The first voice of an Indian person was recorded by the Gramophone Company in 1899 in London. In 1902, first gramophone disc was cut at Calcutta. [Kinnear, 1994] While celebrating centenary of these historical events from 1999-2002, it will be interesting as well as instructive to review the achievements. During this long period, many record manufacturing companies have recorded Indian music. Although HMV - His Master’s Voice - continues to enjoy their monopoly in this field, about half million gramophone records have been manufactured and marketed in India under variety of banners and labels. Large number of artists have recorded various musical forms and styles from different regions of Indian subcontinent. Of course, a major portion of these recordings belong to Indian film songs. However other forms like classical, light classical, folk, religious music etc. have been recorded extensively.
Due to the advancement in science, new technologies have emerged in the last hundred years. This has led to variety of formats of sound recording and reproduction ranging from cylinders to compact discs and from talking machines to laser disc players. Of these formats, gramophone records have stayed for almost eighty years and have played a significant role in preserving the musical heritage of India. Although Indian musical culture is inscribed in the microgrooves of these records, very little attention is paid in preserving it for posterity. This paper attempts to present an overview of gramophone records in India with special emphasis on 78 rpm and EP/LP records. Some aspects of collection, promotion, preservation and research of gramophone records are discussed. Efforts towards documentation and archiving have been noted.
Soon the machine was ready and Edison entered the laboratory for its inspection. He was very pleased with the workmanship of his technician. He wrapped a tin-foil around the curved surface of the cylinder tightly, placed the diamond stylus gently at one end of the foil. Using the handle on right, he began to rotate the cylinder gently but at somewhat uniform speed. Ensuring that the needle is cutting uniform groove in the tinfoil, he then shouted in the horn - reciting the famous nursery rhyme:
Everyone was watching breathlessly. Edison was pleased to see that his shouting has produced zig-zag grooves in the tin foil of one foot long cylinder. He then brought the horn and the needle in the original starting position, changed the stylus, placed the needle in the newly formed grooves and began to rotate the cylinder as before. Initially, lot of noise came out of the horn. As the needle began to pass through the zigzag groove, feeble voice of Edison came out distinctly reciting back the same nursery rhyme that he had shouted (due to his partial deafness since childhood) in the horn a minute ago.
All the persons present in the laboratory were stunned. Edison himself could not believe, since it was a rare occasion that the experiment was successful in the very first attempt. With great enthusiasm and vigor, they worked very hard, made improved versions of the machine and repeated the experiment number of times for confirming its reproducibility. On 6th December 1877 he rushed to the Patent ofiice in New York with his machine and filed claim for the patent. On December 22, 1877 he demonstrated this machine in the office of Scientific American and this journal reported this discovery to the rest of the world. Once again, Edison had proved himself to be what some journalist used to call him - ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’. On January 19, 1878 he received the patent for the invention of his cylinder phonograph. Edison wrote in his diary ‘The machine does not have much value’.
The invention was shelved for over ten years and in June 1888, he worked for seventy-two hours without sleep working on his improved model of phonograph which had a battery operated motor for attaining the uniform speed. [see the picture]. Later until 1911, he improved upon the models, founded Edison Phonograph Company but never liked his invention used for the entertainment purposes. Around the same time, Hester Bell and Charles Tainter did some improvements in Edison’s tin-foil phonograph. These were the evolutionary changes to make machine more suitable for storing messages, letters etc. Nobody including Edison realised the hidden commercial and entertainment potential in this invention at that time.
