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The masterly voices

HMV’s India catalogue is our musical history. But little remains accessible. Who owns this precious legacy?
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 06 55 PM IST
Gauhar Jaan. Photo: Courtesy ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life And Times of a Musician” by Vikram Sampath/Rupa & Co.
Gauhar Jaan. Photo: Courtesy ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life And Times of a Musician” by Vikram Sampath/Rupa & Co.
Updated: Sat, Jan 26 2013. 03 54 PM IST
Mitul Pradeep impeccably preserves what some film historians surmise is the only surviving original LP of Lata Mangeshkar’s Aye Mere Watan ke Logon. The unblemished record rests inside a dog-eared cover, the HMV art on it resembling a Jamini Roy portrait.
The LP is personal history at the home of Kavi Pradeep, who wrote the song in 1963. After the worst damage of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the song, in Lata’s dulcet lilt, swayed all Indians and famously made Nehru cry.
Mitul Pradeep, the lyricist’s daughter, says: “It is time to celebrate this LP. The song was recorded exactly 50 years ago, on 27 January 1963, in Delhi. For my father, for C. Ramchandra, who composed the music, and Lataji who made it so iconic, it was more than just a song. It was a like an artistic prayer.”
Lata Mangeshkar sings Aye Mere Watan ke Logon. File Photo.
Aye Mere... was one of many anthems HMV produced between 1902, when the British company EMI cut its first record in India, and 1985, when RPG bought The Gramophone Company of India (now the company is Saregama India Ltd). The golden jubilee of Aye Mere... coincides with the parent British company’s imminent bankruptcy. Besides the inevitable demise of retail music, it signals the need to preserve the wealth of HMV—and reminds us of a time when the artiste was supreme.
HMV had an easy beginning in India, and over much of the 20th century, its catalogue transformed into an index of Indian recording history—from nautanki artistes like Moti Jaan and Gulab Bai, political speeches before and after independence, Hindustani and Carnatic musicians, folk performances, to our gloriously monolithic film music, the HMV analogue machines went everywhere.
But the music never got structurally archived. A lot of it was damaged. What remains at the Saregama factory at Dum Dum, Kolkata, has mere symbolic value. Its faded red brick façade, a towering chimney, is starved of steam. Mumbai-based musician and music historian Kushal Gopalka, who curated an exhibition The Musical Heritage of India for Saregama in 2008, says: “About 20% of whatever HMV India has published since 1902 exists today. Up to 60% is with music lovers.”
Cataloguing and archiving this monumental roster is a challenge. How do you put all this information of place, film, artiste, composer together? Upgrading them to an enduring audio quality isn’t easy, says Vikram Sampath, founder trustee of the Archive of Indian Music, an online compendium that showcases and preserves some of these HMV recordings from the pre-playback era. Talking about Gauhar Jaan, one of the first artistes to record for HMV in India, Sampath says: “It was the acoustic recording era with no microphones; artistes craned their heads into a horn and screamed into them. Depending on how loudly they shouted, a stylus would vibrate on the other end and cut etches on a master shellac.”
The original LP of Aye Mere ....Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
There’s always the quintessentially Indian virtue of letting the past lie unattended. As a discipline, archiving is nascent in India, with only a few inventive individual and group efforts—in music, archiving is virtually unheard of.
Within Saregama, there is no clear vision to enable restoration or preservation of HMV’s old recordings. Surya Mantha, managing director, Saregama India Ltd, says: “Preserving the HMV archives is definitely being done. And releasing some of the music at an appropriate time is part of our business model.”
Former employees of HMV and HMV-Saregama say they were not aware of a cataloguing department in the company. Music composer Tushar Bhatia joined HMV in the early 1980s as a producer. He remembers being in awe of musicians who walked in and out of its Mumbai office. “It was a time when history was still being made. The who’s who of music was in HMV. There were new artistes too, like I remember auditioning Alisha Chinai for her album Baby Doll Alisha, which later HMV launched. There would be silence when Lata Mangeshkar came to our office; it is amazing what kind of power and respect just her presence commanded.” As a producer, Bhatia, now 52, never got to see where the old recordings were preserved, even in Kolkata. “Nobody knew and really talked about them.”
