Everyone loves jubilees and centenaries, and the parties and celebrations that accompany such landmark events. However, there is the odd centenary that passes by unnoticed and uncelebrated. The music industry being what it is (and since I don’t want to be cynical and nasty so early into the new year, I leave you to arrive at your own conclusions about what I mean when I say that), I doubt if anyone will remember in time that 2008 marks the centenary of an event of far-reaching impact on Indian music—the setting up of the first record factory in Kolkata in 1908.
And lest anyone feel that I am too harsh on the Indian music industry, let me just point out that 2002 went by without a whimper, and that too was an important year because it was the centenary of the cutting of the first gramophone recording of Hindustani music, once again in Kolkata, in 1902. Neither did anyone bother to commemorate in 1999 the centenary of the first ever recordings of Indian music made in 1899, which included “twenty records in Persian, fifteen in Hindi, five in Urdu (Hindustani), five in Sikh (Gurmukhi) and two in Arabic” as mentioned by Michael Kinnear, an Australian researcher whose pioneering study of the subject is referred to by virtually anyone and everyone with an interest in the history of recorded music in India. Kinnear also informs us that these 1899 recordings “were by Capt. Bholanath, Dr Harnamdas and Ahmed, who sing or recite in various languages”. For those of you who would like to know more about the history of recorded music, there are several books and research papers that could provide you with fascinating reading material. The Gramophone Company’s First Indian Recordings (1899-1908) by Michael Kinnear is possibly one of the most authoritative and comprehensive books on the subject, also one that you can order online from www.popularprakashan.com.
Vintage sound: An LP of the songs of singer Gaur Jan, recorded in Kolkata in 1908.
However, if you don’t have the patience to go through an entire book on the subject, you may like to refer to a brief, but extremely informative paper on the subject appropriately titled Centenary of Indian Gramophone Records by Suresh Chandvankar, honorary secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. The essay forms part of a collection titled Music and Modernity: North Indian Classical Music in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction edited by Amlan Das Gupta and published by Thema of Kolkata.
Today, as technology makes it possible for us to record ourselves on devices as small and user-friendly as mobile phones, it may be difficult for any of us to even imagine the challenges and difficulties that both recording engineers and artistes must have faced a century ago. The man who led what was known as the first recording expedition to India in 1902 was Frederick William Gaisberg. Assisted by George Dillnutt, he made the first “native” recordings on Saturday, 8 November 1902. Kinnear quotes from Gaisberg’s diary a description of “two little nautch (dancing) girls aged fourteen and sixteen with miserable voices”. Called Miss Soshi Mukhi and Miss Fani Bala, both artistes from the repertory of the Classic Theatre, they recorded songs in Bangla as well as in Hindi.
So all you “hot gals” and “cool dudes” making “a big noise” singing Om Shanti Om, look back at the past and see where it all began. The records, the catalogues, the research, the scholars, the record collectors are all there, ready to share a wealth of knowledge and music. If we still don’t do anything about it in 2008, well, what can I say? We’ll still be miserable little girls and boys who don’t care a hoot for the historic musical treasures we have, or for the people who have made it possible for us to know more about them.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org