When did the first cylinder phonograph came to India ? There are several stories and a detailed account has been given by Amitabha Ghosh in The Record News - TRN - 1999. pp.73-97. As per this article, the first demonstration of the cylinder phonograph was around December 1878 (within a year of its invention) at Calcutta. The oldest dealer of HMV in Delhi, Maharaj Lal & Co was founded in 1895. At that time they were selling cylinder records. These looked like a stack of bangles worn by women, and hence common man named them as ‘Bangles’ and the music from the records as ‘sound from bangles’. Professor H Bose, the renowned businessman of Calcutta, entered into this new business of cylinder records under the banner of ‘H Bose Records’ and later ‘Pathe-H Bose Records’. His catalogue of 1906, lists number of cylinder recordings of Rabindranath Tagore. Most of these have been lost to history except the Bande Mataram sung by Rabindranath Tagore. Cylinder records were in market until 1906-10, even at the same time as the single and double side flat discs of the Gramophone and Nicole companies. Although there is no systematic catalogue found so far, it is believed that several hundreds of cylinders were recorded both privately and commercially. Unfortunately, no working cylinder machine or cylinder is found with any collector in India so far. Some of the museums and archives have stored broken, worn out machines and cylinders in the showcases as antique pieces.
It was Bill Golden who asked me one day in 1891, if I would go with him to see a German who had started experimenting with a flat-disc talking machine record and make some trials. We found Emile Berliner in his laboratory, moving up and down in his small studio buzzing on a diaphragm, "Hello, hello!" and in his guttural, broken English, "Tvinkle, tvinkle little star, how I vonder vot you are". I was introduced to the inventor and invited to witness the making of the first gramophone record. Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden’s mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at piano, the sounding box of which was also boxed up and connected to the diaphragm by a hose resembling an elephant’s trunk. He asked, "Are you ready?" and upon our answering yes, he began to crank like a barrel organ, and said, "Go." The song finished and Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for few minutes. Then taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc.Soon Berliner invited Gaisberg and their association lasted for several years. They did everything possible to promote, popularise and market this new invention. Improved machines with clockwork motors and springs were made. They found financers, recording artists and, most importantly, a simple method of stamping endless copies from the master disc. In order to cash in on his European rights before rival inventors could steal his market, Emile Berliner sent his agent W B Owen to London and subsequently Gaiseberg went to London in 1898 for taking the recordings. Berliner sent his nephew Joe Sanders to Hanover to build the record pressing plant.
Placing this disc on a reproducing machine, also operated by hand like a coffee grinder, he played back the resulting record from the etched groove. To our astonished ears came Billy Golden’s voice. He explained to us how this method was superior to the phonograph. I was spellbound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before leaving, I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development.
This was followed by series of recording expeditions in Europe, Russia and Asia - including India. Michael Kinnear has given detailed history in his book The Gramophone Company’s First Indian Recordings [1899-1908], Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, . The first ever Indian voice was recorded in London in 1899. These were 7" diameter records with recording on one side only. These 44 records were by Captain Bholanath, Dr Harnaamdas and Ahmed who sang or recited in various languages. None of these records have been found by the collectors but these were listed in gramophone company’s ‘foreign’ lists upto 1904.
In 1901, J W Hawd came to Calcutta and soon a branch office was opened. F W Gaiseberg arrived in 1902 for his first recording expedition and recorded about five hundred songs. These were then sent to Joseph Berliner’s pressing factory at Hanover in Germany. In order to have recorded documentation, for making paper labels, the artists were asked to announce their names in English at the end of singing. This helped the technicians in Germany in making the final records ready for sale. Hence, several records of that period have words ‘Made in Germany/Hanover’ printed on label and the announcement at the end. Initial recordings were taken from ‘Nautch Girls’ (dancing girls) and ‘Baiji’s’ or ‘Kothewalis’. Later on celebrities like ‘Gauhar Jan of Calcutta’, ‘Jankibai of Allahabad’, ‘Peara Sahib’ recorded prolifically for the company. This continued for two more recording expeditions and about 3000 wax records were made, pressed in Germany and brought back to India for marketing. F W Gaisberg writes:
‘All the female singers were of course from the caste of the public women, and in those days it was practically impossible to record the voice of a respectable woman. The songs and dances were passed by word of mouth from mother to daughter. They began public appearances at the age of ten to twelve years. The clever ones went up to the top and sometimes travelled all over the country in great demand at the wedding feasts of the wealthy. As they began to make names for themselves many of them insisted that the word ‘amateur’ should be printed on record label. Fees as a rule, were very reasonable in comparison to those paid in Europe, but recording expenses were heavy, since most of the artists had to be trained over long periods before they developed into acceptable gramophone singers.By this time, the recording medium changed from zinc to wax and the record copies were pressed in lac. Lac, Lacca, Lakh or Laksha is a hardened resin secreted by the tiny lac insects that settle closely on the twigs, suck up the plant sap and grow to form an encrustation. These are then scraped from the twigs of host plants. This raw lac called ‘sticklac’ is crushed to small grains, sieved, winnowed, washed and dried. This semi-refined product is the ‘seed-lac’ which is further processed by hot melting system, filtered and stretched into thin sheets called shellac. This shellac is non-toxic and is used in many different applications including base for the gramophone records. Annual ‘stick lac’ production of India is about 15,700 metric tons which is about 75% of world lac production. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal are the major centers for the lac production. During the first world war (1914-1919), the gramophone record industry depended largely on India for the supply of shellac. Due to high demand from gramophone record companies, India faced an extensive export orders and was the single largest supplier for about 75 years.
