India’s first recorded musicians are singing again, over a century later

Vidya Shah

The setting of IHC for the Times LitFest last year was very happening, with a lot of talks and sessions being held. Bur the one I’d like to detail, even though a couple of months have elapsed, was Vidya Shah’s musical session in the lawns, with the crowd informally sitting around on the ground. Vidya is a well-known vocalist, music researcher and music activist, a disciple of Shanti Hiranand and Shubha Mudgal.

This concert was special since Vidya does a lot of research on the first recordings of women, some of the earliest recordings that were done in India, when gramophone companies came to record here. Vidya, in an informal introduction, said that hotel rooms were used for recording – they did not have recording microphones, and the women were made to sing into large wax horns. The sound would be embedded on the inside of the wax horn. These would then be polished elsewhere.

When the typewriter and gramophone companies came to India, with the idea of making a market for music, Fred Gaisberg, the first sound recordist to make a record in India and a musician himself, says that he felt no less than Vasco Da Gama. He could not understand the music and who these women were. He said that he “forgot all the piano he had learnt” after listening to the music here. Among his first recordings was of two girls aged 14 and 16, named Shashi and Mukti, and they sang in very shrill voices. Nonetheless, the recording was done and in a short while, there was a record.

There’s a riddle around the record from that time that she narrated - ‘roti ek lagati chakkar, uspar rakha bhala, ghoom-ghoom dayan sur mein gaati, roti ka hai muh kala’. That was meant to be a record. Vidya then sang a very old recorded song, ‘Pehne kurta par patloon, aadha phagun aadha June’. A question that was commonly asked was, why were only women on record, and why not men? It was the women who were singing, and the men were teaching them, they were the ustads, Vidya explained. If you listen to old recordings, she said, you may be familiar with khayal. There are two lines, as in the bandish, and the rest is antra. This antra was something that the bai often made up on her own for the performance, mostly because they’d only been taught that much. It was a lot of effort, hard work and skill. These bais learnt from the sarangi nawaz, and often supported them financially later. The men were scared of the technology too – what if the voice did not come back? It was a very intimidating concern for the men. And besides, Indian music is a very celebrated tradition, and the guru-shishya parampara is a very one-on-one tradition. In that tradition, selling your music was beyond the dignity of the ustad.

There were a few men who did well in recorded music – Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Sahib in 1905, Pyara Sahib who was popular because he had a quality of slimness or femininity in his voice. Several genres of music were being recorded. Gauhar Jan sang in 20 languages. The genres that were being recorded were khayal, thumri, bhajan, dadra, soz, ghazal, bhavgeet and lakshan geet, among others. Mumtaz Jan sang a Vaishnav geet from Delhi, which Vidya sang for the concert – ‘Ae ri Yashoda tose karoongi ladai’. All songs were not serious – there were some songs which had a hint of naughtiness too. Akhtari Bai Faizabad, or the legendary Begum Akhtar, in 1930 sung a song which Vidya performed, ‘Patli kamar lambe baal’. Akhtari bai was singing well and acting as well, and was picked up by a lot of labels at the age of 17. But as for this particular song, she was not very sure about the content – for those times, it was considered more like an item number!

There were different names who became famous – Gauhar Jan, Zohra Bai, also the Misses, like a woman named Miss Dulari, who made it to the English ads as well. They wrote their lyrics as well. More popular ones had their own collection of poetry. The song sung for this section was ‘Nanhi nanhi boondariya re’.

Another singer, Janki Bai Chhappan Chhuri, was a very big favourite, and there were many stories associated with her. One story said that she was so beautiful that two men stabbed themselves with chhappan chhuris over her! Another is that she wasn’t beautiful at all, and in her tough locality in Banaras, she was attacked 56 times by chhuris. She had a huge following, not only for her songs but also for her beauty. The raja of Reva once invited her to sing for him, and she agreed on the condition that she would sing from behind the veil. He got so bowled over that he immediately called her to have a glimpse of her. This is what she had to say to it – ‘fankaar ki surat nahin, seerat dekhi jaati hai’ (talent is not to be appreciated by the face but by the proficiency). Her collection is called Diwan-e-Janki, and Vidya sang a thumri from her collection in raag Bhairavi – ‘Raseeli tori ankhiyan, haan jiya lalchaye’. A fact that Vidya told the audience was that the first series of music directors for movies were also women – like Saraswati Devi, who was from a Parsi family and who composed the music for Achhut Kanya, even singing the song in Jawani Ki Hawa herself. It was as interesting a session as the rest that I’ve attended, and Vidya’s singing and the old songs were as vibrant and enjoyable as ever.