Doordarshan Archives, a national treasure, is rolling!
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

December 15, 2009

When some of us woke up to the horrible reality, back in the eighties, of priceless broadcast material being lost by our then monopoly telecaster, Doordarshan, we mourned bitterly.We shed tears for erased recordings of rare interactions and interviews such as that between Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheshwari Devi.What a relaxed, absolutely priceless tete-a-tete it was between the three grand dames of music, wiped out either through sheer carelessness or ignorance, or as was the case many a time, in those days of tape shortage, because someone needed to find a tape for recording something else!

The above interaction was conducted in the salon of the one and only Naina Devi, herself an aesthete of rare vintage. She was the sister of Sadhna Devi, the dancer, and imbibed the best qualities of a cultured Bengali upperclass upbringing.  She married the Kapurthala prince, Kunwar Ripjeet Singh and clearly, exposure to the North, to the never-say-die Punjab and to its royalty gave another dimension to her life, both as a beautiful singer and as a patron of the arts.Munirka, the south Delhi residential colony where many musicians and dancers live nowadays is a case in point. The artistes owe their homes to Naina Devi's farsightedness and her fight for homes for them.

My use of the past tense for that ill-fated loss of archival tapes is not correct.  We still  mourn for that loss.  We  mourn for other recordings of great singers, many produced by Naina Devi.  Since she worked in Doordarshan, she was strategically placed to do these specials for the national agency.I recall the recording of the concert of Begum Akhtar with her disciple Rita Ganguli, singing the thumri 'Mohe Chod Gaye Majhdar'... or the interview between Rita and the famed Bengali poet, Shokti Chattopadhya, a recluse who only agreed to come to the Calcutta DD studios for the interaction because he had heard her sing over 14 songs of his.  Who can forget other losses such as  the never-to-be-repeated panel discussion between Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurusawa and Michelangelo Antonioni, held in the DD studios at the time of the International Film Festival of India in the mid-seventies!

In this background, accustomed as one has been to a lifetime of visiting Akashvani Bhavan with its paan-spattered walls, shabby interiors and frayed coir matting, I got a culture shock when I went there last week for a seminar on the steps they are taking to virtually archive almost 1,50,000 hours of broadcast material.Not just the equipment, state of the art consoles, recorders and mean machines for conducting the archival project but even the rooms they are located in have received a complete makeover.  They are colourful and clean.The human component is earnest, made up of part oldies, who ensure continuity, and part the squeaky youngsters who manage the new technology.  Of the vintage executives, both men and women, there are administrators as well as engineers who alone can repair and maintain the recorders and machines of the pre-digitisation era, the video tape recorder with its Ampex 2 inch tapes, moving to the BCN 1" technology in the eighties with the colour era and finally the shift to digital technology with DVC Pro tapes in 2004.

This year is the 50th anniversary of DD.  But its archival footage can be traced back to a maximum of 40 years. The credit for ensuring that this decade did not extend into another and yet another belongs to one ardent, trained programming executive who saw the need to take urgent steps for archiving Doordarshan material.Kamalini Dutt's name is synonymous with archiving because it is her passion for the work of documentation and her understanding of its importance as national, tangible heritage that has ensured that Doordarshan has embarked on a long term archiving project which will protect content of great historical, social and cultural importance created at its 63 studios across the country to be protected and stored.

This is called the Media Asset Management project and it will allow Doordarshan to transfer its massive archives of 1.5 lakh hours of video into digital memory.  This material is in a variety of formats, 2 inch Ampex, 1 inch BCN, U-matic and Betacam Sp.  It is indeed a grand plan that requires various technologies, from repairing of the old Ampex as well as the U-matic player to new and highly sophisticated servers.  Already the old technologies are so redundant and spare parts so difficult to find that it is a mercy that DD has a brigade of old engineers who share Kamalini's passion and vision. And then there are the inevitable distortions that occur from long term storage.  These too, have to be cleaned painstakingly and a superior video and audio quality imparted to rare tapes.  Of course the human element will always remain the key in such a massive project.  To retrieve  and make accessible this digitised content is their task and it is more important even than the machines.  It rests on their knowledge in identifying the categories and details of the material, the locators of the virtual database which must accurately identify everything and finally make it available to the interested viewer/listener.Kamalini, herself a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, helped by a strong team of sensitized persons, one of them her daughter, Purva Dhanashree, who won the Sangeet Natak Akademi's Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar for Vilasini Nritya last year, appear more than ready to take the challenge head on!

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.