Collecting India

A compelling article by Robert Millis, one-half of the Climax Golden Twins, appeared in this month’s Perfect Sound Forever web-zine. You might know the Twins’ work through the “Victrola Favorites” cassette compilations of rare 78s – and, as of 2008, in a lavish CD box-set courtesy of the noble Dust-to-Digital.

I lack a fully gestated version of that gene that imparts the propensity towards obsessive 78 collection; I’d much rather spend $15 on a CD that collects a 78-era-performer’s “complete recorded works in chronological order” (in the vernacular of one reissue label) than on an original disc that I can’t listen to in the car, that requires switching the stylus on my turntable, and that my clumsy ass would probably break anyway. Besides, these days $15 rarely buys the collector something that the collector would consider worthy of collecting.

I also don’t really care about the object; if I can get to the music in the most convenient and edifying way (admittedly the two are usually mutually exclusive), I’m satisfied. I write that, though, recalling a lazy afternoon spent on eBay several years ago, when I found an auction underway of some 50 Turkish classical 78s. turkish11The shipping would have been $300 from Ankara, but there was only a day left, with the bidding sitting quietly at $50. I felt, much to my displeasure, that tingly sensation rise in my stomach, and momentarily lost all sense of proportion, fiscal responsibility, etc. The bidding – of course – flew through the scalloped roof over the next day, and I quickly pulled myself back to earth. But I got a fleeting sense of that fearful bug, and enough of it to set me off that kind of vice for good.

The past few years has seen the emergence of a concerted effort to reissue “ethnic” and/or international musics recorded c. 1900-1950 or later on CD. Pat Conte’s Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo set the bar just about of reach. He not only has great records, but has a real gift of sequencing them into an album or, for that matter, a radio show, taking wildly disparate material and making it all play happily together. Dust-to-Digital has done the Victrola Favorites box and the Black Mirror compilations recently – featuring plenty exciting tunes too, though they feel less an attempt to showcase the best possible records of a grab-bag of locales, and moreso a show-and-tell of particular collectors’ collections. (Especially illustrative of the collection ethos is the former – reflective of the preciousness of the 78 object, the set is itself a finely wrought objet d’art.) Though the Climax Golden Twins and Ian Nagoski, Black Mirror‘s compiler, are by all evidence discerning listeners, having a good record collection does not necessarily guarantee discernment.* I could have had 50 Turkish classical 78s in my “collection” and still not known the first damn thing about Turkish classical music, or how my records stacked up to the highest stars in the firmament of vintage Turkish classical recordings. Ultimately, I’m much less interested in a particular collector’s collection than the most representative and wonderful records of a particular tradition, genre, artist, or period. Another reason I don’t collect 78s.

But Millis’ interview with Suresh Chandvankar, “honorary secretary” of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, is exciting for both the view of the sheer massiveness of India’s bygone 78 record industry – of the size and scope of the subcontinent itself – and its most dutiful (and obsessive) collectors. Why do I write “dutiful”? I wouldn’t use that word to describe Millis, Nagoski, or even Conte or Bussard. Perhaps I have banging around my skull Alan Lomax’s concept of “cultural feedback” – namely that the job of the folklorist, et al., is not to document traditional modes of expression for export only, fakirsbut to help reinvigorate local traditions that might be struggling to be heard beneath the roar of the mass-culture media machine. (No small feat in India.) The irony is that these 78 recordings were made by the industry’s foremost corporate firms in the first half of the 20th century, and while “commoditizing” the music of various life-cycle rituals and religious ceremonies, as well as the praise and story-songs of particular musician castes, they also helped document and nurture those traditions. Companies like HMV were unwitting preservers of utterly local and fragile folkways, and collectors like Chandvankar – as an inheritor** of these folkways – are continuing the work of that reinvigorative “feedback.”

Millis writes:

I met Suresh Chandvankar in Mumbai (the current name for the city of Bombay). Suresh is a physicist who is “deep into records” and is the “honorary secretary” of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, an organization devoted to the “documentation and preservation” of Indian music, especially that music released on 78rpm. My mind did boggle when I found out what the SIRC has access to through its various far-flung members: not only the cream of film music and Northern and Southern classical music from the 78 era, but everything else imaginable: jazz played in India, music therapy 78s, Zoroastrian religious discourse, dramas, long forgotten labels, recordings of instruments that are no longer used, puzzle records, radio transcriptions.

