of material to be recorded and the manner in which the recording is to be conducted. Any other approach would be wrong in the case of recordings intended yet to be undertaken – though there could be instances in which the scope and nature of recorded material already available decide upon future ways of utilizing this material, or where recordings that have already been conducted in a specific manner make the recorded material specially suitable for the one or other purpose.

          In the concrete case of recording the traditional musical heritage of Vraja, purposes, though related to the overall aim of documenting, preserving and disseminating the threatened art, vary immensely. The most urgent purpose of recordings made in the wake of the initial revitalization efforts was archival documentation. The aim in conducting these recordings was to create a record as broad as possible of a rapidly vanishing musical tradition, hence they constitute the quantitatively most extensive body of recorded material available today. Naturally, such recordings were – and still are – conducted in the least selective manner, the only criterion being the traditional status and cultural value of the music to be recorded. It is worth mentioning that until about a decade ago, audio recording was excessively employed to document not only purely musical events, but dance performances and devotional theatre as well. With videography making its inroads into India, and video technology becoming increasingly advanced and at the same time affordable, it has been possible of late to create more extensive videographic records of the performing arts of Vraja. Specific audio documentation of the musical component of dance and dramatic performances remains however invaluable wherever this aspect gains interest beyond the mere archival record, such as for musical analysis or audio track publication.

          A second purpose for conducting recordings of Vraja’s music and performing arts is again closely linked to the revival movement which has taken place over the past decades. Efforts to preserve the endangered traditions prompted not only an intensified recording activity, but resulted at the same time in an increased scholarly interest in the musical culture concerned. The two objectives, documentation and research, entered thereby into a relationship of active cross-fertilization, with each goal inspiring recording activity for the sake of the respective other. To be more specific, this is to say that research, while on the one hand relying on materials already available as they had been conducted for archival purposes, would on the other hand require new materials to be gathered in order to meet particular analytical needs. Recordings produced with a concrete research aim in mind, on their part, would be selective rather than quantitatively expansive, and emphasis would be placed on the qualitative standard of the recording – a crucial criterion to determine the suitability of the recording for utilization in the analytical process.

          The third aspect of our three-fold task of documenting, preserving and promulgating the musical and cultural heritage of Vraja is the dissemination of the traditional arts through publication of both research results and recorded testimonies. Published recordings, again, can be classified according to two primary intents, i.e. their commercial respectively non-commercial character. Non-commercial publications are meant in the first place for study purposes, thus supporting the broader goal of research and analytical inquiry by making field materials available to scholars not immediately able to conduct fieldwork in a local venue. A second aspect of non-commercial, published recordings is their relevance to instigate respectively facilitate attempts of revival by providing valuable information about extinct or almost extinct musical genres, styles and ways of performance. While we may assign the revitalization aspect to the overall aim of preservation, the non-commercial publication of field recordings for research and informative purposes serves the goal of disseminating the endangered tradition by way of creating public interest.

          Commercial publication of recordings, too, is primarily linked to the objective of making Vraja’s unique musical heritage available to a spectrum of listeners as broad as possible. While originally, the traditional arts of Vraja remained confined to the temples, villages and private homes within the region itself, to be experienced by just those few lucky enough to be present at a given time in a given location where the respective musical event would be held, commercial recordings have brought the performing arts of Vraja before interested people – be they scholars, or music lovers, or members of the general public – all over the world. From the perspective of the recordist and record producer involved in the efforts related to the traditional arts of Vraja, we may add that the commercial interest on our side is directed at raising funds to cover the expenses of both production and ongoing documentation activities. Producing and distributing commercial records of Vraja art for pure business interest and commercial profit is considered unethical by the members of the tradition – including ourselves as practicing artists -, the more so as one deals here with devotional art, any commercial exploitation of which is bound to deeply hurt the religious sentiments of its practitioners.

