AFTER FOUR consecutive interviews, Bengaluru-based writer Vikram Sampath’s answers sound rehearsed in the office of his Delhi publishers. But as the discussion veers to music, the 32-year old occasionally breaks out of his MBA lineage of professionally correct answers, to defend the strange ways of the subject of his latest book — S Balachander. This is Sampath’s third book, following one on the history of the Wodeyar dynasty and a path-breaking book on musician Gauhar Jaan, which fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. His enthusiasm pipes up as he tells Janani Ganesan how his research for the book, Voice of the Veena: S Balachander, inspired him to set up a sound archive in India.
You have been learning Carnatic music since the age of five. Between a musician and an MBA graduate, when did you become a writer?
My first book, Splendours of Royal Mysore, was serendipity. There were protests in the southern part of Karnataka when the Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore were shown in a bad light in a TV serial. I was in Class VI then and curious. Weekends became a trip to Mysore. I don’t know how the interest sustained for 12 years. But it was never with an intention to write. And that led to my second book. I came across letters of the gramophone celebrity Gauhar Jaan, pleading with the Mysore government to not cut her salary. I was intrigued as to why a celebrity had to suffer this fate. It has been 80 years since she died, so it was like a Sherlock Holmes trail to recreate her life.
Why did Balachander stand out amongst all musicians, inspiring you to write your third book on him?
Although I have never seen him perform live, my Carnatic vocal teacher shared with us his writings on the responsibility of the musician, a student of music and the audience. He used to walk off the stage when someone in the audience spoke or a baby wailed. He was a Carnatic music activist who fought legal cases to ensure that the history of Carnatic music was not hijacked by false claims of origin.
Are you a touchy and solitary artiste like your subject S Balachander?
Seclusion is out of the question because I work in an IT company. I almost suffer from split personality disorder — when I look at Excel sheets, a thumri plays in my head. But since writing works as a stress-buster, it doesn’t affect me. I also took a four-month sabbatical to Berlin on a fellowship to study the early gramophone recordings of India.
You had to go to Berlin for Indian gramophone recordings?
It’s sad. Those recordings were manufactured in Germany. There is a National Sound Archive in almost every city of Europe. Berlin has two or three of them and one of them has recordings of 600 prisoners of war from India during the Second World War. To replicate this, I set up a trust three months ago, called the Archive of Indian Music, to digitise the gramophone era recordings and make them available online.
So, India does not have equivalent institutions?
There is the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s archive. But somehow people don’t seem to know about it. All India Radio’s archive is out of bounds for the public.
What were the precautions you had to take when writing such history?
It was my duty to portray the artistes without value judgements. I tried not to make my writing hagiographical or put the artiste on a pedestal, where the readers can’t identify with them.
What is your next project?
I will wait for it to happen.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka