The Travelling Archive is a shared space of listening to field recordings which come out of a journey through the rich and varied folk music of Bengal, covering mainly Bangladesh and the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and some adjoining areas of Assam in the east of South Asia; even distant locations such as the Bengali/Bangladeshi neighbourhoods of East London.
This journey was begun in 2003 by Kolkata-based singer and writer Moushumi Bhowmik, soon to be joined by sound recordist and sound designer Sukanta Majumdar. As the two travelled together, a map of endless possibilities began to unfurl before them. Over the years the road has taken many turns. From recording and documentation, the project has evolved to explore new ways of research and dissemination, through archiving and working with archival material; writing and publication; presentation-performance and lectures; collaboration with museums and art galleries; even launching a record label with selections of field recordings.
The project proposal received its first grant in 2004, from Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts, under their two-year Arts Research and Documentation scheme. At this initial stage, the project was called ‘Love, Loss and Longing: Biraha in the folk music of Bengal’. The second grant also came from IFA in 2007, again for two years, for research, documentation and dissemination. It was now that the project developed into The Travelling Archive. Meanwhile, in 2006 the British Library and the Charles Wallace India Trust gave two short-term grants to initiate our Migration, Memory and Music project. In 2006, Ford Foundation India gave a four-month educational grant to work on this website, which was launched in 2011. In 2012, Prince Claus Fund gave us a one-year grant, to take the website through its second phase of development under a project titled ‘Songs Unbound’, which was launched in 2014. In 2015 we have had a third grant from IFA, this time under their ten-month Archival Fellowship programme, to work on the Bengal recordings and writings of Arnold Bake. Most recently, we have received support from the British Library, the Helen Hamlyn Trust, Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, London and Creative Research into Sound Art Practice (CRiSAP) of the University of Arts, London to work on an exhibition in London in the summer of 2015 entitled ‘The Travelling Archive in East London’, while Moushumi has received a Scaliger Fellowship to work for a month at the Special Collection section of Leiden University in The Netherlands.
Surely such institutional support is important, but we would not be able to sustain such a project for all these years without our friends. We are supported in so many ways and by so many people, how to name everyone? The web of friends spreads out as we move through the pages of this site. Some friends are more involved than others. For example, our debt to Salamot Khan, Sanjay Sikdar, Ambarish Dutta, Suman Kumar Das and Satyaki Banerjee only keeps growing. We should also acknowledge that we have freely used here some of Amit Roy, Salamot Khan and Suman Kumar Das’s photographs. Manojit Chattopadhyay has been an involved website developer; he truly understands the needs of our project and innovatively works for it, often braving challenges where others would happily give up. We are grateful to him for it. While most of the visual design issues are now handled by Sukanta, there is always Sunayan Roy, our original designer and mentor, who we can turn to for any help or advice. Subhadeep Ghosh has been with us from the time we began to plan the website, in 2009, so much so that he now calls The Travelling Archive ‘our’ project.
Salamat Khan (Salamot bhai as we called him) passed away at dawn on 12 August 2015. He was so essential to our world, yet so much like a bird impossible to catch. Forever uncaged and uncageable. His death to us is like the last visible flight which he has taken. As if he had a sharp beak with which he pierced the sky and once he went in, the sky closed itself upon us. We lesser mortals were left below looking skywards, our hearts filled with longing for a little bit more.
We grieve the passing of Chandrabati mashima. At the same time we feel blessed to have known her through this last decade of her life, although it seems like too short a time now.. Chandrabati mashima opened for us new worlds of listening and understanding music. Also new ways of understanding what it is to be a woman and an artist. There is much to learn from the utshaho--her boundless energy and courage--which was seemingly at the root of everything she did and dared to do. When we first heard her in 2006, we felt sure that this music would travel. It did indeed. Mashima was always loved in her own land, but when she came to our Baul Fakir Utsav in Kolkata in 2010, she won the hearts of thousands more. Now young singers of the city are singing some of her songs--dhoirojo na dhorite, pari na shohite, onurage tonu jhore --which they have picked up from the Utsav's CDs, also from our recordings perhaps. As they sing, we hope they will remember that it is Chandrabati Roy Barman who gave them to us. Our own CD of her and Sushoma Das' songs and conversation from Travelling Archive Records has been received with critical appreciation by many, crossing boundaries of language and culture. Slowly the music seeps in; music made of songs and conversation, everyday sounds and silences. As we listen, the image of the artist comes alive. Some do not die, they only make a transition.
Sadek Ali of Faridpur, Bangladesh sold grains for his living, but lived for his songs. As a child he followed the folk poet Jasimuddin around wherever he went and the poet’s shadow seemed to hang on him for the rest of his life. Every time he sang for us, he would religiously mention that he had spent 45 years with Jasimuddin. There was a framed photograph of Jasimuddin on the wall of his shop in Faridpur market. Sadek Ali not only sang for us but also generously organised recording sessions in the space of his house, first in 2006 and then again in 2008. Last time we went to see him in 2011, Sadek Ali bhai was lying semi-paralysed in bed having suffered a stroke some months ago. He passed away in 2013.
Nimai Chand Goswami, the baul musician who passed away on 14 June 2014, was on our first ever field recording session. Moushumi had been to his house in Suripara, Bolpur in November 2003 with Sudheer Palsane, who recorded the session on a Sony PD 150 DV camera, even before the first IFA grant was announced. They went unannounced and Nimai was generous enough to let them in; he played music and talked about his life, mixing reality with fiction. The reason for this early visit was the sound of Nimai's eloquent dotara, we hadn't yet heard much, but Nimai was among the few things which occupied us in that preparatory phase. We had heard him on albums released in Europe with Paban Das Baul, such as Manuche O Rautan. Later Nimai had taken Moushumi to meet Kalpana Dasi and Shyamsundar Das Baul of Masadda, also in Birbhum. One place led to another, from one recording session we went to the next. As the initial years passed and we began to gather experience, we did not go back to Nimai any more; only met him occasionally at melas and festivals, also at our own Baul Fakir Utsav. But it is not easy to forget the sound of Nimai's dotara--not for its virtuosity, but because it was deeply affecting. Coincidentally, the first text in Bangla on the top of our Home page, is from a song we had heard Nimai sing. When we chose those lines about the power of listening, little did we know that Nimai's dotara would fall silent so soon.