Availability of plenty of lac/shellac was one of the reasons for setting up a record pressing plant at Sealdah, Calcutta in 1908. As the complete factory was built there was no need to send the wax masters to Germany and as a result announcements at the end of the song also disappeared. Common workers employed in this factory called it "Bajakhana", as if it was a gymkhana of sound. In this factory, baja (harmonium) was the main instrument used in accompanying the singers and the product was the pressed record. This name sounds like ‘Davakhana’ (medical dispensary), ‘Chhapkhana’ (printing press), ‘Darukhana’ (ammunition store). Incidently, Michael Kinnear’s web page address on internet contains this word ‘Bajakhana’ as - www.bajakhana.com.au and it gives a detailed history of sound recording in India in last one hundred years.
Considering the enormous market in India, several rival gramophone companies from Germany, France and England entered the market [like the present multinational companies]. Until 1916, about 75 different record labels/brands were seen in Indian market, the important ones being - Nicole, Universal, Neophone, Elephone, H Bose, Beka, Kamla, Binapani, Royal, Ram-a-Phone (Ramagraph), James Opera, Singer, Sun, Odeon, and Pathe. With time, all these companies either disappeared or got merged with Gramophone Company. The name His Master’s Voice (HMV) and the label first appeared in 1916 and soon established their monopoly in the market.
Soon, these vinyl records appeared in India too. The first microgroove record from Gramophone Co was introduced in 1958. These were 45 rpm 7" extended play (EP) records. Of the early releases, one by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s (no.7EPE 1201) sarod recital record became very popular. In 1959, an LP record plant was established at the Dum Dum factory of Gramophone Company and it was inagurated by Pt Ravishankar in May. The first LP record was released in June. In the first year about 125 LP records were issued. In the LP/EP era, HMV released lot of records concerned with social issues. A set of lectures by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, was issued on ECLP 2302. It’s mother shell was presented to President of India for preserving it as a national heritage. A Battle Not For Seeking (ECLP 2315) had lectures by Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Hussain and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Around 1965, the first stereo LP was issued in India and EMI released its first pre-recorded cassette in 1966.
Unbreakable, long lasting and long playing records became very popular and slowly superceded the shellac 78s. Ultimately, the production of 78s was discontinued in late ‘70s. Thus, a long era of 3.5 minutes music on a gramophone record came to an end. Audio and Video music cassettes took over LPs and EPs for about twenty years until the Compact Disc was produced in EMI factory in 1986. The ‘disc’ and ‘the groove’ returned with new optical technology that employed Semiconductor Lasers. A new era has begun at the turn of the century and the millennium which will probably lead to a ‘World library of sound and pictures’ which could be accessible to anyone through internet in the cyberspace.
Ten years ago, some of the collectors in Mumbai came together to form a group of record enthusiasts. With the help, support and guidance of Mr Michael Kinnear (discographer and researcher of Indian records) from Australia, the Society of Indian Record Collectors was founded in Mumbai. Monthly listening sessions are held and a magazine titled The Record News is published. The Society has over 150 life members from all over India and abroad, and its units at Nanded, Solapur, Tuljapur and Baroda are functioning very well with the aim of preserving this treasury for posterity. This is probably a unique organisation in India.
