ZEE JLF@The British Library
Vidya Shah in conversation with Rachel Dwyer
Singer and author Vidya Shah is on a mission to share long lost music recorded by women in India, in the early days of the gramophone. She emphasised the importance of remembering these singers. “We barely have names for them. We don’t know where they came from.”
Shah sang some of the first songs preserved on the first gramophone records to a spellbound gathering at the British Library. Her project Women on Record took her to private collections of records and archives including the British Library’s own sound archives.
Shah joined the library’s former curator of language dialogue archives, Professor Rachel Dwyer, to discuss the spread of recorded music and celebrate some of its pioneers. She revealed that whilst half a million records were created in the first half of the twentieth century, barely a quarter of them have survived.
The skill of making records was still in its infancy when sound engineer William Graisberg from the British Gramophone Company started his work in the early 1900s. His brief was to create a market for gramophone records – encapsulating a song in just a three minute recording. However, since he “did not understand the music, he decided “to look for names that were doing well,” said Shah.
She describes in her book Jalsa: Indian Women’s Journey from the Salon to the Studio how the singers developed their recording technique. There were no microphones so they “had to specially train their voices and the pitch and cleverly decide how much they wanted to include in the three minute format.”.
One of the singers, Zohra Bai Agrewali, “mastered the classical format and recorded 200 songs – all ritual – before the age of 35 when she died.”
Another talented singer, Gauhar Jan, was at one time so well off that she paid extra taxes to have a horse and cart, but she ended up dying alone aged 57.
Another was Jaddan Bai, whose career took off in the 1930s and 40s, such that she set up her own production house and was involved in making music for film.
The arrival of the sweet mellifluousness of Lataji’s voice in the 1940s helped change public taste from more high pitched singing, and some singers saw their particular sound falling out of fashion.
Some of the recordings featured classical music, others were devotional and humorous music also made an appearance.
As well as entertaining the audience with songs, Shah showed some of the advertisements that appeared for the new gramophones in media across India.
“What it did was it democratised the listening experience as it did the recording experience.” From the early days when only the wealthy could afford gramaphones, “there was a time when they had street corner soirees with gramophones on bullock carts and they stood around and listened to it,” she said.
“It opened up a new kind of audience. It’s important to remember that women were at the forefront of this. Men declined recording opportunities.”
Shah explained that some male musicians had thought it beneath them to sell their music, which had been passed down through oral tradition. Others were outright afraid of the technology itself: “They were worried that their voice would go.”
She said the Gramophone Women had been important pioneers and “phenomenal singers.” Yet, despite this, “It’s very very hard to find out about their lives.”
– By Julia Gregory