In the 1940s, when even getting something so essential as a gas connection involved months of waiting, building a personal collection of western classical music was a challenge that only the truly besotted could contemplate. At the time, a young Sheryar Ookerjee, who would later become a professor of philosophy at Mumbai’s Wilson College and a highly respected music critic, had only just begun his journey as a listener of western classical music. “It wasn’t easy to get or even listen to this music back then. He told me that it is hard to imagine the kind of world that opened up for him after he first heard those composers,” recalls Ookerjee’s daughter, Pervin Mahoney. Bit by bit — buying from garage sales organised by departing diplomats, arranging for purchases through friends abroad — Ookerjee built a formidable personal collection of over 500 LP records, which went to his daughter when he passed away in 2013. “I couldn’t keep the collection myself, so I decided to donate it to someone who would be able to care for and appreciate the collection,” says Mahoney.
Her search led Mahoney to the CONA Foundation, where Ookerjee’s collection is currently housed inside a large wooden cabinet. “It was wonderful to come across CONA, because it is an artists’ hub run by artists themselves. They don’t restrict their activities to painting and sculpture and are welcoming to all forms of art. I felt we couldn’t have found a better home for the collection,” she says.
At CONA, the process of turning the collection into an archive began in February, when writer Aveek Sen conducted a mentorship programme. The first task was simply to catalogue the hundreds of records. Mihir Wairkar, who is working as an Artist Researcher on the Ookerjee collection project and was one of the mentees in Sen’s programme, says that alone took two weeks. While the bulk of the collection is made up of western classical compositions by storied names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, there are also some surprising gems such as How to Name It?, a record made by Ilaiyaraaja in which the South Indian film composer responds to what he perceives as ‘ragams’ in western classical music, with tracks such as Chamber Welcomes Thyagaraja and I Met Bach in My House.
Objects besides the vinyls are also part of the collection. “We also have pocket scores of a number of compositions by several noted composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, Cesar Franck, Greig, Handel, Mozart and Ernest Bloch,” says Wairkar. The collection also includes three books, which have clippings of Ookerjee’s column on music and culture, and letters from artistes he had reviewed. There is also evidence of Ookerjee’s other passions — drawing and locomotives — in the form of a sketchbook, drawings of landscapes and postcards and books featuring locomotives.
All these came together, says Sen, to create a picture of the collector himself. They also inspired Sen to find ways in which to open up the archive to different ways of writing and thinking about music and connecting it with other art forms. “An archive is not an inert thing. It blossoms in different ways depending on how you approach it,” he says, “For example, many of the Deutsche Grammophon record covers feature specific paintings and it was interesting to question what association the art had with the music. The typography on the covers is another example. The records that came from the Soviet Union have one kind of typography. All of this has great historical and cultural value.”
The attempt to respond to the archive in various ways began in Sen’s mentorship programme, with intensive listening sessions and screening of films such as The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke and Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman, in order to explore how music is used to structure and freight other art forms with meaning. There were discussions with Indian classical musicians Aneesh Pradhan and Nityanand Haldipur, writing exercises on music as well as a two-day intervention into “Unnecessary Alcove”, an exhibition by artist Shreyas Karle, one of the founders of CONA. The next mentorship programme will also focus on the archive, albeit from the perspective of design and typography. The insights gathered over the course of these mentorships along with allied discussions and workshops will eventually find expression in an exhibition that is being planned for 2019.
“We have done what we could, with the limited funds we have, but we would really like to work with music archivists as well,” says Hemali Bhuta, artist and CONA co-founder. She adds, “We are also very open to collaborating with institutions and individuals to hold listening sessions. More importantly, we would like to open up this archive for listeners, music students and design students to come and draw something from it for their own personal research and learning.”