A RECORD of records

From the talking machine to the cylinder phonograph, all record players metamorphosed into the popular gramophone, and spawned a huge recording industry that covered the globe. SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI gives an account of the history of the records of the past...

WHEN EDISON invented his talking machine, he remarked, "The machine does not have much value". How wrong he was, was proved subsequently when the cylinder phonograph that he invented metamorphosed into the popular gramophone, and spawned a huge recording industry that covered the globe. Flat discs, commonly referred to as "plates" in India, later replaced the earlier cylindrical records.

HMV, or His Master's Voice, a phrase which was later borrowed by political columnists to be used as a pejorative term, is the most well known in the field of recorded music with its logo of a gramophone and the dog, Nipper. But this picture appeared on the label of Indian records of the Gramophone Company of England only in 1916.

The gramophone came in several models — portable models, table-top models, huge ones that looked like cupboards and those that came with a horn. The cost of a gramophone varied with the model. A Columbia `suitcase' model (model 200) cost Rs. 55 in 1934. There were other variants of this model that cost as much as Rs. 120 in 1939.

A RECORD of records

The earliest recording made in India was that of Gauhar Jan, a Hindustani vocalist, in the year 1902. Although the recording was made in India, the disc was manufactured in England. So, at the end of the record she announced her name, to enable the technicians abroad to fix the right label to the disc. This practice of announcing one's name at the end of a song continued until 1908, when the Gramophone Company of England set up manufacturing facilities in Sealdah, Calcutta. Later, a bigger factory was set up in Dum Dum, Calcutta.

Coming back to Gauhar Jan, her fame spread throughout India and she travelled all over the country. She even came to Madras in the 1920s and met Veena Dhanammal in the latter's George Town house.

Odeon was established in Germany in 1904. In India, they entered into arrangements with local companies that would get recordings of popular artistes and send the recordings to Odeon to be pressed into discs. These records were marketed by the local partners. Saraswati Stores, in Mount Road, Madras, started by A. V. Meyyappa Chettiar, produced several Odeon records of Ariyakudi that were extremely popular. These included several Ariyakudi favourites like "Evarimata", "Elavatara" and "Dinamanivamsa".

A RECORD of records

The Gramophone Company introduced cheaper labels like Zonophone in 1910 and Twin in 1928 to counter competition from Odeon and Columbia. There is a Zonophone record titled, "Laughing," that used to be popular in the 1930s, where a Bret Shepard laughs in every possible way. He guffaws, cackles, titters, giggles, chuckles, hoots, snorts — every laugh conceivable is there. There is a Twin record of Bidaram Krishnappa with Vatapi on one side and Sringara Lahari on the other. This is probably an earlier record of the Gramophone Company re-issued under the Twin label, because the artiste announces his name, a practice not in vogue in the 1920s. In 1931, the Gramophone Company, Columbia, Odeon and some smaller companies merged to form Electrical Music Industries (EMI). Even after the merger, the different companies that made up EMI retained their respective labels.

There were smaller companies that remained outside the EMI fold and produced some popular records. Notable among these was the British company Broadcast. A company called The Musical Products Limited was formed in Madras to make recordings of local artistes for Broadcast. Musical Products had its Madras office in Esplanade and also had offices in Rampart Row in Bombay and in Front Street in Colombo. It had some of the most colourful labels — there were combinations of aquamarine and bright red, and labels that were a dazzling gold in colour. The last used to be called "thanga plates". Chembai's cutcheri set came in "thanga" plates.

A cutcheri set was a set of six records that followed the concert pattern and would have a varnam, a few kritis with alapana and swaras, an RTP, tani avartanam, a virutham, a javali, and mangalam. So one could hear a whole cutcheri in just 42 minutes! Normally, 78 rpm records were 10 inches in diameter. But occasionally, records of 12 inches diameter were also produced as for example, Chembai's "Amba Nadu" in Thodi released by Broadcast.

