The first few decades of India’s recording history belonged to women. They came forward to record in numbers — mostly from various courtesan traditions — in the first few decades of the 20th century. Anecdotal evidence has it that most of the era’s men turned into mice, worrying that the electrical equipment would weaken their voices. And in our otherwise schizophrenic nation, this occurred in the North as well as in the South.
The wealth of history and recordings that this curious phenomenon generated is at the heart of a celebration — Women on Record — organised by the Centre for Media and Alternative Communication and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The first recording in India was by Gauhar Jaan in 1902. Moujuddin Khan and Pyara Saheb were the first male vocalists to cut records, in 1907-08.
What prompted the women to shed their prejudices first?
Vidya Shah, one of the principal organisers, says, "Most ustaads thought it was beneath them to record. They also saw it as 'giving away' their carefully-guarded repertoire. For the women, the anonymity was a boon. It was also a livelihood strategy." The money seems to have flowed well for some. Jaddan Bai, mother of Nargis, accumulated enough to set up her own production house, Sangeet Movietone.
The recording history of the South, which started in 1905, was also headlined by women.
Stephen P Hughes, lecturer in social anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who will chair a session at the festival’s seminar, says, "The most advertised, most reprinted records were undoubtedly by women such as Coimbatore Thayi and Shanmuga Vadivoo. Most, but not all, of them were from the devadasi tradition. The floodgates open for the men, most of them Brahmins, after a 1932 recording by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar... Then film music takes over."
The long play of history in that early era will come alive this week through music, dance, images and words.