These small efforts may not be sufficient and archival tasks involving large number of individuals and institutions will have to be taken up. Of course, the gramophone company should be the prime mover. However in an interview (Songs From Records, Shibashis Bandopadhyaya, "Desh", Bengali weekly C.1994 ?) the then Chairman of HMV, Mr Pradeep Chandra, said, "For reissuing our own records we have to approach private collectors. Yes, we ought to have collected and saved our properties properly. Our archive, though not very old, have some old records, may not be all. Firstly, we have to look into the state of business. The condition is very bad! Due to the government’s apathy, the business of fake/pirated cassettes is increasing at alarming rate and we are facing grimmer situation. In these financial circumstances, it is impossible for the company to build the archive from the scratch."
While this is true for the manufacturers who still hold the copyright of their products, it is interesting to note such archival efforts in Europe and in America. In addition to individual collections and depositories, France (Phonotheque), England (British Library, National Sound Archive and EMI Archive) and Germany have their own archives. The Internet lists over 2000 such sites giving details about the archives of gramophone records in various countries in world, from whole continents like Africa to small Scandanavian nations like Norway.
As Indians, where do we stand ? Well, as yet a National Sound Archive is a distant dream like a mirage. There are several institutions, music departments of various universities, All India Radio stations, Sangeet Natak Academy, American Institute of Indian Studies, New Delhi, Sangeet Mahabharati and National Center of Performing Arts, Mumbai (NCPA) have large collections of gramophone records with adequate listening facilities. These are accessible to music lovers and researchers. Unfortunately, these institutions prefer to work in isolation and there is a lack of communication between them.
In last 20/30 years, a sizeable number of books and periodicals related to gramophone records have been published. Section five lists some of these. So, with the help of written, audible and visual matter available in the country, it might be possible for a researcher of 21st century to take the initiative in writing history of sound recording in India.
Sizes ,speeds and play times - flat disc records were made in sizes varying from from 5" to 16" diameter with thickness of about 3-5 mm. Large size records were made for the transcription and studio recordings of All India Radio. The speeds at which these records play are - 16 2/3, 33 1/3, 45, 78, 80 and 100 r.p.m. The play time varied from few seconds to about one hour depending on the size and the speed of the record. Usually one side of a standard 78 rpm record played for 3.5 minutes, 45 for 3-4 minutes, EP [Extended Play] for 6-7 minutes and the LP [Long Play] for 20-30 minutes.
More than 98% of the 78 rpm records were in the 10 inch diameter size. A few, mostly classical, were in the 12 inch format. The early discs were one sided. They had only the matrix number-the number given at the time of recording. After about 1910, double sided records were issued. These records had different matrix number on either side and a common catalogue number printed on the label on both sides. This catalogue number was refered by manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and customers.
Some of the styles of recordings - film songs (Hindi and regional), classical music (vocal and instrumental in both Hindustani and Carnatic style), folk and religious music, imitations, educational, mimicry, popular, speeches, announcements and advertisements, anthems, descriptions, bird/animal sounds, sound effects, readings and recitations, self-hypnosis, laughing, professional weeping, drama sets. The oldest and longest drama set is K M Mitter and party’s Jaydev in Bengali, recorded around 1910, in 30 parts and duration is almost two hours.
Although majority of 78 rpm records were made using lac and EP/LPs using vinyl, there are some special records. These were in translucent plastic (Film-o-Phone), bendable and non-bendable card-board (Durium, Nicole), in various colours - brown (Young India), yellow and red (Bulbul). There are records that play from inside to out (Pathe). These have grooves cut differently and recorded at 100 rpm. So they need a special turntable that rotates at 100 rpm and special needles for playing. These records have etched labels as against paper labels used by the records of other companies.
