Digital Archiving of Oral Vernacular Musics in Northern India

By Aditi Deo

The primary ethnographic study in India comprised multi-sited research centred on the digital archiving of folk and tribal musics—oral vernacular music traditions associated with rural or tribal communities, undefined authorship, shared ownership, and localized (often live) production and consumption. The object of research was conceptualized as a network of activities—varied in scales, contexts and motivations—of digital documentation and dissemination of oral vernacular musics. With technological developments facilitating easy and affordable audio-visual recording, extensive storage capacity and diverse modes of dissemination, archiving activities in India have received a new impetus in recent years. In addition to work supported through formal institutions, there is a proliferation of decentralized activities of collection and documentation of vernacular musics, often undertaken by members of communities that traditionally practice and/or patronise these forms. Further, local projects are often integrally linked to vernacular industries of music production and consumption. The study attempts to trace the connections between these diverse activities in order to offer insights into the field of digital archiving of oral vernacular musics.

Fieldwork was conducted primarily in New Delhi, the national capital, and in semi-urban and rural parts of the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra in northern India. Ethnographic interlocutors included non-government archiving initiatives, musicians, small-scale vernacular recording studios, and urban folk music labels. The key research sites were: the Archive and Research Center of Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Gurgaon, a satellite city of New Delhi—a leading academic archive that is also part of transnational archive networks; Lokayan Sansthan in Bikaner, Rajasthan—a group of cultural activists recording local musicians; and the Adivasi Academy archive in Tejgadh, Gujarat—tribal archivists engaged in cultural documentation of their communities. Through these points of entry, the research project connected with local musicians, recording studios and audiences of vernacular musics, while simultaneously discovering wider, national connections among archiving initiatives.

A second smaller project was concerned with new modes of music consumption and circulation that have emerged around the availability of mobile digital music among non-elite consumers in semi-urban regions and urban peripheries in India. Music consumption among such audiences is increasingly characterized by the ubiquity of cheap digital media devices such as mobile feature phones, USB drives, SD cards, and mp3 players. Simultaneously, the widespread informal media and music economies in India have diversified to cater to these modes of consumption. The study focused specifically on one niche trade practice—the vending of digital music downloads. Through interviews with music vendors and consumers in New Delhi, Bikaner and Tejgadh, the project aims to detail the ecology of digital music circulation in this context.

The India study centrally addresses overarching research themes of intellectual property, materialities and literacies, institutional restructuring, and consumption. Building on research in museum and heritage studies, it explores how notions of music as intellectual property are enacted in the troubled framing of oral vernacular music as heritage and complicated by the technological mediation of relationships between musicians, archivists and audiences. It examines the impact of changing materialities on institutional restructuring through the shift from analogue to digital archiving, digitization projects, and the increasing focus on access and dissemination as archival responsibility. Further, it also reflects on the implications of local (informal and extralegal) music economies for the consumption of vernacular musics.


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