Back in the 1980’s the team of the Indian Society for Traditional Arts Research (ISTAR) started work on computer assisted research of Hindustani classical music. It was the engineer and computer scientist Bernard Bel who created a laboratory at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai with the support of the same institution and the Ford Foundation. Apart from Bernard the team included Joep Bor (botanist and sarangi player), Jim Arnold (musicologist and dhrupad singer) and Wim van der Meer (anthropologist and khayal singer). Joep, Jim and Wim were gurubhai’s, they had all studied with Pandit Dilip Chandra Vedi. Vediji was one of the stalwarts of Hindustani music, disciple of the greatest of the first half of the twentieth century: Bhaskar Rao Bakhle, Faiyaz Khan and Alladiya Khan. Moreover he had learned dhrupad with Uttam Singh of Tilwandi gharana. The laboratory at NCPA was unique, pitch was extracted with the help of analog filters and then recorded to an apple computer.

Excerpts from a documentary about the ISTAR project made at Pune University in 1985

In the late 1980’s I revisited the NCPA in Mumbai expecting the research lab to have been abandoned. However, much to my surprise a young lady by the name of Suvarnalata Rao was manipulating the machinery that resembled a Russian spaceship with an aim to write a PhD on the relation between pitch perception, raga-s and rasa-s. In 1990 Suvarnalata visited Leiden where I was working at the time. During Suvarnalata’s stay we compared her findings from the ISTAR lab at NCPA in Mumbai to the results from the LVS program on Leiden University’s microVax. Later the same year Suvarnalata and I went to meet the managing director of NCPA, the late D.B. Biswas, and the founder of NCPA, the late J.J. Bhabha. J.J.Bhabha had been a major support of the ISTAR project in the 1980’s and he was very happy to learn that we intended to revive the project. He generously provided funding that would finally lead to the AUTRIM project. With his support we later had funding from the Dorabji Tata foundation. Suvarnalata’s thesis Acoustical Perspective on Raga-Rasa Theory was completed in 1992 and appeared in book form in 1999.

In the 90s computers made great progress, and we could process the sound entirely digitally. Not only could we bypass the analog filters but moreover the model of fundamental pitch extraction was based on the current theories of pitch perception. I wrote this software (PitchXtractor) in a variant of C for Macintosh but still processing time was about 50 times longer than the original. To represent the numerical output in a graph I wrote a simple program called PitchPlotter, and to turn the numeric data into sargam notation I wrote some short programs in Prolog. In Leiden I had access to the LVS software running on a microVax, which was faster but rather cumbersome. Fortunately my colleagues in Amsterdam University came up with PRAAT which we have been using ever since.

The visuals on the AUTRIM website were done by Mumbai based filmmaker Rustom Irani and his colleague, Salil P. Kawli. My friend and colleague Amine Beyhom further refined visualization with amazing results on his website Nemo online.

Recently I read a very nice review of the AUTRIM website by Jeanne Miramon Bonhoure. She suggests it would be nice to have 5-line (staff) notation in addition to the graph and the sargam. It was however a very conscious decision to opt for the graphic representation, as the transcription of Indian music in “western” staff notation is a very incompetent product of colonial musicology. One line of inquiry of the ISTAR team, by Joep Bor, Jim Arnold† and Issaro Mott, was to improve such transcriptions, a project described in ISTAR Newsletter 3-4, 1984-85, p.29-42. Later Henri Tournier implemented this system of notation in a DTP solution for music notation resulting in the Raga Guide. In his stupendous book the Songs of Khayal, Nicolas Magriel unlocked yet deeper levels of transcription. It was however Bhabha’s dream to have a different system of transcription that could do justice to Indian music with its in-between-the-notes subtleties. For a long time we had wrestled with different ideas about transcribing using some mixed model of “western” staff and Indian sargam until one day it dawned on us: THE GRAPH IS THE TRANSCRIPTION. Note that this sounds much like Bartok’s comment: “The only true notations are the sound tracks on the record itself”1and coming to think of it McLuhan’s “medium is the message”. Why this is so revolutionary, and why staff and sangam are really not the way to go I will deal with in another post in the coming days. Stay tuned!