Documenting music in Nepal

Seto Machindranath festival, Nepal 1955-56

At the British Library we have been digitising some of our film and video collection. It’s a collection that has been built up not with an overall moving image resource in mind, but rather as a reflection of the interest of particular curators. So the collection does not cover all subjects, instead specialising in certain areas, often relating to sound because the videos were traditionally collected by the Library’s sound archive. So it is that highlights of the collection include experimental theatre recordings, oral history intervies, a large number of pop videos, and ethnomusicological recordings collected by our World and Traditional Music section.

Films from the latter are among the first batch of films that we have digitised, and four extracts have just gone up on YouTube, on a new British Library playlist, Sound and moving image collections. They are films taken by the celebrated Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963). Bake documented music and dance in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily in audio format (reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders and Tefiphone recordings on 35mm film) but occasionally on 16mm film as well. He served as Lecturer in Indian Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and wrote widely on Indian music. His advocates and acolytes are scattered across the globe; likewise his sound and film collections. At the BL we have many sound recordings he made on field trips in 1925-1928, 1931-1934, and 1939-1941, and the greater part of his film legacy, with 16mm material from the 1930s and 1950s.

Indra Jaatra Festival Kathmandu, 1931

It has to be said that Bake was probably happier with an audio recorder than with a camera. The films are erratically shot and sometimes clumsily composed, with many of the flaws in production and technique associated with the amateur. The footage is unedited, and little information survives on what was shot, when, and where. Consequently the identification and coherent presentation of the films has been quite an undertaking. We’re still working on the collection, but we have released four preview edited extracts that bring together Bake’s films (which were shot silent) with some of his sound recordings (which were made around the same time but not intended as synchronous accompaniments to the films).

We’re not interested in such films as art (though it’s always welcome when one encounters a little artistry) – we’re interested in the content, in what the film documents, and in this case its mean for a particular community. Each video is accompanied by this important message on the respect due to works that document traditional practices:

The British Library has made these recordings available purely for the purposes of non-commercial research, study and private enjoyment. These recordings should not be altered or used in ways that might be derogatory to the indigenous and local communities who are traditional custodians of the traditional music, lyrics, knowledge, stories, performances and other creative materials embodied in the recordings.

An important aspect of the preservation and digitisation of the films has been a repatriation project with the Music Museum of Nepal (half of the films were shot in that country). We sent the digitised films to the museum, they supplied us with detailed documentation, which we have incorporated in our catalogue records and which helped inform the further preservation work and production of edited extracts (more of which will follow in due course).

Matayaa festival, 1955-56

I know nothing of the music of Nepal, and I’m very much aware that what I see in the films is purely surface, while for others they are rich in meaning and significance. It’s a marvellous experience to sit with those who do have that knowledge and to learn from them what what can be seen (and heard) by those who have the eyes (and ears) to see (and hear). We hope that in publishing these short extracts that we will attract those with expert knowledge to help us document the films that much more accurately. We will be publishing further extracts, as well as other examples from our collections, on the YouTube playlist, ahead of making greater amount of archive film and video available in our reading rooms in 2013.

Even if I don;t know much about the music of Nepal, I think the films have an unpretentious beauty about them. I am enthralled by the shot of vertiginous crowds attending the Indra Jaatra festival in Kathmandu in 1931, intrigued by the chariot that needs to be taller than the buildings around it so as not to displease the God in the colour film of the Seto Machindranath festival, and it is such a delight to see the young boy so earnestly playing his drum along with the Newar musicians in 1955-56. As even these short extracts make clear, Bake had a most sympathetic eye.


Matayaa festival, Nepal 1955-56

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