In Focus Vidya Shah and Parthiv Shah’s ‘Women on Record’ is a fascinating study of music of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

When Frederick W. Gaisberg brought sound recording into India in the beginning of the 20th century, he hardly would have expected established male singers of that era to shy away from technology.

History has it that women singers were the first to embrace sound recording. ‘Women on Record’, an effort by singer Vidya Shah and her photographer-husband Parthiv Shah gives us glimpses into the music and lives of some of these women.

Vidya has always been interested in issues pertaining to gender and music. “Parthiv and I started this project to archive, celebrate and create awareness about these early women performers,” she says. “In the early 20th Century, the tawaifs or baijis, as they were then known, took a revolutionary decision to record their voices on 78 rpm vinyl records. The earliest records available are of female performers,” she points out. The anonymity provided by technology, where women could record their voices and not be seen by a court audience, worked in their favour.

Versatile performers

‘Women on Record’ presents the archival music of Jaddanbai, Gauharjan, Mehboobjan, Anjanibai Malpekar, Zohrabai, Amirbai and Rajkumari, to name a few. These were among the most versatile women performers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

When Vidya and Parthiv chanced upon these records, they realised they had embarked on a fascinating treasure hunt of history, music and gender studies. Says Parthiv: “The 78 rpm vinyl records could record only about 3.5 minutes of music. It was a challenge for these women to rework their compositions so as to fit in all the classical nuances within this time.”

The project took Vidya and Parthiv to historical locations — from Hira Mandi in Lahore to the narrow alleys of Kolkata where gramophone records were sold in small shacks.

Being a vocalist herself, Vidya was amazed at the repertoire of the women. Parthiv photographed the ancestral homes of these singers and videographed archival photographs of them, their records and their families.

Finding the music of a bygone era was the easiest part, says Vidya. “We found some of the music through online catalogues, some as part of private collections of music lovers and others through small stores selling gramophone records. What was tedious was going behind the voices and tracing the lives of these women.”

It took Vidya and Parthiv two years to gather sufficient material before they launched ‘Women on Record’ in New Delhi in 2010. Parthiv recalls visiting ‘jalsa ghars’ or areas in old houses earmarked for music performances. “While some of these houses were well maintained, others are in a dilapidated condition,” he says.

Vidya is in awe of the versatility of these singers. “From the time of first gramophone recording in India in 1904 till Independence, these women were at the forefront of the technological movement. They sang diverse genres of music,” she says.

As for the project, she says, “It’s an ongoing process. If we find more records and historical data, we will continue to archive them.”