Read Millis’ entire article and interview with the good secretary here:

*Allow me another, mostly useless recollection here: I remember going to a party some years ago in Brooklyn, at the house of a guy that I had been psyched up about – namely about his ridiculously massive record collection. Friends I was with at the time were talking about it excitedly, and I got excited too. It was by all accounts legendary. It filled the entire front room, floor to ceiling, on industrial aluminum shelves of one of those dingy, cheap row-houses of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint variety – it was in fact in Williamsburg – with step-stools for easy access, and party-goers were standing around kind of in awe, quietly, like it was the Sistine Chapel. It was admittedly daunting, but obvious that we were encouraged to interact with the collection (to propitiate our proud host), so I started randomly pulling things off shelves. I swear: Herb Alpert, Kay Kyser, Fogelberg, I mean every absolutely bargain-basement barrel-bottom thing you’ve ever flipped through disappointedly was there, like a whole bunch of little Wizards of Oz behind the curtain of the huge, totally awesome “collection.” I don’t remember seeing anything remotely worth listening to; much less actually owning. This is the end of my recollection, and ill-illustrative example (having confused “good” with “big”).

**It’s certainly arguable that Chandvakar, just because he is Indian – by which I mean the citizen of a nation still in its infancy that is in essence a haphazardly compiled patchwork or palimpsest (after Lomax and Rushdie) of hundreds of ethnic groups, languages, doctrines, and other myriad identifications – is no more entitled to that “inheritance” than any other enthusiastic collector of vintage records, no matter how far flung. Although I’d say that as an Indian, he is in a better position geographically, culturally, and perhaps emotionally to do the work of “cultural preservation,” if that’s what he, we, whomsoever it concerns agrees needs doing.


2 responses to “Collecting India

  1. “Ultimately, I’m much less interested in a particular collector’s collection than the most representative and wonderful records of a particular tradition, genre, artist, or period. Another reason I don’t collect 78s.” Actually, collectors are pretty interesting. Music–old, new, East, West–is mostly such a subjective listening experience. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as they say. Collector’s can act like museum curators and point to so called “lesser” performances, forgotten material, or alternate takes that might be just as interesting to me as the “most representative” song of a tradition. What could possibly be the most representative song of a tradition? I dare you to pick a few from the American tradition… Collectors, if so inclined or talented present material in a new or exciting way…such as Sublime Frequencies is doing Or those Secret Museum characters. Sometimes the learned ethnomusicological approach can be so boring…As the world drags on and we stockpile media and art work and music and traditions and styles and it becomes impossible to navigate the morass of the mass-cultural media machine, collectors provide useful filters or mix tape makers or compilers or curators for what is out there…great post, had me thinking…thanks.

  2. I’m not suggesting that collectors or their collections are uninteresting. I’m just less interested in them than in what they collect (if what they collect are artifacts of true and beautiful human creative expression; conversely, I know an interesting woman who collects nut-crushers – she must have at least 80 of them, lined up on top of her kitchen cabinets – and only through her mediation do they become interesting). I’m especially wary of celebrating the collectors, as we tend to do so at the expense of the material they collect. That seems to me to be an approach originally wrought by the academic application of ethnomusicology, as we allow the collector/scholar to serve as gate-keeper and sole interpreter of the “collected.” (This is also evident in the successful marketing and – such as it is – popular celebration of Harry Smith.) Every album compiler, radio producer, exhibition curator functions as a collector, as they compile and sequence material into an aesthetic experience in which we engage. And if they produce a beautiful and enlightening experience, they are worthy of our praise – and often their personalities begin to spark our interest. But just seeking out and gathering together rare things isn’t enough.

    There are most definitely songs that are more representative of particular traditions than others, although it’s folly to suggest that there can be a single “most representative” song in any tradition. It’s also important to define our terms reasonably. I dare anyone to explain what the “American tradition” is. Every American musical tradition bears performances that exemplify its particular melodies, rhythms and texts; but we’d all agree that listening solely to those performances provide only an introduction and a partial view.

    Thanks so much for reading and writing.

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