Around ten years ago, Vedabandhu Mishra, civil servant, was searching for an Odia song from the 1950s.
Mishra searched with dedicated passion but soon realised that the song would remain alive only in his memory. There were no records of it.
A little disappointed that a tiny piece of Odisha’s oral literature was lost to time, Mishra made a promise to himself. He was going to retrieve as many vinyl and shellac records as he could find, and keep them alive through the ever-changing waves of technology.
Today, Mishra has a collection of over 4000 vinyl, and 500 shellac records, in addition to the ones has borrowed from friends, digitised and returned.
While the earliest record he has, dates back to 1906, most of them are from the mid-1900s.
The earliest phonograph disc records were made of a variety of materials including hard rubber. Around 1895, a shellac-based material was introduced and became standard.
These discs would run at the speed of 78 rotations per minute but were quite brittle. Eventually, around the 1950s, they were replaced by long-playing vinyl records
Mishra, however, was on a quest to collect and archive both, 19th-century shellac and 20th-century vinyl records.
“Since a very young age, I was very passionate about collecting old records. But this was just a hobby, and I hadn’t taken it seriously,” says the civil servant tells The Better India.
“Only when I failed to retrieve that 1950s Odia folk song in 2009 that I took up this hobby as a personal mission. shellac records are quite brittle, and if not preserved carefully, we would lose old pieces of literature, so I took up this quest,” he adds.
Mishra has been working with the Odisha governor’s office for about 20 years and is currently the deputy secretary to the state governor.
A state civil officer, he had the added advantage of accessing government files and records. With due permission from his seniors, he started searching for Odia songs and recordings.
Some records were relatively new, but others were almost a hundred years old. In fact, the oldest record he has is a song recorded on a shellac disc in 1906!
However, he didn’t just stop at retrieving the records and preserving them. Taking inspiration from Michael Kinnear, a discographer who researches Indian, Asian and Persian sound recordings, and archives them, he digitised the songs.
You may also like: How Cashew, Ponds & an IAS Officer Pulled an Odisha Village out of Poverty
Following this, he started a YouTube channel called Odia Melody and began uploading the digitised copies.
Today, the channel has over 59,000 subscribers and a list of over a thousand songs.
The playlist comprises not just folk songs but classics sung by the likes of Sunanda Patnaik, Akshaya Mohanty and Sikandar Alam.
Some of his archives also include songs recorded to ignite the freedom struggle in Odisha.
“One among the several iconic records is a satire recorded by Banchhanidhi Mohanty, a freedom fighter who picked the pen to channel his aggression against the British Raj. This particular recording, called “Simon Report Lekhaa” is his critique against the Simon Report. I have also archived the earliest known recorded rendering of Bande Utkala Janani, which is considered to be the state song of Odisha,” says Mishra.
Sita Bibaha, the first Odia movie and based upon the epic Ramayana was also archived in four parts on the audio technology. Mishra has the 1936 film archived in his collection too.
“It is challenging to know about the origins of these songs, but it is equally important to dig into their history and find out what we can,” the 48-year-old tells TBI.
“I found it extremely hard in the beginning to find such rare records. But thankfully, I had resources through my job that got me there. Over the past ten years, I have made it known in my social circle that I am collecting and archiving Odia literature. They help me get in touch with those people who have old shellac and vinyl records,” he adds.
Once he gets the tip, the civil servant travels to various parts of Odisha to get his hands on the records. He sits with the owners, makes them understand why it is crucial to archive and update these precious pieces of history and assures them that the records will be available for public use too.
Some owners are happy to loan their records while others sell them to him. For some people, the records are too precious to give away and understandably so. Mishra doesn’t claim to be the only rightful archivist of the records. He borrows the records from them, digitises them and returns them in perfect condition.
The last 100-odd years have seen an evolution of physical music formats—shellac records have given way to vinyl, vinyl to cassettes, cassettes to CDs, and now, CDs to digital archives.
Recordings give a living picture of the world as it changes, and without sound archivists working to preserve them, we would lose an irreplaceable part of our national heritage.
Mishra’s efforts are but a drop in the ocean, but they deserve to be praised and commended. After all, who knows what hidden gem he might discover in his quest?
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)