top of page

Preserving the Music of India

by Elizabeth Ursic

In the first hours of the New Year, I headed to the airport to join twelve other scholars for a two-week faculty development seminar in northern India sponsored by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) and the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). The focus of the seminar was water sustainability in the urban centers of Delhi, Lucknow, and Jaipur. Our seminar leaders were impressive. Dr. Sandria Freitag from the University of North Carolina chairs the AIIS study abroad advisory board. In addition to her extensive knowledge of the region, her research contacts allowed us private tours of locations not open to the public. CAORC Program Director, Jeff Badger, also joined us with his global perspective running the Overseas Faculty Development Seminars. CAORC is a federation of twenty-five independent overseas research centers engaged in advanced academic research, including AIIS.[1] I was looking forward to everything we were to see and learn.


I was also excited for an additional opportunity. AIIS operates two world-renowned research centers—the Center for Art and Archeology (CAA) and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology (ARCE). I was particularly interested in the music archives because I am a musician myself and had studied at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music. India is famous for its sacred music and the prospect of seeing one of the largest music archives in India as well as meeting the staff responsible for curating, archiving, and maintaining the collection was a unique and special opportunity.


We visited the AIIS Center in Delhi on the second day of the seminar. The building itself was welcoming with a well-manicured lawn and a statue of an elephant. As we entered the building, Director-General Purnima Mehta invited us into the foyer where flowers adorned the floor around a traditional brass lamp.


Purnima Mehta welcoming CAORC team to AIIS.

She graciously invited each of us to help light the candles as a form of welcome and blessing. Also in the foyer was a bust of her father, Pradeep Mehendiratta, who had been the first director of AIIS in 1961. Mrs. Mehta was an impressive figure herself, having been honored in The Economist’s 50 Diversity Figures in 2015, a list that included Malala Yousufzai and the Dalai Lama.[2]


In keeping with our seminar theme of sustainability and water, the director of the art and architecture archives Vandana Sinha presented archival photos of stepwells built during the Moghul era. The stepwells looked like oversized in-ground swimming pools with steps cut into the rockface walls. The pools collected water reserves during the monsoon season, and the steps allowed access to the water reserves at any level during the dry season. This introduction helped me later when we visited two ancient stepwells, one in Lucknow and one outside of Jaipur. 

Author at the stepwell in Jaipur

The director of the music archives, Dr. Shubha Chaudhuri, was not present that day, so the music archivist, Sangeeta Dutta, gave us a tour of the facilities. The first room was set up for catalog research and listening stations. She showed us large folders of information about the recordings containing fieldnotes written by ethnomusicologists as well as local villagers they had trained. These fieldnotes provided details about a recording, including interviews with the musicians as well as additional cultural information about the style of music and the significance of the performance. Some of the oldest recordings dated back to the early 1900s. The original sound recordings were stored in climate-controlled storage vaults, away from view. On display were selected books about ethnomusicology as well as a small collection of CDs that ARCE had produced in conjunction with UNESCO-ICHCAP, a national intangible cultural heritage center for the Asia-Pacific region based in South Korea, as well as some produced by ARCE from Ford Foundation Grants. Sangeeta gifted me with a CD of Jagar devotional chants.[3] ARCE also had another room with high quality audio and digital computer equipment to convert audio and video tapes to digital formats. I appreciated having a conversation with the sound engineer, Sudeep Chakravarti, and learning about digital audio standards and software used for this archival work.  


Sageeta Dutta with ARCE Jagar CD

After I returned to the U.S., Dr. Chaudhuri kindly made herself available for a zoom call because she had missed our visit. She explained that the first ethnomusicologists in India were western scholars, and their recordings and fieldnotes were archived mostly at European and American universities and private collections.[4] The founder chair of ARCE was Prof Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy from UCLA who had the vision to bring collections of Indian recordings back to India as valued archives of the country’s cultural heritage. When the center opened in 1982 in Delhi, it was the first national ethnomusicology archive in India. Dr. Chaudhuri was hired on staff as a young PhD graduate. Her career grew along with the center, and today she is its director and a recognized world leader in ethnomusicology archiving. She has published articles and books, presented at conferences around the world, and consulted with other ethnomusicology centers.[5]


I asked Dr. Chaudhuri about ARCE current projects. She explained that converting audio tapes to digital format is their most important task because the medium of audiotapes, especially cassettes and tapes used in field recordings in the late 20th century, were never designed to last forever. She pointed out that ARCE has audiotape recordings of famous Indian performers who are no longer alive, recordings of traditional instruments no longer played, and recordings of traditional music styles rarely performed today. These recordings are national cultural treasures that need to be preserved. At the same time, it is becoming more difficult to find audio engineers who have the skill and knowledge to work with these older audio formats.[6]


Once the audiotapes are converted, however, digital audio allows the recordings to be heard around the world. In the past, the only way to access the archives was to physically come to the center in Delhi. Today there are outreach projects that make ARCE archives more accessible. ARCE now has recordings that can be heard online through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.[7] When individual tracks are purchased, the revenue is shared with the artists and with ARCE. 


As a thank-you for the kindness and generosity that Dr. Chaudhuri and the ARCE staff showed me, I sent CDs of my music to the center. I was delighted to learn that these have been added to a small collection they keep of music from around the world. In closing, I want to thank CAORC and AIIS for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I look forward to more collaborations with ARCE in the future.



Elizabeth Ursic, PhD is a Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at Mesa Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. She is the author of Women, Ritual, and Power published with SUNY Press. A pianist, cellist, and composer, she has two albums titled Unspoken Touch and Gratitude that are available on streaming services. She is currently finishing a chapter on metaphor for a forthcoming Oxford Press series on music and religion.


[1] Fostering Research Projects Across National Boundaries,, accessed February 13, 2023.

[2] “AIIS Director General Purnima Mehta named one of The Economist’s 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life,”, posted November 10, 2015, accessed February 13, 2023.

[3] Liner notes track 1 Nanda Devi Jagar, Narrative Traditions – Oral Epics and Ballads Vol. II: The Jagar and the Epic of Alha, ARCE and ICHAP, 2017.

[4] The Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology,, accessed February 13, 2023.

[5] Anthony Seeger and Shubha Chaudhuri, Eds. Archives for the Future: Global Perspectives on Audiovisual Archives in the 21st Century. Calcutta, India: Seagull Books, 2004.

[6] Shubha Chaudhuri, zoom interview with author, January 25, 2023.

[7] Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, A.R.C.E. , accessed March 28, 2023.

All photos courtesy of the author.


bottom of page