The writer's discovery of a gramophone catalogue at London's British Library spurs a search for the earliest Indian recordings through the realms of both fact and fiction
The address 31 Maiden Lane, just off London’s Strand, and half-way up from Trafalgar Square to the high commission of India, is today home to a pizzeria called Fire & Stone. The restaurant describes itself as having a menu of “gourmet global pizzas inspired by cities from around the world". Currently, their website says, their “Chef’s Selection" is a pizza simply called Mumbai: “Two naan pizza bases topped with chicken tikka, red onion, chillies and spinach paneer served with poppadoms, mango chutney & tzatziki." It is not possible to think of an “Indian" pizza that has less to do with Mumbai.
But 118 years ago, the basement of the building at 31 Maiden Lane was witness to an epochal event in the history of Indian media and culture. Sometime in early 1899, when part of the site was occupied by The Gramophone Company, the basement had been turned into a recording studio. And it was in this room that an Indian voice was recorded for the first time in history, in that year.
The year 1899 was, it must be kept in mind, very, very early days in the history of gramophone technology.
It was only in 1878 that Thomas Edison had patented his discovery of the cylinder phonograph, a technology in which sound was recorded and then played back off cylinders. Remarkably, the first demonstration of a cylindrical phonograph may have taken place in Calcutta (now Kolkata) within a year of Edison’s patent. The technology, Suresh Chandvankar wrote in a 2002 essay, “Indian Gramophone Records: The First 100 Years", for the UK-based Musical Traditions magazine, was eagerly adopted in India. By 1895, there was already at least one dealer of cylindrical records in Delhi and these continued to sell in India up to 1910 or so. But by then the cylinder had been eclipsed by Emile Berliner’s flat disc technology.
Keen to commercialize his technology all over the world, Berliner set up the US Gramophone Company in 1894, and The Gramophone Company in the UK in 1898. Shortly afterwards, Berliner sent Frederick Gaisberg to London to work as the company’s first recording engineer. Gaisberg set up his studio in the basement of the company’s office at 31 Maiden Lane and then began to look for artists.
The decision to send Gaisberg to London was a fortuitous one for Berliner and his company. For Gaisberg immediately set out to do what he did best: attract talent, and expand markets. And he went all over the world.
In 1902, Gaisberg found himself at The Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, watching as the renowned singer and courtesan Gauhar Jaan sang into a recording contraption. It is commonly believed, and widely quoted, that this recording expedition by Gaisberg resulted in the first recorded Indian voices. Indeed, as recently as 2015, Premankur Biswas, in a wonderful piece for The Indian Express, explained that it was not Gauhar Jaan but a certain Sashimukhi, recording three days before Jaan, who had the honour of being the first recorded Indian voice.
Not quite. While Jaan and Sashimukhi may well have been the first Indian voices recorded in India, there is some evidence to suggest that some years earlier, Gaisberg had convinced some Indians to sing for him at his London studio.
In his book The Gramophone Company’s First Indian Recordings, 1899-1908, Michael Kinnear, an Australian historian of Indian music and records, refers to a catalogue by The Gramophone Company that was released in May 1899. This catalogue, presumably for use by prospective buyers, has a sub-section titled “Oriental Catalogue". While the records themselves are lost to posterity, I recently went to the British Library to access their copy of this 1899 catalogue (later, I realized that a detailed scan of the catalogue is available on the library’s website).
The Oriental section of the catalogue begins on page 65 with Persian records. On the next page, it reads: “These Hindustani Records are probably the best proof of the far-reaching properties of the Gramophone, and they must be of especial interest to all loyal Englishmen, as being representative of our large Eastern possessions."
What follows is a list of 15 Hindu records (mostly recitations of the Ramayan), two “Sikh" records (hymns of Guru Nanak), five Urdu records, including verses by Mirza Ghalib and a speech about the Gramophone, and two recordings in Arabic, one of which is a Quran recitation. What is most intriguing, however, are the references to the three artists responsible for some of these recordings: Dr Harnamdas, Captain Bhola Nauth (both of whom recorded in Hindi) and an Urdu artist simply called Ahmed.
Thanks to Kinnear’s sleuthing, these three names are now increasingly mentioned in works on the history of recorded media in India. If the catalogue was released in 1899, then surely one of these artists is the first Indian to ever be recorded on any media. But who are they? There wasn’t much to go by in the catalogue entries. All we can tell for sure, besides the fact that one was a doctor and the other a soldier of some kind, is that the three men were resident in London at some point in 1898 or 1899. There were no surnames, age details or any other clues.
So I began to punch in these names into all kinds of search engines and archives. Unsurprisingly, there appeared to be little point in looking for an “Ahmed". But Harnamdas and Bhola Nauth seemed less elusive.
One record of South Asian lawyers who had been called to the bar in London contained a “Harnam Das... of Lahore, Punjab, India (20) s. of Kishan Chand of Lahore afsd., Pleader and Public Prosecutor". He had enrolled for legal training in London in 1899 before being appointed a lawyer in 1904. Somewhat surprisingly, this Das changed his name to Harold Percy Douglas in or around 1923.
Perhaps this Harnam Das, budding lawyer in a strange foreign city, ran into an enterprising recording engineer one day. Who requested him to sing a Holi song in Hindi?
But then why does the catalogue use the title Doctor?
The search for a Captain Bhola Nauth went even better. Deep inside The Times Of London archives was a London Gazette notification from March 1913 announcing that a Major Bhola Nauth of the Indian Medical Service was being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The lead seemed promising. Eventually, I happened to chance upon the obituary of a Colonel Bhola Nauth in a 1936 issue of The British Medical Journal: “He was born at Lahore on January 23rd, 1866, and was educated at the Lahore Medical College, where he graduated L.M.S. of Punjab University, after which he came to England, entered St Thomas’s Hospital, and took the L.S.A. in 1890. He entered the I.M.S. as surgeon lieutenant on July 29th, 1893, rose to the rank of colonel on January 11th, 1919, and retired on April 14th, 1924.
“He was also," it read, “appointed Honorary Physician to the King, on February 14th, 1922".
The dates matched almost perfectly. Bhola Nauth could well have been a captain in the Indian Medical Service in 1899. And it is entirely plausible that his travels brought him to London around the time Gaisberg was recording.
Imagine, then, this scenario. A Captain Bhola Nauth is in London in 1899. Perhaps he decides to meet a fellow Punjabi, a younger man training to be a lawyer, named Harnam Das. Somehow the two men bump into Fred Gaisberg. Gaisberg is desperately looking for voices to populate his Oriental Catalogue. Would the two men be willing to give it a shot? Perhaps they agree. Does Gaisberg know he is producing the first recordings ever of an Indian voice? We can only guess.
Later, when preparing his catalogue, Gaisberg perhaps forgets the exact details of the two men who helped him. Perhaps he decides to call one captain and the other doctor. The catalogue is published. And slowly percolates its way into the annals of Indian music history.
It is a great story. One can only wonder if it is true.
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