“Your trash is our treasure.” When producer Kamalini Nagarajan Dutt took charge of Doordarshan’s archives in 2002 as its founder-director, that was the in-house motto she coined.

“Trash” pretty much described the state of the tens of thousands of archival spool and cassette tapes dating back to the early 1970s that the national broadcaster had dumped in the damp, underground spaces of its central Delhi premises. Here were recordings of the legends of music, dance, literature and drama, many gathering fungus, some sprouting small mushrooms. A lot of the recordings were beyond salvage, others hung on grimly on the cusp of erasure.

Each tape took 3-4 days of work for restoration, first dried in an incubator, then manually scrubbed with a soft cloth. It took five years of backbreaking labour to retrieve, restore, digitise and meta-tag around 2,000 of them till Dutt retired in 2010. About 100 of the saved recordings made their way into the market as CDs and DVDs, while the rest sit in the library.

If we can today watch the grandeur and luminescence of Yamini Krishnamurthy’s early Bharatanatyam or the power of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair’s Kathakali netrabhinaya, rewind to one of Begum Akhtar’s last televised concerts, and marvel at the mellowness of Nikhil Banerjee’s Maluha Kalyan or the syncretism of qawwal Habib Painter’s Bahut Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki, it is because Dutt led a relentless drive with her team of 25 to preserve content that was doomed to sure death because of obsolescence and apathy. And, of course, there was the much-loved Bharat Ek Khoj series.


“It was hard work, away from the limelight, so the archives were considered something of a punishment posting,” she said. “But I persevered with love and passion.” At 71, and in frail health, it still perturbs her that the work has not been completed. “There are around 2 lakh still waiting to be archived and we must use the new digital medium to make them accessible to younger generations, artistes and researchers.”

Among the recordings she rues losing was a fantastic musical interaction between the thumri divas Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi. All that is left of it on the internet are a few unsatisfying minutes. There are no dance recordings of the remarkable Balasaraswati, the Bharatanatyam stalwart descended from the Devadasi lineage, or the Manipuri guru Imobi Singh. Only a three-minute recording of dance guru Lachhu Maharaj could be salvaged and there is nothing of his brother Shambhu Maharaj on record.

Even today Dutt’s eyes light up with delight at how she stumbled on to a priceless recording of Mallikarjun Mansur from the early 1970s. The technical staff brought in initially to rescue old works had no idea of the value of the content they were asked to sift. They marked rejectable tapes with red and restorable ones with green. Dutt says she paid special attention to those marked red.

“I realised that a 2” spool tape featuring Mallikarjun Mansur’s early recording of Nat Bhairav had been marked red because it ‘did not look good’,” she recalled. “I was aghast, but I was so happy that day – I felt like an archaeologist who had stumbled on ancient treasures.”


Game changer

Doordarshan began as an experiment in 1959 but became a household name only in 1965, a much younger sibling to the venerable All India Radio. Till the early 1970s, it had to record afresh over used tapes, erasing all old content. Its switch to colour in 1982 rendered as many as 2,500 tapes unusable. And yet, despite the setbacks, it had a treasure trove of content worthy of archiving.

In Dutt, Doordarshan found a fitting crusader. An erudite Bharatanatyam dancer, scholar, aesthete and tech buff, Dutt was an ideal bridge between the world of classical arts and what was then a hot new medium.

She had joined the organisation as a producer in its infancy in 1972, when it only broadcast 2.5 hours of spartan, socially-minded programmes in the evening – Krishi Darshan, school capsules, a little dance and music, all wrapped up with a news broadcast. Those were days of black and white television when the recording equipment was seven-foot high and each spool weighed around 12 kg, she remembers. In her three decades as a producer, she had transformed how dance and music programmes were conceived and executed on television.

Dutt brought her knowledge of the classical arts, literature and languages to the small screen and changed the way dance productions on TV were handled. Courtesy: Kamalini Nagarajan Dutt.

“Young and old, I have watched them all evolve, as a producer and also as an artiste,” she said. “Bhimsen Joshiji’s music in the early years of TV held thunder, and over time you could see it turning more inwards. There was Sonal Mansingh [performing] Bharatanatyam just before she moved to Odissi in a 2” spool tape – my god, the grace, she shone.”

Arshiya Sethi, a performing arts scholar who began her career as an announcer at Doordarshan and credits a lot of her transformation to Dutt’s mentorship, points out that Dutt was a perfect fit for the broadcaster. “She was a boon for Doordarshan because she understood the mediation of camera and technology with art even in those early days, especially the use of TV as a site for dance – how to edit for effect, focus on the relevant,” Sethi said.

