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.
As per the NCAA’s detailed project report, it partnered with 15 government institutes and 15 NGOs to create a digital database of archival content, with an initial target of 30,000 hours of audio-visual recordings. This was the pilot phase of the project and was slated for completion by 31 March 2018. The NCAA finished the pilot phase a few months ahead of schedule, at an estimated cost of Rs 10 crore. Subsequently, in October 2018, the NCAA team, comprised of seven members, started work on the Sangam app. According to Irfan Zuberi, the project manager of the NCAA and the project director of the app, the ministry of culture initially wanted Sangam’s launch to coincide with the 2019 Kumbh Mela. “The ministry’s intent was to create a devotional-music platform which would be useful for people who are going to the Kumbh or participating in the rituals associated with the Kumbh across the country,” he said. While the app has been available on app stores since January, the official launch took place in May.
Zuberi said that the app’s “USP is the use of archival and unpublished content”—as proof, he stated that Sangam has a complete collection of the Vedas. “This has been done by traditional Veda pathins who are the knowledge bearers of their tradition,” he said. Zuberi told me the Vedas were recorded in a traditional format as opposed to the commercial music industry “which uses ambient music to make it fashionable. We have maintained its traditional purity.”