In 1901, the Gramophone Company set up its first branch outside the UK, in Calcutta.
There was a pressing need to find Indian artistes who would agree to perform on the new medium, symbolised by the 78 rpm record. But many revered musicians baulked at the idea — for some it was about not letting anyone else capitalise on their culture and tradition, for others, it was the medium itself that was the problem — why, anyone, even those without the right credentials, might be able to listen to their music!
But there was a breed of artistes who were not afraid of the new technology. To them, it represented an opportunity, to have their voices heard by thousands of listeners they would not have reached otherwise.
These artistes included the leading women performers of the day, including Gauhar Jaan, Begum Akhtar, Janki Bai and several others. Many of them were “tawaifs” or as Fred Gaisberg, one of the first recording engineers to work with them, wrote in his memoirs: “from the caste of the public women, in those days it was practically impossible to record the voice of a respectable woman…”
The gramophone helped ‘democratise’ the music of these artistes, taking it to the middle class and to housewives who would never be allowed to attend the soirees/salons where these artistes performed. It took their celebrity out of an elite circle of patrons and made it universal. And several of these artistes would go on to enjoy immense wealth and fame.
Recording for the gramophone was not an easy task. The women had to sing — very loudly, in the era before electronic equipment — into a wax horn so that the sound could be recorded. Intricate raagas had to be compressed into a three-minute rendition. But they took to it with flair.
By the 1970s, at HMV (His Master’s Voice) — production of gramophone records had stalled, and as audio cassettes became ubiquitous, the record became a preserve of serious collectors. But the "golden era" of these artistes and the medium had in a sense, ended long before that.
As noted classical musician Vidya Shah wrote in a piece for Open magazine, the nationalist movement and its reformist agenda had consequences on the performing careers of these women artistes: “The baijis faced a strident and severe attack from reformers within their own society. Their profession was condemned and they were branded ‘loose women’. The nationalist elite objected to the shrill voices of these baijis and ultimately, they started losing out on opportunities to perform on stage. Initially, many of them joined the newly emerging All India Radio. But after Independence, those who continued to be gaanewaalis had to deal with the indignity of AIR insisting that its female singers be married. Many baijis then moved to theatre and films...sensing the opportunity encoded in cinema for a potential career change.”
As vinyl records make a ‘comeback’, and are being valued more than ever, it is time to look back on the talented, forward thinking women who saw an opportunity over a century ago, and made an attempt to immortalise their music — at 78 revolutions per minute.
In 1902, Gauhar Jaan became the first Indian artiste to feature on a recording. But even before she became a “gramophone celebrity”, she was a bonafide star. The gramophone merely helped extend her fame. Fred Gaisberg writes about being impressed by Gauhar Jaan’s penchant for dressing in a new gown every time she came for a recording session, and never repeating her jewels. As flamboyant as her personality was, it was surpassed by her musical talent. Gauhar could sing in 20 languages and dialects, and was among the few artistes who had permission from Rabindranath Tagore to sing his songs, and set them to her tunes.
Over 1902-1920, Gauhar recorded over 100 discs (about 200 songs) in a variety of styles, including hori, chaitti, ghazal and thumri. And at the end of each record, she would announce her name — “My name is Gauhar Jaan”, or better still, “Gauhar Jaan, champion” (this was because wax master recordings were sent to the record pressing factory in Germany, and the announcement would help the technical staff prepare the paper labels for the pressed copies).
Incidentally, Calcutta-based Gauhar began life as an Armenian Jew — Eileen Angelina Yeoward — who later converted to Islam.
Janki Bai Chhapan Churi
Janki Bai was a friend of Gauhar Jaan’s and the two had even performed together for King George V when he visited Allahabad in 1911. He was so impressed that he gifted them 100 guineas.
For Janki, such appreciation was not new. In the Chaudah Hazari Mehfil, she was showered with 14,000 coins. However, there were also accounts that said she bore the scars of 56 stab wounds — inflicted by a “jealous ruffian” (hence her name, 'Chhapan Churi'). Not considered very attractive, she would sing for her admirers from behind a screen, and caution them to accept her for her talent, and not her looks when they expressed a desire to see her in person.
From 1907 to 1929, Janki recorded over 250 songs, and it is said that the roads around record stores in Allahabad would be blocked by fans whenever a new disc of hers would release. The print order for several of her records crossed 25,000 copies. She died in 1934, but a collection of her songs was published in a book called Diwan-e-Janki.
One very famous anecdote about Begum Akhtar is about her singing her well-known song, “Deewana banana hai to deewana bana de” and moving one admirer to write “Hai Akhtari” repeatedly outside her home, covering a distance of over 200 metres. Such was the power of her voice. Although Begum Akhtar was trained in khayal gayaki, she preferred to sing “lighter genres” on her numerous records, and was known as the "mallika-e-ghazal".
Also known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, she was the daughter of Mushtari bai, a “tawaif” and began performing at a very early age. Later, she was married to a prominent lawyer in Lucknow, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, and counted among her fans, such patrons as the Nawab of Rampur. She also formed close friendships with several leading Urdu poets like Jigar Moradabadi and Kaifi Azmi.
Between 1908-11, Zohrabai Agrewali recorded over 60 songs on the 78 rpm disc. She was known for her brilliant ‘taankari’ and had mastered the art of presenting a khayal in three minutes. Her talent was so coveted by the Gramophone Company that she was paid Rs 2,500 a year for 25 songs, in an exclusive contract. Since she lived in Patna at the time, where the company did not have a recording studio, they would fly her down — all expenses paid — with her entire troupe, whenever or wherever a recording session was scheduled. Alla Jaane, Matki Re Mori Goras and Piyake Milanki Aas are among her well-known songs. Zohrabai didn’t just inspire her listeners — she also inspired musical greats like Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab.
The other divas
There were several other artistes of note during this period. Among them was Acchan Bai – known for ending her recordings with her signature "sign-off" – “Acchan Bai ka gaana, gramophone record”. Then there was Bai Sundara Bai who HMV awarded for having the highest record sales of the time. She founded her own record company, Nabharat, in later years.
Kesar Bai Kerkar (1892-1977) was honoured by NASA when they sent her voice (singing “Jaat Kahaan Ho”) into space on the Voyager mission in 1977.
There was also Jaddan Bai — the actress Nargis’ mother — who was a successful performing artiste before she launched her own movie company Sangeet Movietone and acted in and produced films.
Mehboob Jaan Sholapur, Mumtaz Jaan, Miss Dulari, Binodini Dasi, Chunni Bai, Angurbala, Allahrakshi, Miss Jadumani, Fanibala, Husnajan — the voices of many of these artistes may have faded away. But together, they helped shape the music industry in India and made an impression that went deeper than the wax cylinders used to record their voices.
Indian Women on Record is a film that sees musician Vidya Shah explore the lives and legacy of these great artistes. Watch the trailer for it here: