Tracing a century of HMV, the label which laid the foundation of Indian music industry

His Master’s Voice, a music label with a long and chequered history, is known for laying the foundations of the Indian music industry. This is the story of HMV in India.

Amborish Roychoudhury September 19, 2020 09:29:44 IST
Tracing a century of HMV, the label which laid the foundation of Indian music industry

File image of Jazz me Blues on record label His Master's Voice. Via WikimediaCommons

Like all great stories, this one starts with a dog. It was a mixed-breed terrier called Nipper, who’s human was a theatre “scenery designer” named Mark Barraud. Upon Mark’s death in 1887, his brother Francis Barraud, who happened to be a painter, adopted Nipper. The two led a happy and fulfilling life of eight years together. When Nipper passed away at 11 years, Francis undertook to paint a picture of him listening to his favourite Edison cylinder phonograph, which was the latest technology to record and play sound. Mark had recorded his voice on some of these cylinders, and Francis observed Nipper listening intently to his old friend’s voice. Francis later recorded this in a painting and called it His Master’s Voice. He tried selling it to the Edison company, but was rebuffed with the comment that dogs do not listen to music.

And so it went to Edison’s competition, the Gramophone Company, who had devised a way of using flat records for storing sound instead of cylinders.

***

Much of Indian music industry owes its origin to an American musician called Frederick Gaisberg. Music was still predominantly a performance art and the idea of a storage medium that would allow people to listen to these performances at leisure was a concept that wasn’t as well known. So the newly founded Gramophone Company needed a sizeable number of recordings to facilitate acceptability and familiarity. And here’s where the young American came in.

The Gramophone Company was founded in London by Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone record in 1898. After having acquired the painting of Nipper the dog, the company launched their record label and called it His Master’s Voice, or HMV for short, in 1901. But as explained earlier, recordings were hard to come by, and they needed a lot of those to be taken seriously as a record label. In a post-digital world, it is difficult to conceive that recording sound was an elaborate, eight-step process which Frederick Gaisberg put down in his diary for posterity. Fred moved from New York to London to perform the recordings for Gramophone Company. He and his brother William recorded a bevy of international music performers, and then they set sail for India in search of something new and unexplored. It was September 1902. After spending some time in Ceylon, Fred Gaisberg landed in the bustling Indian metropolis then known as Calcutta, now called Kolkata.

On 6 November 1902, Fred Gaisberg was invited to the house of a “wealthy baboo” at Harrison Road. After dinner, they — the Indian Bengali babus and the Europeans and Americans — sat together at a large salon and were entertained by nautch girls, or courtesans. The word “nautch” was a derivative of the Hindustani “naach” or dance. These courtesans were often extremely talented youngsters. Many of them were accomplished artistes, classically trained in music and dance. One of them was the thumri exponent Gauhar Jaan, all of 29, who Frederick encountered at this gathering and describes thus: "Her crowning adornment was a large diamond fastened on the side of her nose. Her teeth were quite red from betel-nut chewing. Her chewing habit necessitated the presence of a bearer following her about with a silver cuspidor into which she would empty her mouthful, much to the distraction of their charms. She terminated each song with a most cleverly executed muscle-dance. This lady gets around 300 rupees an evening, and can often be seen driving in the Maidaan in a fine carriage and pair. I met the lady at our Laboratory when she came to sing in our Gramophone, and was impressed by her sharpness and brightness. She sings in some twenty languages including Hindustani, Turkish, Persian, Bengali, Kachee (Katchi), Medrasi = (Tamil), Burmese, Gujrali (Gujarati), Tailungi (Telugu).”

On 8 November, Fred recorded the singing of two teenaged nautch girls aged 14 and 16 — called Shoshimukhi and Fanibala, who kept their faces covered throughout the recording. Two days later, he recorded Gauhar Jaan singing a thumri. That became the first commercially recorded song in the history of Indian music. At the end of the recording, she announces her name in English, “My name is Gauhar Jaan”, so that when the recording was sent to Germany for pressing, the technician would know how to label the records.