          The four principal purposes envisaged in recording the traditional musical heritage of Vraja, viz. archival documentation, analytical processing, non-commercial publication and commercial publication, naturally define the scope of the recording and the manner in which it is conducted. As has been already mentioned, recordings conducted for the sake of documenting an endangered musical heritage focus on quantity – to collect as much as possible of the precious material for as long as it still exists -, hence their scope is the most extensive. Quality does play a rôle in this context, but often a recording needs to be conducted in any possible manner no matter what the conditions at the local venue are. Consequently such recordings, though normally capturing the reality of the performance event in an impressive manner, are not always necessarily most suitable for analytical processing.

          The latter task, in particular the aspect of transcription and musical analysis of recorded field material, impacts significantly on the recordist’s view on the issue of transparency and distortion in the recording. Any music scholar who conducts his field recordings for the concrete purpose of later transcribing them into musical notation and thereupon analyzing them would be most keen to obtain a recorded product exhibiting a maximum amount of clarity. Each respective sound track should be as sharply audible as possible, hence the recording is ideally executed with a separate microphone for each participating musician. It is needless to say that such ideal conditions often remain a distant illusion for the scholar conducting his fieldwork in Vraja, especially in remote rural areas where even basic commodities such as electricity are a luxury. Specially arranged studio recordings, on the other hand, are lacking the reality of the performance event, hence are deficient with regard to vital contextual inputs.

          Studio recordings constitute the most suitable approach wherever commercial publication is envisaged. Here, it is not merely the reality of the performance event which matters, but the aesthetic satisfaction of the listener – the consumer of the commercial product – must be paid justice. The case is slightly different with non-commercial recordings meant for study purposes respectively as models serving the revitalization of a given musical tradition. Though it is certainly desirable that such recordings are aesthetically appealing, the main criterion for their suitability is the degree to which these recordings are representative of the concerned musical tradition respectively musical style, or of a given performance event.

          Besides scope of and manner in which to conduct the recording itself, the way in which the recorded material is subsequently processed is likewise determined by the concrete goals envisioned in the first place. Preservation in archives, transcription and musical analysis, revival through reference to earlier recorded material, and publication – whether commercial or non-commercial – for the purpose of dissemination all require their own specific approaches, and the same material may well be processed in different ways if serving to fulfill different objectives.

          Before concluding, we may turn our attention to yet another significant aspect, namely the stance taken by the various groups of individuals involved in the process of recording. Who is part of this process, and what are their respective expectations, hence methods? Musicians respectively performers in general, documentalists, archivists, research scholars and record producers naturally have their individual points of view, resulting in differing approaches to the task of recording. Different circumstances and recording situations too may require different actions, and insider knowledge can thereby turn into a crucial factor to determine the decision which action to take under which particular condition. To give an example of how far one may have to differentiate in seemingly similar or even identical situations, if an outsider – be he a scholar, or documentalist, or other – were to record me while singing in the temple without the compulsory percussion accompaniment for the mere reason that the accompanist did not turn up, I would request him to abstain from recording the incomplete musical event and wait for another occasion when the drummer is present. If, however, the song performance is part of a larger festive occasion which to document is our main task, we may record the event ourselves even if the musical presentation is imperfect for lack of an accompanist.

          Again, musicians may object in certain cases to being recorded, even if merely for archival documentation, if they are not satisfied with the artistic standard of the performance. Similarly, documentalists may be dissatisfied with studio recordings not being sufficiently ‘authentic’, while producers, on the other hand, may reject the ‘roughness’ of certain field recordings especially in the rural setting.

          Finally, let us take a glance at the recording technician, the sound engineer. Who is he, what is his task, of what kind should be his qualifications? Ideally, he should unite in himself the abilities of all the various individuals involved in the process of recording. He should know their approaches, their goals and requirements besides being familiar with the intricacies of recording technology. Now in India, be it in our area of specialization – Vraja – or any other venue where live performances are being recorded, whom do we actually find in the function of the sound engineer? – the local electrician, trained to connect wires, to install appliances and perhaps change light bulbs, but knowing precious little about the meaning of sound recording, let alone its practical execution. The fact that we do possess an extensive body of high-quality recordings of traditional music from Vraja, fieldwork and studio recordings, commercial and non-commercial alike, does prove, however, that ideal conditions are not the one and only prerequisite to achieve one’s larger goals.