Echoes for eternity

With digital interactives, art installations, exhibits, photographs and voice recordings, Indian Music Experience wants to take music to the masses, writes Rashmi Vasudeva

Visitors look at various musical instruments from all over the world at the Indian Music Experience (IME), India’s first interactive music museum, in Bengaluru. AFP

If there is something fiercely personal and obstinately universal at the same time, it is music. Precisely why it is ambitious to think of boxing it in a building, storing it in not-so-dusty display cabinets, letting it waft through corridors of documented history.

Ambitious yes, but not unachievable as Indian Music Experience (IME), a museum exclusively dedicated to all things music, has demonstrated. The pet project of M R Jaishankar, chairman and managing director of Brigade Group, the museum has been garnering much appreciation since its soft launch a few months ago. A formal inauguration happened recently, but what is infinitely more interesting is how it came into being in the first place.

Blood, sweat & music

Behind the striking architecture of the museum and the enormous detailing that has gone into its installations and gallery exhibits, are two musicians whose proverbial blood, sweat and tears (and music, of course) have shaped and contoured this dream project. One is the well-known Carnatic vocalist Manasi Prasad and the other is the famed veena exponent Suma Sudhindra. While Manasi is the museum director, Dr Sudhindra is the director (outreach) of IME. But designations speak nothing of their journey.

It all began when Jaishankar, who was inspired by Experience Music Project in Seattle, USA, decided he would build something similar in Bengaluru. The museum in Seattle, Museum of Pop culture, is, incidentally, the brainchild of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Jaishankar roped in Manasi, who also happens to be an IIM-Bangalore graduate, to head his project.

“This was nearly 10 years ago and I was in the stage of my life where my work was uninspiring and I felt I was not giving enough time to my passion. This project asked of me both my heart and head, and I readily agreed,” recalls Manasi.

'Songs of Struggle' Gallery at IME
'Songs of Struggle' Gallery at IME

The young musician, who has a scintillating career in singing and several awards already in her kitty, visited music museums in London, Vienna, and many other cities, looking for inspiration and ideas. The vibrant and interactive Grammy Museum in Los Angeles especially grabbed her attention. “We did not want our museum to be a dead place where artefacts are stored and displayed… we wanted it to be as alive as the music itself,” says Manasi.

The young musician and her team were also particular that the museum represent every genre of Indian music, be it Carnatic, classical, Hindustani, folk, pop or Bollywood.

“Indian music is as diverse as it is personal; it is traditional and yet evolving. Each one of us have our own piece of music that speaks to us; every religion has a rich tradition of songs as does every region and we did not want any visitor to go away feeling he did not hear the music of his childhood,” she says.

Archiving oral traditions

The team’s dreams for the museum were evidently lofty enough but converting them to reality was a different ball game altogether. “There are (at last count) more than 120 oral traditions of music in India. It was daunting to imagine documenting every one of them,” says Suma, describing the process of archiving and documentation the museum took up.

But document they did, with the help of a committed curating team, Sangeet Natak Akademi that opened its doors for them, and a host of PhDs who unexpectedly came to their rescue. “We were surprised to find that many have written their PhDs on musical traditions of India and these research papers proved to be a valuable source for us,” recalls Suma.

The museum also houses a learning centre and is offering diploma courses as part of its outreach programme. “Archiving is an on-going process and a few years down the line, we hope to be recognised as a musical and cultural hub of the country,” says Suma.

Another challenge was to represent visually what is essentially an aural medium. “We used every method possible… digital interactives, art installations, exhibits, photographs, voice recordings, you name it,” she laughs. Some of these interactives the museum houses at present were completely created in-house like Suma’s favourite, the ‘Raga–Tala’ interactive which provides the visitor an educative glimpse into the rhythms and metre of music.

Sound Garden at IME
Sound Garden at IME

For Manasi though, the gallery of the ‘Songs of Struggle’ resonates with her the most. “There are so many stories behind every piece of music… do you know why ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was finally chosen as the national anthem? Do you know which song Gandhi requested M S Subbulakshmi to sing? Have you ever wondered why ‘Vande Mataram’ was written? When I walk through that gallery where ‘Vaishnavo Janato’ is echoing and bouncing off its walls, I see how music has always been an intrinsic part of our struggles, our emotions, and our very being, I get goosebumps. Every single time.”

It was Vikram Seth who eloquently said music is a sufficient gift... why ask for happiness, why hope not to grieve. It is enough, it is to be blessed enough to live from day to day and to hear such music.

Perhaps Indian Music Experience has indeed managed to box this sentiment in a building after all.

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