In the 1990s, Saregama brought out Chairman’s Choice—Great Memories, an album of Hindustani, Urdu and film music (available at music stores and online at Flipkart) that has music by Amir Jan, Zohra Ambala, Miss Achhan Bai, Malka Jan, Mohammad Bandi, Ustad Allauddin Khan and Imdaad Khan, among others. Like all music companies in India, its model combines both online sale and retailing of music.
In the aurally unsophisticated early years of the 20th century, HMV revolutionized the way music was recorded and consumed. The Gramophone Company of India or His Master’s Voice (HMV) was established at a crucial time when radical transformations were taking place in recording technology. Musicians had to change their performance practice for studio sessions, which also transformed the listening experience. By the 1930s, this revolution ripened in India.
Historians have chronicled the history of HMV India in distinct phases. The company’s first expedition to India in November 1902, called “Far Eastern Expedition”, was to Calcutta (now Kolkata), to record voices. German national Frederick William Gaisberg, who represented the company, took more than 1,000 recordings in a week, of classical musicians such as Gauhar Jaan, Peara Saheb, Lal Chand Boral, of theatre artistes Binodini Dasi and Corinthian Theatre, Star Theatre artistes and nautch girls. These records started flooding the Indian market from 1903 and did brisk business.
The Saregama factory in Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Thereafter, several other European companies, including Pathé Records from France, and Odeon Records from Germany, came to India. The swadeshi zeal in Bengal spurred many entrepreneurs in Calcutta and local brands like Binapani Recording Co. and Kamla Recording Co. also entered the market either as record manufacturers or dealers and agents to European firms. By mid-1910s, all competitors were off the market and The Gramophone Company of India had established a monopoly. In the World War years, while the European market bled, India sustained the company’s profits. “Market shares grew progressively in India from 6% in 1906-08 to 8% in 1909-11, accounting for almost 9% of the global market share in 1912-14. By 1925, while Germany made losses of ­£6,058, India gave the company a profit of £52,390,” says Sampath, drawing on the “Report on Future Prospects of the Entire General Business of the Gramophone Company”, EMI archives, London, 1921.
By 1935-36, after a record of the film Achhut Kanya by Bombay Talkies proved profitable, HMV took notice of the film music market and expanded it quickly and exponentially. Initially, only two or four songs were included in a record. Till 1952-53, singers did dual recordings, one during the shoot, and later in HMV’s studio. On the LP, a song was attributed to the name of the character on which it was filmed until Mahal in 1949 (it bears the name of Kamini, the role Madhubala played, for the song Ayega Aanewala). Then Mangeshkar, who was establishing her hold on film music, brought singers and musicians together to demand a change. HMV’s growth continued, and as Mangeshkar became a playback phenomenon, HMV had to make the singer and composer visible on its records.
HMV’s Indian years are also, significantly, a catalyst to the way music companies negotiate with art and artistes—the label always towering over the musician. Mangeshkar supported many copyright and royalty battles against HMV India, some of which continue with Saregama. Aneesh Pradhan, tabla exponent and music activist, says: “I had heard from my seniors that the company was never known to pay royalty to artistes on a regular basis and artistes were at the mercy of the label at most times. Most musicians felt it best to receive a one-off payment immediately after the recording instead of royalties.” Around 20 years ago, the daughters of tabla legend Ahmad Jan Thirakwa had petitioned the Delhi high court against HMV-Saregama. Composer O.P. Nayyar is known to have struggled for years before he received partial royalties from HMV-Saregama.
"On the LP, a song was attributed to the name of the character on which it was filmed until ‘Mahal’"
In 2003, five years after Kavi Pradeep’s death, Mitul Pradeep filed a case against the company for royalty for the song Aye Mere Watan ke Logon, which was to go to the Indian Army’s war widows’ fund every year. In 2005, the Bombay high court ordered Saregama to pay Rs.10 lakh to the fund. “When they first recorded the song, there was an agreement on paper that all profits and royalties would go to the war widows’ fund. My father made numerous attempts, but when nothing worked I went to court,” says Pradeep. Online music, of course, introduces new complexities to this question of ownership that HMV’s history raises.
The future of the music—reams and reams of it, both classical and indigenous—meanwhile is with music lovers and collectors, and innovators like Sampath. With Har Mandir Singh “Hamraaz” from Kanpur who, after assiduous work, published Geet Kosh, a compendium of Hindi film music history since 1931; with private collectors who organize soirées in every corner of the country; and with events like the Mohammed Rafi Musical Nights that takes place periodically in Mumbai. We own our HMV.
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 06 55 PM IST