In recent weeks, if a user opened Sangam, a music-streaming mobile app, they would have been greeted by a collection of 14 songs titled “Durga Puja.” Launched by the union ministry of culture in May this year, the app has a collection of “over 2500 devotional tracks in 24 Indian languages,” as per the ministry’s website. The Durga Puja collection includes songs from the Durga Saptshati—an anthology of songs taken from the Markandeya Purana—and the Amba Ashtakam. An “ashtakam” is a series of eight stotras—a literary genre of Hindu religious texts which are meant to be sung. The Amba Ashtakam is usually attributed to Adi Shankara, an eighth-century theologian, who asserted the divinity of the Vedas and held them as the sole source of knowledge in the world. In August, the landing page of the app featured a collection of 95 items, called the “Shri Amarnath Yatra,” which included slokas and bhajans sourced from Shankara’s Shivashtakam and the Rig Veda. Other collections were dedicated to “Krishna Janmashtami” and “Ganesh Chaturthi.”
The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a government-funded arts organisation, developed the app under the aegis of a special project called the National Cultural Audiovisual Archives. The NCAA was launched in April 2014, and according to its website it aims to identify and preserve “the cultural heritage of India” by digitising the audio-visual content stored in institutions across the country and “making it accessible to the people.” The app was envisioned as an “outreach of NCAA” and its content has been sourced from the project’s database. According to the IGNCA, Sangam intends to be a “constant companion of millions of devotees both in India and abroad, as part of their daily pooja routines.” Its aim is to draw the tech-savvy generation to the “core of Indian culture,” which includes the “rich and vast tradition of Sanskrit mantras, richas, slokas and Hindi dohas, chalisa and aartis”—various lyrical forms of Hindu rituals and worship. The IGNCA also positioned the app as a platform to promote Hindustani, Carnatic and folk music, in addition to creating an archive of devotional songs, hymns and chants from other faiths like Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam.
The IGNCA and NCAA’s lofty ideals aside, the app’s content falls far short of its stated aims. The overwhelming majority of the app’s content comes from the Hindu canon—other than 23 songs in the Sufi category and one song each under the Jain, Buddhist and Sikh listing, the content is mostly Hindu devotional songs. There are even errors in the minimal content related to other religions—the metadata of the sole Buddhist chant erroneously identifies the language as Pali and links it to Surdas, a sixteenth-century Krishna devotee. There is no category called Islam listed in the app. It is also hard to miss the app’s predominant focus on Brahmanical texts and traditions. According to the IGNCA website itself, the “content incorporates recitation from classical texts like The Vedas, Adi Shankaracharya’s Moha Mudgara, Jayadev’s Gita Govinda, Tulsi Das’s Ramcharit Manas, kritis of Thyagaraja,” among others. But the app mostly overlooks the scriptures of other religions, as well as the traditions and folklore of India’s indigenous tribes.