***

In the next week or so, Frederick Gainsberg took more than 1,000 recordings of classical musicians like Peara Saheb, Lal Chand Boral, Binodini Dasi and the artistes of Corinthian Theatre, Star Theatre and nautch girls. Lal Chand Boral’s son was the legendary Rai Chand Boral, or RC Boral as the world would know him, known as the “father of Bollywood music”. Binodini Dasi was the famed Nati Binodini of Calcutta, who had the much-chronicled run-ins with the mystic Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

The Gramophone Co — now known as the Gramophone & Typewriter Co — was by now fully aware of the goldmine of content they had struck in the sub-continent. They set up a plant at Sealdah, near to the eponymous railway station which still exists. By July 1908, the factory started manufacturing of records. In December of the same year, a great launch event was held with a grand performance by one of HMV’s biggest stars, Gauhar Jaan. Soon, the factory was assembling machines and manufacturing discs not only for India but for the neighbouring Burma and Ceylon. The neighbourhood in Calcutta became known as “Baajakhana”.

Many new record labels had set up shop in Calcutta and across the country. As early as 1916, more than 75 brands and labels had flooded the Indian market. HMV was concerned that its artists were also recording for the competition, sometimes re-recording the same songs they recorded for the Gramophone Co. And that is how the concept of “exclusive contracts” entered the Indian music lexicon. The first artists who they entered into exclusive contracts with were Peara Saheb of Calcutta and Malka Jaan of Agra.

By the mid-1920s, the Sealdah factory was bustling with activity. In 1926, Nobel Laureate and polymath Rabindranath Tagore was invited there to test the new electrical recording system by recording there. That day, it took the poet extraordinaire three takes to record a rendition of his own poem Choddosho Shaal (The Year 1400). But it was soon felt that it was ill-equipped to handle the latest recording technologies. So in 1928, a new factory was set up at 33 Jessore Road, Dum Dum, which became the house of HMV for the next 80 years or so. The Gramophone Co had set up recording studios at Bombay, Delhi, Madras and many other cities of India, but the ‘pressing’ of all Indian records were done at the HMV Works at Dum Dum. When the Ashok Kumar-Devika Rani starrer Achhut Kannya (1936) became a musical sensation, HMV turned its attention to film music.

Tracing a century of HMV the label which laid the foundation of Indian music industry

Lata Mangeshkar was the first to organise other singers like her and put pressure on the music labels such as HMV to start crediting the singer on the records. Image via WikimediaCommons

In the initial phases, all prominent Bollywood stars were “singer-actors”, like KL Saigal, KC Dey, Ashok Kumar, Devika Rani and Kanan Devi. They used to sing on set, during the shoot, and later, an album was recorded separately with the singer-actors reproducing the songs at HMV’s studios. Interestingly, these songs were attributed to the characters “singing” them on-screen, and not the actual singers. For instance, for Achhut Kannya’s songs, Ashok Kumar’s character Pratap was credited on the record. The technology of “playback singing”, where the song was recorded first and then “played back” during shooting with actors lip-syncing to the song, was innovated by Raichand Boral for the film Dhoop Chhaon (1935), but it took about two more decades for the music recording industry to accept this new trend. This led to the growth of professional playback singers. Stars like KL Saigal chose singing over acting, while those like Ashok Kumar chose the reverse. In 1949, Lata Mangeshkar’s Aayega Aanewal from Mahal created quite a stir. Mangeshkar was the first to organise other singers like her and put pressure on the music labels such as HMV to start crediting the singer on the records, and not the character. It worked spectacularly.

Within years, she was a star playback singer. By the 50s, prominent male singers like Mohammed Rafi, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar joined the fold. Kishore Kumar would continue the singer-actor template for another decade before focusing on the former. After Raichand Boral, other prominent composers like Anil Biswas, Shankar Jaikishan, SD Burman, Madan Mohan, Roshan and Naushad kept the halls of HMV abuzz.

