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Centenarian of the musical kind

One hundred years ago, the first Indian voice was recorded. In 1902, two little girls had their voices recorded by the engineers of the Gramaphone Company, England. K. PRADEEP goes into little known aspects of the acoustic history of recorded musicdown the years.

IMAGINE. A shining Morris Minor rolls along the dusty road, while the sound of music wafts along. The car grinds to a halt and soon a crowd of curious people gather around, peering into the motorcar. What arouses their curiosity is of course not the car, but the shining horn placed on top of a polished wooden box. Cranking the handle charges it. The sound box is placed on a record and then suddenly a human voice blares out, mesmerising those who jostle to take a look at this wonder box.

A typical scene right from the pages of history, during the period when the gramophone was first introduced in India in the early 1900s.

The gramophone record seems to have lost its battle against time and innovations like the audiocassette and compact discs. But the romance of the gramophone and its music still lingers, something you cannot associate with the new gadgets. This year, gramophone recording in India celebrates its centenary.

The first ever `native' recording in India, done professionally by the engineers of the Gramophone Company, England, one of the two major companies in this field during the acoustic era, was in 1902. "Two little nautch (dancing) girls, aged 14 and 16 with miserable voice," as one of the engineers, Fred Gaisberg, sent on this expedition noted in his diary, were the first Indians to have their voices recorded. The two little girls were Soshi Mukhi and Fani Bala, who were associated with the Classic Theatre. The first ever Indian song on a gramophone disc was "Kanha jeevan dhan... " from the play, Sri Krishna.

"It is believed that very few women from respectable families, during those early days, ventured into recording. It was Gauhar Jan, an artiste of considerable repute, who broke this taboo. She was also called the Gramophone Girl and in some of the later records she was described as the Dancing Girl of Calcutta. That first record of hers turned a best seller," said B.Vijayakumar, an ardent music buff, whose jottings on the history and growth of Indian music is astounding.

Preserving these discs were always cumbersome and so naturally, even the Gramophone Company of India, that held monopoly over recordings for a long while, dispensed with most of their collections. Some of them even painted these discs and used them as wall decorations, while others moulded them into shapes of flowers to be used as fashionable `paan' containers. These containers cost around Re 1, while the 78 rpm records cost just four annas!

Then, there was that pair of businessmen, P.K.Sharma and R.K.Sharma from Bombay (reported to be brothers) who reportedly reached Madras in 1950 and carted off huge loads of records. They bought all that they could from Moore Market and even from private collectors, on the pretext that they were attempting to save those ancient recordings through some modern technology. But then their intentions were commercial. It was just after the World War II, and there was restriction on the import of lac or shellac, which these shrewd businessmen knew, would be in short supply. The 78 rpm gramophone records were made of high quality, purified lac. All the loads of records they gathered were then melted to obtain this substance.

And thus was lost precious music and documented history.

There are passionate collectors like Fyed Zafar Shah, his grandfather Syed Ahmed Shah in New Delhi, V.A.K. Ranga Rao in Chennai, Krishnan Namboodiri and his son Unnikrishnan in Kochi, who have spent a whole lifetime and fortune, gathering gramophone records and information based on them. They have preserved almost all the released discs in Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, both film and non-film songs, respectively. They have preserved history.

When the gramophone was first introduced in India, by the HMV, it cost Rs 42 and eight annas. There were some priced much higher and of course there were the Swiss and Japanese that had a very `affordable' price tag. It was seen as a status symbol, even carried by many in their carriages and cars.

There were some like Hemendra Mohan Bose, widely known for his numerous ventures in items like perfumes, hair oil, cycles etc, who went a step further. He acquired an Edison phonograph recording machine sometime in 1900 and began recording local talent. His amateur efforts, in preserving the voices and songs of his friends, may have been the first Indian enterprise to engage itself in commercial recording and distribution of phonograph cylinders in India.

The Nizam of Hyderabad and Maharajah of Mysore is also supposed to have made private recordings. There are ghazal recordings done during the Bismillah ceremony of the grandson of the Nizam and the only recorded voice of Swami Vivekananda is still retained on a damaged disc at the Mysore Palace.

"There is one rare record of K.L.Saigal's recording of a Tamil song. This was during the marriage of a producer's daughter in Madras. HMV is supposed to have recorded the song. Ranga Rao has one of these records. The late Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer was also supposed to own one, but enquires revealed that this copy has been lost," said Mr.Vijayakumar.

The first records were one sided and only seven inches in diameter. The later ones were, on an average, 10 inches in size, with a playing time of nearly four minutes. These would revolve at a speed of 78.26 per minute and the total revolutions would add up to 273 times. Then came the double-sided records with one song on each side. Records with diameters of 11 and 12 inches followed allowing a playing time of four-and-half minutes. It was during this time that numerous experiments were made on the material for discs. There were those translucent plastic (Film-O-Phone) label, on bendable and non-bendable cardboard ones with the Nicole label.

The Gramophone Company was established in England way back in 1898 and it soon took control of other companies like Columbia and Odeon. The original trademark of an angel sitting down and writing on a disc, was later changed to the legendary trademark of the dog listening to His Masters Voice and they established a sort of monopoly in this business of selling music.

But there were a few Indians who made remarkable contributions in the recording industry. The National Gramophone Record Manufacturing Company in Bombay, founded by V.Shantaram, under the banner of Young India with the National tricolour on their labels, specialised in patriotic and film songs. There was the Marwari Records at Jodhpur, Hindustan Records, Megaphone, Senola and of course H. M. Bose's Pathe-Bose's Records.

Bose used the rare phonocut method, under which the records played from the inside to the outside, revolving at a speed of 100 rpm and had etched labels and not the usual paper ones. Bose got the discs pressed from France and Belgium. The company had the honour to record Rabindranath Tagore for the first time in 1905.

Production of records came to a standstill in India sometime in the late 80s with the 78 rpm ones becoming extinct even long before this. Now, Long Play (LP) records are produced only on special occasions

The first Malayali voice to be recorded on a gramophone record was that of T.C.Narayaniamma (1906). "Though there are many claimants for this honour this information from the `Malayala Sahitya Sarvasvam', must put all these claims to rest. In fact, there are so many references in other books of our early singers, like Appu Ezhuthachan, of whom we do not have much information. Here most of the early recordings were patriotic or drama songs. The history of Malayalam film records begins only from 1940, with the release of `Jnanambika'. The last one to be released was `Chitram' in 1987," stated Mr. Unnikrishnan.

Most of the information we try to glean from the labels of the records may be misleading. "This sometimes hinders a historical study of our music through records. Take for example the famous song `Aayega aanewala... ' from the film `Mahal'. Lata Mangeshkar's name is not on the label. The name given is Kamini, which, in fact, is the name of the character in the film, played by Madhubala. This was quite common. In the Tamil film `Kacha Devyani' there is a duet sung by the singing stars, K. Seenu and T.R.Rajakumari. The latter was quite famous and so her name appeared on the label but the other name was Kachan, a reference to the character played by Seenu," Mr. Vijayakumar said.

There was something so poetic, so different about listening to music on the gramophone. The haunting, shrill, rough, raw voices of the singers, the usual squeaking noises, as the pin moved along the grooves, all made listening to music so natural, so nostalgic.

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