The ‘puzzle’ records were introduced around 1910 and continued till fifties. Each side had three different songs (of about one minute duration) not one after the other but in three separate, concentric grooves. With a slight variation of the start point, a different song would come out each time, astonishing (or, as the name suggests, puzzling) the listeners. These were produced in small numbers. Early puzzle records were on Zonophone labels and featured voices of Jankibai, Mohd Hussain and instrumental music by Talim Hussein (Shahanai). Puzzle records of films Awara (Hindi), Amar Bhoopali (Marathi), were produced and are found listed in HMV catalogues but it is extremely difficult to find the copies of these records now.
A standard 10 inch diameter 78 rpm record, which plays for about three and a half minutes will have a groove length of about 1.5 Km. Its speed will be 26 Km per hour and it will revolve 273 times.
Estimated number of songs / records – The total number of films produced in the last 100 years is about 35,000. The ratio of Hindi to Regional films is 1:2-3. Average of 8/10 songs per film gives about 320,000 / 350,000 film songs, out of which 100,000 Hindi film songs and rest from the regional language films. Besides film songs, about 200,000 songs of non-film music have been recorded. Old 78 rpm records had two songs per record. Hence about 250,000 titles produced. This is a rough estimate and a good starting point for the researchers in 21st century.
|Company, Period, Size, Special features etc.||Approx output|
|Gramophone Company, England & Calcutta.|
[1899-08] / 7, 10, 12"
single/double side shellac records
|Nicole Records, England. [1905-09]|
cardboard single/double side records
|Beka Records, Germany [1908-10]||1500|
|Pathe, H Bose/Pathe Records.|
France & Calcutta [1908-14]
Shellac [10-12"] / cylinders center start - 100 rpm records
| Odeon Records, Germany [1906-37]|
10-12" North/South indian music
|Zonophone Records, England, India|
[1910-20] / 10" low priced records
|Singer, James Opera, Sun Disc records|
[1907-10] Bombay based records
|Ramaphone / Ramagraph records|
[1905-30]. Bombay based German company
|Broadcast / Jay Bharat records [1930-40]|
British company with business at Bombay
and Madras / 8, 10, 12" records
|Hindustan / Megaphone, Senola records|
Calcutta based company [1930-]
|Young India, Bombay. [1940-50]|
films, educational, various subjects
|The Gramophone Company of India Ltd|
Calcutta, Bombay, Madras.[1908-]
HMV, Columbia, Twin, Odeon etc.
Total output of gramophone records is about half million records [titles]. The number of copies of any given record varied from minimum of 500 to few lakhs, depending upon the popularity / sale.
Although number of gramophone companies were established in India until about 1910, HMV (Gramophone Company of India Ltd) survived through long years and virtually took all other companies under its wings. Some of the interesting record labels that collectors often come across are:
Gramophone Concert Record, Gramophone Monarch Record, Beka, Beka Grand Record, Zonophone, Nicole, Odeon, Royal, Rama-o-phone, Ramagraph, James Opera Disc Record, Singer, Sun Disc record, Kamla, Binapani, Cinch, H Bose and Pathe, The Twin, HMV, Columbia, Jien-o-phone, Broadcast, Jay Bharat, Young India, Aerophone, Bande Mataram, Bharat, Diamond, Dilruba, Excelsior, Megaphone, Film-o-Phone, Hindustan, Senola, Maxitone, Parlophone, Victoriaphone, Kid Kord, King, Limophone, Kohinoor, Hutchins, Movietone, New Theaters, Prabhat Records, Nishan, Nizam, Noor-E-Islam, Pioneer, Phoenix, Marwari, Regal, Rameshwar, Senola Sangeet, Saraswati Cinetone, Shahenshai, Surbharati, Swarganga, Taj, Tansen etc.
Complete alphabetical list of the record labels during 1899-1908 is published in the book Gramophone Companies First Indian Recordings (1899-1908), Kinnear, 1994]
Suresh Chandvankar - 7.11.02
Hon. Secretary, Society of Indian Record Collectors
110, Parashara, TIFR Housing Complex,
Navynagar, Colaba, Mumbai - 400 005, India
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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