Broadcast paid artistes fabulously but when in 1934 Broadcast offered Rs. 10,000 to Naina Pillai to record his music, he turned down the offer because he felt it would be disrespectful to music to offer it for sale! Shortly after this, he passed away and sadly posterity has been deprived of an opportunity to hear a great musician. The Broadcast Company closed down some years later.

A RECORD of records

There were cutcheri sets under other labels too. DKP's cutcheri set from Columbia included a soulful rendering of "Naa Ninna Dhyana" in Kanada. Turaiyur Rajagopala Sharma's cutcheri set from HMV consisted of 12-inch records and included Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar's javali in Kapi — "Sara Samolanenenduko".

When World War II broke out, Odeon was taken over by the Nazis and was cut off from India. The company survived the war, but was a ghost of its former self. Many Odeon records like Ariyakudi's "Neekelana" were reissued under the Columbia label.

There were also smaller players in the field like Hutchins of Madras who had their office on Mount Road and advertised themselves as "Hutchins, the Home of Quality Music". Hutchins issued most of Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer's records.

The recordings for Hutchins were made in Madras but the Gramophone Company manufactured the records for them in its Dum Dum facility.

Apart from records of musicians, many companies also produced drama sets, which consisted of six records. Most of these dramas were based on popular mythological themes.

Hutchins came out with drama sets like `Harishchandra' and `Prahlada'. They also had kalakshepam sets like Rukmini Kalyanam by Thirupoonthuruthi T. R. Viswanatha Iyer and `Siruthondar Puranam' by Sundara Oduvar Murthy. Columbia even had a drama set on a Christian theme — `Gnana Soundari'. Each drama set came in a tin box with a scene from the drama on the lid.

Of the shops selling records in Madras, the most well known was Saraswati Stores. Its manager K. P. Varadachari took a personal interest in his customers. He had a prodigious memory and could recall catalogue numbers in a flash.

A RECORD of records

Equally famous was Mohammed Ibrahim and Company, which had a shop in Rattan Bazaar and another on Mount Road. In 1939, when my father played Musiri's "Shyama Sundara" from the film, "Tukaram" at the Mount Road shop, his uncle seated in the car parked on the opposite side of the road could hear the song distinctly! This is not only a tribute to the gramophone's volume but also show how little traffic there was on Mount Road in those days.

Not many people know that HMV also made refrigerators in the early 1930s, for which Mohammed Ibrahim and Company were the agents.

Vani Musicals in Sukurama Chetti Street, South India Music Emporium in Broadway, V. S. Rajagopalan and Company, which had branches in Bangalore, Salem, and Coimbatore, and Gupta Agencies on Triplicane High Road, which had a branch in Salem, also sold records and gramophones.

But none of these shops sold second hand gramophones or records. If one was looking for a replacement for a broken record, the best place to go to was T. Arasu's, short for Tirunavukkarasu, in Moore Market. Tirunavukkarasu not only sold gramophones and records, but also had mechanics to repair gramophones.

A RECORD of records

The only recurrent expenditure in the case of the gramophone was the money spent on needles. A pack of 10 HMV high fidelity needles cost a rupee and eight annas in 1945. There were cheaper HMV needles that cost the same for 200 needles. Twin needles were even cheaper. HMV also used to sell "record cleaning pads" which were gentle on the record and didn't damage the groove.

There was a company called J. Stead and Company, with its manufacturing facility in Sheffield, U.K., whose needles were also available in India. Later on, Needle Industries, based in Keti, Nilgiris, made needles and marketed them under the name "Deluxe". But 78 rpm records were slowly being replaced by 33 and 45 rpm records and were not manufactured after 1974.

One wishes HMV would come out with cassettes and CDs of old 78 rpm records. How else will the present generation be able to hear Ariyakudi's "Thalavu Kaattum" or DKP's brilliant "Ninaindurugum Ennai" (Suruti) from the film "Thyagayya"?

The CDs could have notes on the cover giving details about the date of recording, what the artiste was paid for the recording, how many copies were sold and the original label under which the record was issued.

That way, one will not only be able to hear the greats of the past, but will also get a small dose of history.

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