In the late 1890s, music from phonographs may have floated past one walking down Old Court House Street or Bentinck Street. T.E. Bevan & Company at 10, Old Court House Street was the first trading company of Calcutta to sell phonographs. In early 1899, Frederick William Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company Ltd., London, made the first known recordings of Indian music, and soon the iconic Nipper would be listening intently to an Indian master’s voice. Given our usual indifference to the past, it is not surprising that most of these recordings are now lost. A.N. Sharma, a “casual music lover”, has sought to bring back what remains in BAJANAAMA: A STUDY OF EARLY INDIAN GRAMOPHONE RECORDS (Kathachitra, Rs 5,990). The publisher, Rakesh Manjul, expresses the hope that “God willing”, there would be more books in this series aimed at documenting the first two decades of the music industry in India.
The book has the telltale signs of a labour of love. The design is shoddy — most of the pictures, of discs mainly, either cut into the text rather uncouthly or the garish frames eat up all the space. There are also sentences like “Edison was just being astute-crushed and colonized”, and discussions on Gauharjan’s “salability”. While such an uncommon use of words throws a pall of suspicion on the dependability of the ‘facts’ recorded here by Sharma, one must also remember that he is creating history. The discography of Indian classical music is just about taking shape and involves painstaking research, with facts to be culled from what are largely anecdotes and apocrypha. Sharma sounds passionate enough in his zeal for the task at hand. While passion is a dubious guarantor of authenticity, it manages to make the book interesting in places.
Left is a photograph of the native nautch girls of Delhi, courtesy Samuel Bourne, from the collection, “India — Groups. 1874” (sic). In the book, the photograph comes with a frame of white alpana, which is an eyesore. Top middle is an advertisement of the Swadeshi Binapani Records announcing the release of “Vande Mataram”, which never came out, according to Sharma. The interrogation mark after “The boast of the Patriots” in the advertisement’s text can be said to bring in an element of healthy self-questioning if one is not such a spoilsport as to dismiss it as a typo. Top right are records featuring Malka Jan of Gaya, Malka Jan of Patna, and Malika Pukhraj of the “Abhi to main jawan hoon” fame. All these belong to the early 1900s, although the specific years are not mentioned by the author.
Bottom middle shows Edison’s “Home” phonograph model. It might remind one of another fast-disappearing gadget, the portable sewing machine. Gauharjan of Calcutta is bottom right. Beauty always had its detractors — a fact proved yet again when the Urdu poet, Akbar Allahabadi, composed a song saying that god has granted Gauharjan everything but a husband.