Those Gramophone Queens: When Men Shied Away, These Women Sang

Women musicians of the 20th century tried the gramophone at a time when men of India showed resistance.

Updated
Art and Culture
5 min read
An old photograph of Gauhar Jan, the famed vocalist.
i

A unique exhibition showcases how women musicians of the 20th century came on board to try new technology at a time when men showed resistance.

In doing so, these female artistes – also known as baijis, tawaifs or gaanewali – conserved the rich musical heritage of India for future generations.

Vocalist and researcher Vidya Shah and photographer, filmmaker and designer Parthiv Shah have curated and archived hundreds of documents that tell us the story of the gramophone era – one in which women reigned supreme.

Jaddan Bai, 1936.
Jaddan Bai, 1936.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

‘Women on Record: A Peek into Our Musical Past’ recreates the environment and mood of the era through various mediums like photographs, videos and live music. Interestingly, research by the husband-wife duo began when a music lover gave Vidya a few cassettes after one of her concerts.

‘Women on Record: A Peek into Our Musical Past’ recreates the environment and mood of the era.
‘Women on Record: A Peek into Our Musical Past’ recreates the environment and mood of the era.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

Says Parthiv Shah, a National Institute of Design alumnus and founder of Centre for Media and Alternative Communication in Delhi –

We realised that the compositions sung by most contemporary artists were originally performed by women – like Zohra Bai Agrewali, Mumtaz Jan, Umda Jan, etc. Many of these names were scribbled on the cassettes we got. We started researching the list of names which led us to look for more connoisseurs and collectors who shared with us their treasure chest of collectibles.
Shobha Bazar Rajbari, Kolkata.
Shobha Bazar Rajbari, Kolkata.
(Photo Courtesy: Parthiv Shah)

They found that most of these pioneers came from Varanasi, Kolkata, Kanpur, Lahore and Delhi. Parthiv also photographed the old baris and jalsaghars (the Ghosebari, Roy Bari and Shobha Bazar Raj Bari of Kolkata) that were architecturally beautiful spaces meant for performances.

Ghosh bari, Kolkata.
Ghosh bari, Kolkata.
(Photo Courtesy: Parthiv Shah)

Audacious, Risk Taking Women

The women artistes chronicled in the exhibition were audacious risk takers. They never garnered respectability – but were undoubtedly the founders of India’s recording industry, with their status rising rapidly with the advent of new technology.

I found that the women were really popular in certain circles, that their stature was celebrated in matchboxes (ads for that era) and they earned plenty of money.
Parthiv Shah
Moti Jan matchbox collection.
Moti Jan matchbox collection.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

In the 17th century, it was these women artists who helped khayal gayaki peak – but their innovation and talent was overlooked due to their social status. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the British knew enough about these outcast women and decided to commercially utilise their value when the Gramophone Company came to India.

According to the archives, the first commercial recording was done by Gauhar Jan in 1902, who compressed an hour-long piece of khayal into three minutes. Fred Gaisberg, the sound engineer from Gramophone Company, discovered that the singer had to shriek to embed the voice on the 78 RMP wax discs.
Parthiv Shah

By this time not only had technology arrived in India but it was also clear who the risk takers were; the male artists, ustaads and pundits refused to sell their talent and stuck to writing books on music – while the baijis sang and innovated.

Film poster of <i>Kadambari</i>, 1944, from the NFAI archives.
Film poster of Kadambari, 1944, from the NFAI archives.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

With the gramophone’s entry, music became available to all, not just to the nobility. And these women smartly tread the path of this revolutionary road.

Gauhar Jan, also a trained kathak dancer, worked for advertisements and was paid Rs 3,000 for her first recording. In fact, she even raised money for the freedom movement and gave Gandhiji a part of her earnings.
Gauhar Jan was also a trained kathak dancer.
Gauhar Jan was also a trained kathak dancer.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

Janaki Bai was the first to negotiate with music companies and have contracts. Anjani Bai Malpekar formed an association to transform the status of singers and dancers in Goa. She even refused to wear special dresses meant to differentiate the dancers from other women at weddings.

Jaddan Bai, musician, producer and singer.
Jaddan Bai, musician, producer and singer.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

When sound was introduced in films, these women had careers that burgeoned. Jaddan Bai, mother of yesteryear actress Nargis, started as a gramophone singer who eventually became a music director. Kananbala, an actor-singer, started her own production house called Shrimati Films while Saraswati Devi became the first music director of Bombay Talkies and also did playback for her film.

While this exhibition highlighted the work of women who not only used technology to their advantage, but also transformed our engagement with Indian music forever, India is substantially behind when it comes to archiving works of such great artists.

A record cover in the archives.
A record cover in the archives.
(Photo Courtesy: Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)
India is lacking in archiving her own modern history – if one wants to discuss the era when technology was just arriving, we literally have nothing to show.
Parthiv Shah

Shah made a documentary on the subject in 2016, while Vidya Shah has written a book titled ‘Jalsa’.

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Published: 
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!