Friday Review

Catalysts of change

Miss K. B Sundarambal in front of the microphone at the Columbia Studio Hollway’s gardens, October 1932. Photo courtesy The Hindu Archives.

Miss K. B Sundarambal in front of the microphone at the Columbia Studio Hollway’s gardens, October 1932. Photo courtesy The Hindu Archives.  


As Vidya Shah’s passion project “Women on Record” takes shape, the prolific composer takes us on a musical journey of social change spurred by technology.

For the last six years, composer and musician Vidya Shah has been working on a CMAC (Centre for Media and Alternative Communication) project titled “Women on Record” (Tulika). It's an apt name, a nod not just to the journey of the women singers in the Gramophone Era that it documents, but to the very act of putting their lives, and their contributions, on record. Under the umbrella of this project, Shah brings together the intersection of women, music, technology and the performance space, and tells their story with the help of various channels and platforms – multimedia exhibitions and live performances that have now travelled not just across the country but also continents, a documentary on the subject, and a recently published book titled “Jalsa: Indian Women and the Journeys from the Salon to the Studio”(Tulika). “Women on Record” is a passion project for Shah, inspired when she was introduced to early recorded music by an audience member after one of performances.

Excerpts from an interview:

What about the project caught your attention and interest?

I think I inherently feel interested in the ideas of how performance and technology has evolved over a period of time. A lot of this has to do with the fact that what we learn is essentially an oral tradition; it may be a cliché but it is true. What we learn is pretty much a “guru shishya parampara”, and even though a part of it is documented, there is very little we can learn from the documentation itself. It's more the process and the approach through which your own music and understanding develops. Having said that, this intersection of performance and technology and how that has shaped the idea of our musical tradition is a fascinating encounter for me. The project added to my already existing interest and inquiry into this topic.

Taking into consideration the lack of heavy documentation, your book, and also the other arms of the project, are packed with multimedia archival material – pictures, posters, accounts from journals, and more. What avenues of research did you use?

My first point of entry was the music, and once I got familiar with what was on the record, I realised that I wanted to know these women whose voices the records carried. Even if you look at the title, it’s “Women on Record”, and a part of it refers to the women on whom we have very little record. That is the part that I really wanted to engage with. Sometimes, we are able to document tradition in various ways, and these women and their stories was one of those ways. They played such an important role in the nurturing of musical tradition, in holding on to it and its upkeep.

Trying to find out who these women were, discovering their stories was the more challenging part of the project. Of course, some accounts are documented in memoirs by British engineers who came to record, and some people have written about the social history of music in India, but having said so, what one was looking at were the various people who collect this music, and they had not just the records, but also other items from that era. Then, when we started over five years ago, we also approached a handful of people who could give us at least some first hand anecdotal references of that era. There was Vidushi Girija Devi, who had met Jaddan Bai, one of the stars of the Gramophone Era, and then there was Pandit Birju Maharaj, whose grandfather had taught Kathak to one of the first divas of this phenomenon, Gauhar Jan. Shyam Benegal had made movies and had experienced and thought of this phenomenon in a very deep and intense way. All their accounts really enriched the project.

A big part of the project tracks the social change technology and the arrival of the gramophone brought about in the consumption of music itself...

Yes, you get to see how back then, dance and music was not modular like it is today, that there seems to have been, at least in the community of singing ladies, an interest in being versatile and entrepreneurial, a desire to try different music. When these women took to the microphone and to the technology, they democratised the listening as well as the performance space. This is something very important that happened in the early 20th Century because of the machine. Suddenly you didn't have to be a rich zamindar, who could have mehfils at home. You could actually do gramophone soirees.

The journey of these women is also a very visual one. Parthiv Shah, my husband, is a photographer, and he took pictures of these zamindar bari where the mehfils were held. And then there are matchboxes, posters, on which many of these women started appearing. Several of them went on to become well known celebrities, but there were others who are just names on discographies now.

As a musician and performer yourself, what direct and personal links emerged as you worked on the project?

There was definitely an element of a subjective inspiration or intuition, and I was absolutely blown away by some of the contribution and approach by these women. In a sense this became my own personal endeavour. I am a woman, I am a musician, and I have trained in a certain tradition. That today I am able to sit on stage and sing a repertoire out of my own choice, that I have that agency, showed me the space they were instrumental in carving. While these women were entertainers, I don’t know if pleasure was an agency they themselves were privy to. I see how they paved the way for performers today, and I see its continuum in the fact that I can sit on stage and sing a thumri or a dadra, which may have been viewed partly risqué at that time, enjoy it and have my audience enjoy it without judgement.

I'm not romanticising the past, but just saying that there is seamlessness to the past, which started with this combination of women, technology and the performance space. It really paved the way to what we very, very loosely define as entertainment today.

Tracing this combination, it becomes undeniable that a huge majority of those adapting to change in the face of the mistrust new technology brought, were women...

We can tell from the discography that women were very much on the forefront of this phenomenon. It's not like men were not recording, but it's true that women were more willing when it started. They came to take on the technology and look at this enterprise with a more accepting mind. This was partly also because of their own struggle. It came out of a certain background, out of a certain context. So many of these women learned from their sarangias, as many Ustad were not willing to teach them. There were struggles within struggles, financial, sexual, struggle for survival. All these factors went into them becoming part of this phenomenon. “Women on Record” puts on record their presence in the making of the music market in India.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:05:38 PM |

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