Monday, 18 March 2013

Long Playing

A story of the "Evil English Instrument" which completely democratized music and brought it out from the cloisters of royal courts, salons and aristocratic soirees to the doorstep of the common man...

Vikram Sampath

Dressed in her most regal finery, she entered a rudimentary and make-shift recording studio that was set up in two large rooms of a hotel in Calcutta. Proving to be a shrewd businesswoman, she had haggled for a handsome Rs. 3000 per recording session and the European recording expert had grudgingly agreed. Her accompanists on the tabla, sarangi and harmonium tuned their instruments and the European team asked her to crane her head into a long horn that was fitted on the wall. At the narrow end of that horn, a needle was attached to a diaphragm and was connected to the recording machinery which consisted of a thick shellac master on a rotating turntable. She was asked to sing as loudly as she could into that horn. Depending on her volume, the diaphragm would vibrate and transfer these vibrations to the needle which then would cut etches on the shellac disc. At the end of the 3 minute rendering, which is all that a single disc could hold, she proudly announced “My name is Gauhar Jaan!”
 Gauhar Jaan

It was this way, on 11th November 1902, that Gauhar Jaan, the sub-continent’s first musician to record her voice commercially on the gramophone, created history as she recorded for the Gramophone Company’s German agent Frederick William Gaisberg. 

Invented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, the Gramophone was a marvel of human invention. Following successful attempts by scientists like Thomas Alva Edison at recording and reproducing the human voice through devices like the Phonograph, the Gramophone revolutionized the way music was understood and consumed world-wide. Berliner formed the Gramophone Company in 1898 as a syndicated firm in London and the same year recording experts were sent out all over the world on ‘expeditions’ to record native voices. It was after a lot of hesitation that the Company decided to send its agent Gaisberg to India to record artists here on its ‘Far Eastern Expedition’. Apart from Gauhar Jaan, the Company recorded artists like Peara Saheb, Lal Chand Boral, theatre artists of Bengal like Binodini Dasi and Krishnabhamini and a few other sundry nautch girls. In 1904-05 the Company also made South India a part of their itinerary and recorded artists like Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Salem Godavari, Dhanakoti Ammal of Kanchipuram and others in Madras.

Several superstitions prevailed about how recording into the ‘evil English instrument’ would ruin one’s voices and the Gods would be displeased! Most male musicians kept away as they also saw the condensed 3 minute format of recording as a compromise on classicism. But what is noteworthy is that in these early decades of recording it was only women—largely tawaifs and devadasis-- across India who embraced this new technology circumventing all these logistic challenges and social stigmas associated with recording. Thus we had artists like Gauhar Jaan, Malka Jaan of Agra, Janki Bai of Allahabad, Husna Bai of Banaras, Mumtaz Jaan of Delhi, Zohra Bai of Agra, Mehboob Jaan of Solapur, Bai Sundarabai of Pune, Salem Godavari, Coimbatore Thayi, Tiruchendur Shanmukhavadivu, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Mysore Adilakshmi, Dhanakoti of Kanchipuram and others who were the recording super-stars of the early 20th Century. Their records sold like hot cakes and brought them overnight celebrity status. Gauhar Jaan’s pictures for instance started appearing on match-boxes made in Austria! In 1912 Coimbatore Thayi collaborated with a French musician Maurice Delage who had heard her records and came looking for her all the way from Paris to Madras.

The gramophone democratized music like never before and brought it out of the confines of salons, royal courts and aristocratic soirees to the doorstep of the common man. They became the new status symbols of the middle class and the elite. 

Community listening sessions were popular where people congregated to listen to the songs of their favourite singers, whose live concerts they could neither afford nor attend due to social hierarchies. The brisk business that the Gramophone Company made attracted several European recording companies like Pathe from France, Odeon from Germany, Beka, Royal, Nicole, Sun Disc, James Opera and others to explore the Indian market. It was however the Gramophone Company, that later became HMV(His Master’s Voice) and EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd) that retained the monopoly. In the years of the World Wars it was India that sustained the profitability for the Company world-wide, even as the European market bled.
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan

By the 1920s as Electrical recording replaced the earlier Acoustic method, microphones were introduced to amplify the voice and artists no longer had to scream into horns to be heard. Musicians had seen the potential of this technology and the wide reach it gave to those who recorded. Hence more people started giving up their inhibitions and recorded prolifically. Apart from classical music, theatre music, full-length plays recorded over a set of 10-12 discs and later cinema songs when sound entered Indian films in the 1930s were the hot favourites. K L Saigal, Devika Rani, Chandroprabha, G N Balasubramanian, M S Subbulakshmi, Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Ashok Kumar, M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and others became the phenomenon that they were, thanks largely to the gramophone that popularized them across the country. This being the time of the freedom struggle, the gramophone became an important social and political catalyst too. Artists like M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal, K B Sundarambal, Vai Mu Kothainayaki and others recorded Gandhiji’s bhajans, Bharatiyar’s poems and patriotic songs and used the medium to bring about social reforms for women’s emancipation and the uplift of the downtrodden castes. The Congress Party too realized the power of the medium and used the gramophone as an important propaganda tool for the nationalistic movement. Be it speeches of leaders, patriotic songs, Tagore reciting his stirring poems or recordings of the Jan Gan Man and Vandemataram, the gramophone ensured these reached out to as many Indians as possible.

In the 1950s, with the advent of Long Playing (LP) and Extended Play (EP) records of the pioneering artists of India like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Dr. S Balachander, Indian music reached out commercially to Western audiences too. There was no longer a time constraint and artists could sing or play leisurely, painting the portrait of the raga note by note.

In the last century or so of recording in India, the gramophone has played the most vital role in close to 70-80 years of this journey---either with the original 3 minute shellac discs called 78 RPMs or the later Vinyl records of LP’s and EP’s. Yet, today even as we are surrounded by a slew of modern gadgets that have built on these earlier achievements and revolutionized the world of music, it is hard for a connoisseur to access these voices of the distant past or even play these records even if they own them. The turntables are no longer manufactured and the needle that goes over the grooves and plays the discs is not available any more. In despair, people have been junking their valuable holdings to which they are sentimentally attached but do not know what to do with. The Government has been completely apathetic to preserving this rich slice of our cultural heritage. A few private archives and collectors assiduously guard their holdings, seldom allowing anyone to even take a look at what they have. And the country at large, which has little regard for history and documentation, and more so in the field of the performing arts, doesn’t care any less about the dire need to preserve and restore whatever little is left of these treasures. Instead we leave them to rot in the damp alleys of chor bazars!

Unlike India, most European countries have National Sound Archives where voices of their ancestors are carefully preserved for posterity. India needs to get its act together at least now and build one such easily accessible repository where this national treasure can find its pride of place. Else, the day is not far when the last traces of our cultural inheritance would pass away into oblivion and the gramophone with its gleaming horn would just remain a symbol of old world

The author is an arts' commentator, award-winning author and Founder of the 'Archive of Indian Music'


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