While thumris, ghazals, bhajans and classical music had already been the staples of HMV, Bollywood became the new frontier. Playback singers became sought-after stars, and record stores came up in every city, with film soundtracks being the highest-selling category. But in Bengal, there were two other genres of non-film music which were even more popular than Bengali film music. Rabindrasangeet, the songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore, saw a surge of popularity due to the efforts of Pankaj Kumar Mullick of All India Radio. The second was something called “Modern Songs”, basically non-film compositions by popular music directors and lyricists, sung by mainstream playback singers.

***

In the beginning, most of the records were 78 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute, denoting the speed at which the disc spun), but that gave playback time of barely three and a half minutes on each side. Eventually, in the late 50s, “long playing” or LP records came to India, which allowed play time of up to eighteen minutes on each side. So, the 78 RPM discs were gradually replaced by 45 RPM Extended Play and 33 1/3 RPM Long Play records.

In this phase, as the record discs were liberated from short play durations, other audio recordings were made available in addition to songs. Speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain and Lal Bahadur Shastri were released. The 60s also witnessed the beginnings of a cultural exchange between India and the West. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s album Music of India - Morning and Evening Ragas (1955) was the first commercially released album in the West of Indian classical music. It became a rage and the 60s were filled with ‘Raaga Rock’, a slew of EP records between 1960 and 1964 filled with ragas. During the decade, the market also flooded with LPs and EPs of Rock albums which were gaining increasing popularity in India.

The late 50s brought in “stereophonic sounds” and by the mid-1960s, the first generation of audio cassettes started hitting the market. Big changes were in the offing. In 1968, the company went public and rechristened as The Gramophone Company of India Limited. By the 70s, while records were still being sold widely, the flexibility and the cost-effectiveness of cassettes were making them popular among the masses. “Hi-fi” audio systems were gaining favour. It was finally possible for an ordinary person to “record” audio onto a portable medium and share with others. And Sony’s Walkman — the world’s first “personal audio” — completely revolutionised music listening across the board. HMV responded to this clarion call by going all-guns blazing into the audio cassettes business. In March 1982, cassette sales had shot up from 50,000 to 1,40,000 per month.

But something had changed. The 1980s also brought the first generation of compact discs (CDs). The Ramaprasad Goenka (RPG) Group took over the company in 1985. The HMV brand name was still alive and kicking, but the cracks were visible. Due to excise duties levied, and owing to cheap pirated cassettes being widely available, a price war started with competing brands which resulted in erosion of the bottom-lines. It was the beginning of the end.

In the meanwhile, the HMV brand had a completely different journey in the UK, with it soon expanding into a retail powerhouse, selling music as well as books in its stores, and smoothly transitioning to digital when the time came. But in India, it was all downhill in the 90s. In 1993, two “upmarket” retail shops were set up as part of the company’s plan of retail expansion. In 1994, a new brand called Sheer Magic was launched which contained “digitally remastered” songs on cassette tapes. But nothing seemed to correct the downward spiral. Via Gramco — a wholly owned subsidiary — the company also ventured into film production and distribution business, and released films like Sapnay, Bada Din, Hothat Brishti and a few others.

In 2000, the company was officially rebranded as Saregama India Limited, and that was the end of the road for the HMV brand in India. A journey of 100 years was over, and a new one took its place. Saregama had a life of its own and under the leadership of Vikram Mehra, who took over as managing director in 2014, the brand underwent rapid reinvention, the latest being its popular CARVAAN range of portable music players.

The legacy of His Master’s Voice lives on with record collectors spread across India. As music historian Kushal Gopalka mentioned in a Mint article, “About 20 percent of whatever HMV India has published since 1902 exists today. Up to 60 percent is with music lovers." In the post-digital world, the vinyl record enthusiast community thrives in Facebook groups and Reddit forums.

As it turns out, dogs do listen to music.

Amborish Roychoudhury is a Mumbai-based writer, blogger and podcaster. His book, In a Cult of their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office, won a National Award for best book on cinema last year.

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