There is an interesting anecdote about Dutt’s foresight that Sethi recalls from the early 1990s when mobile phones were still an evolving tech dream. “I remember her saying to me, ‘One day you will be able to watch dance and hear music on something that can be held in a palm, maybe strapped on your wrist,’” says Sethi. “Her vision is long, wide and deep.”

Even today, Dutt defies cliches about age and technology – she is a passionate believer in the revolutionising power of the digital medium for the arts. In the dark days of the pandemic, while others watched the smartphone turn into a virtual stage for artistes, she put her formidable experience to use on social media by offering tips on how best to use the medium.


Life’s course

To understand her and the sweep of her work better, it is important to step back in time – to the 1970s when TVs were still in wooden cabinets in a few living rooms.

A Bharatanatyam prodigy who debuted at age 7, Dutt had been trained under Lakshmikantamma, a devadasi in Tanjavur, and later, Skkil Ramaswami Pillai. A promising future in the performing arts lay ahead of her but, in 1970, she suffered horrific burn injuries that made a career on stage near impossible.

Dutt recalls the trauma, how hard it was for even loved ones to face her on the hospital bed. It was her father, who showed her the way – why not join the then young world of television and connect with art through the small screen? She joined Doordarshan as a producer and was assigned dance and music, a connection that lasted her entire stint at the broadcaster.

Dance productions on TV in those days were handled by generalists, technicians and producers who were efficient but had no knowledge of the world they were telecasting. Bloopers were common. Sethi recalls a time when Mohiniattam dancer Kanak Rele bent low from the waist and disappeared off the screen. During a Manipuri performance, dancer Sharon Lowen remembers the camera staying rivetted on her face, and during an energetic Chhau, losing her as she leapt across the floor.

Dutt was a Bharatanatyam prodigy who debuted at age 7, but a promising career on stage was made near impossible by an accident. Courtesy: Kamalini Nagarajan Dutt.

Where should the camera focus, what to keep in and what to leave out, how to anticipate the next move of an artiste? Dutt brought her knowledge of the classical arts, literature and languages to the small screen and changed a lot of this.

“Our classical arts are nothing if not adaptable,” she said. “We began recording in the early 20th century, moved from private concerts to the stage and from there to television. It was not easy – how do you translate what the eye sees in three dimensions into what appears in two on a flat screen?” But television had a big edge – the close up. “The proscenium was always distant,” Dutt said. “Now you could catch the smallest bhava with ease with the power of the close-up.”

Dancers say her ability to visualise dance for the small screen brought finesse, better direction, experimentation and energy. “I would say there were two kinds of dance productions – Kamalini Dutt’s and those of others,” said Lowen. “Hers were world class and she made sure artistes were a part of the effort.”

Today we recall the days of one-movie/Chitrahaar-a-week TV and Krishi Darshan with fond exasperation. But Doordarshan did some commendable work with a talented pool of men and women such as director general NL Chawla, singer-producer Naina Devi and filmmaker Sai Paranjape who, Dutt says, taught her television. The broadcaster also flew in a BBC team to train its producers. “They wanted a script for dance and music shows, and we never had one,” she said. “In our classical arts everything is created in the moment and ceases to exist there and then. You just had to sit on the edge to catch every nuance and shift.”


There were four cameras tracking the artistes and, sitting on a panel, Dutt would call the shots. “A lot of it was intuitive,” she said. “I knew when the vocalist’s alapanai (alap) was drawing to a close and the violinist would be stepping in for an interlude. I ‘learnt’ every form of dance by watching, insisting on sitting in on every rehearsal.”

It was not that there were no gaffes. Technology did not allow her to edit out a cat running across the studio as Radha and Raja Reddy performed Kuchipudi (the cat lives on for posterity in the recording) or when pigeons fluttered around. There was the time when a tipsy Bhimsen Joshi walked into the foyer and declared that he would sing Puriya Dhanashree, only to then sing Puriya Kalyan.

Part of Dutt’s archiving work was also to produce programmes that documented Indian culture. With a new state-of-the-art production unit opening at the Asiad Village in 1988, she created a veritable library of such recordings. Dancers today refer to her stint at Doordarshan as the golden age of TV dance productions. Even after retirement she is a significant figure in the world of dance, generously mentoring younger artistes, helping seasoned dancers curate and research with her formidable knowledge of old texts, often uncredited. “She has so much to offer,” said Lowen. “Like a deep well.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.