Umashankar Mantravadi

Arts Practice

Grant Period: One year and six months

Umashankar Mantravadi is a senior and rare sound artist in India, considered a genius for his work with sound recording and archiving. An enthusiast in electronics, he has over the past four decades been credited with many inventions in sound technology. Some of these are now in popular use in the industry but he was a pioneer creating them on shoestring budgets. He was also instrumental in setting up and maintaining the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology (part of the American Institute of Indian Studies), Gurgaon over the years. His latest invention has been an ambisonic tetrahedral microphone system called Brahma. He is continuously updating the microphone to be more sensitive and is now working to produce a microphone with 16 receivers.

IFA supported his project where he tested his invention in Archaeoacoustics. He aurally mapped the koothambalam of Vadakkamnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala and the Buddhist site of Nagarjunakonda in Anupu, Andhra Pradesh – by recording their ambisonic properties, as a pilot project for a much larger exercise in India. Since then he has progressed in his work in terms of technology and other sites have been mapped. The measurements are freely available on his website and Facebook page. He has presented his work at various international conferences in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Pompidou. He was invited to talk about the project at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi and the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur. For IFA he presented his work at the Bangalore International Centre, Bangalore and School of Environment and Architecture, Mumbai.

Through this grant he now wants to disseminate this work in a more intimate and engaged manner. He will accompany students and enthusiasts of archaeoacoustics to three such archaeological sites and teach them his methods. He is planning to conduct workshop expeditions to Hampi in Karnataka, Ranigumpha in Odisha and Mahakali caves in Maharashtra, subject to necessary permissions. He has already identified people from Bangalore, Hampi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, Silchar, Kolkata and Shimla for these expeditions. He worries that this work may stop after him since archaeoacoustics is a new concept in archaeology and there is little knowledge about it in the field in India. Many historic and archaeological sites ranging from temples to palaces in India were originally built for performances.  Distinct acoustic properties are built into their utility and architecture. In the absence of microphones, architecture was solely responsible for the acoustics of these spaces and many such sites even today bear the signs of these architectural marvels. However, there have been no studies to understand the listening experiences of these sites. This has led to a dangerous tendency - only visual and chemical conservation is undertaken which preserves the buildings from decay but hampers and often erodes their acoustic properties.

Umashankar’s relentless and lonely pursuit in this domain is a pioneering step. Over the years he has tried to make this much specialised method accessible to the public for minimal cost and maximum portability. His effort to popularise it among students and sound enthusiasts may usher in a new era of archaeoacoustics practitioners in the country. Unless at least some people understand and get trained by him, his efforts might be accessible to only a group of specialists and be forgotten in time. Given the intent of the artist, its criticality in the field, its pioneering position, and the long term impact on the domains of sound and archaeology the dissemination project is of utmost importance to IFA.

The three workshop expeditions to teach students the methods of archaeoacoustics will be the outcomes of the project. Data collected from the field recordings during the workshop, report of the process, audio-video documentation and photographs of the workshops will be deposited as deliverables to IFA. Since most of the expenses will be to organise the workshops and pay for the travel of the participants, the budget is justified.