What were the earliest recordings from India like? Now you can find out

  • Shikha Kumar
  • Updated: Mar 05, 2016 20:57 IST
Music and lyrics: Robert Millis (left) and Gilles Aubry found a common interest in sound art. (Photo by Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times)

Spending an hour with Gilles Aubry and Robert Millis is like a history lesson you didn’t even know you were missing. It’s packed with nuggets of information about the early days of sound recording in India. Aubry and Millis have collaborated on Jewel of the Ear, a series of recordings that document what India would have sounded like if you’d been around from 1902 onwards, including bits of speeches by the Prince of Wales, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi and the crackling of fires and prayer chants at Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi.

Interspersed with it all is the static noise from Millis’s 78rpm collection. “Today, we are used to recording,” Millis says. “We use iPhones, cameras and video. But 100 years ago, no one had ever heard their own voice in a recording. Imagine how powerful and strange it must have been to hear such a thing?”

Jewel of the Ear, an English translation of Manikarnika, the holy cremation ghat at Varanasi, can take your ear to places a modern-day podcast can’t. “We wanted to highlight how the early music industry in India was closely related to its colonial history, and that sound records can be considered colonial spaces,” says Aubry.

Preservation Tales

The researchers met in Mumbai in 2012, when Seattle-based Millis was a Fulbright researcher studying the Indian gramophone industry, while Berlin-based Aubry was studying small film studios. “We realised that we had similar interests in listening and sound art,” says Milllis. “We began improvising with sounds, as instrumentalists might with music, combining samples and making sound collages.” Then Aubry went to Varanasi, curious to know more about preservation in a place where life typically ended. “Sound recording emerged because there was a need to preserve human voices,” says. “I wanted to re-examine this technology from the perspective of Hindu culture, like how the destruction of the body is necessary for the perpetuation of the life cycle.”

Robert Millis (right) and Gilles Aubry

The researchers claim that music recording in India goes back to 1902, when European and American companies began to look at India as a music market. They didn’t have it easy. “In India, music is an oral tradition, handed down from teacher to student, not written down, not learned from recordings,” says Millis, who also visited Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and other cities to learn about Indian music. He has also just completed a book on the early gramophone years in India, putting together his experience with Indian collectors.

Sonic connections

For most Westerners, India can be overwhelming. For someone following his ear, even more so. “For someone interested in sound, there were metaphors hidden in the cremation ceremonies,” explains Millis. “The idea of the ephemeral, like sound, is much like the smoke that vanishes [from a pyre]. Once the body is gone, does sound still exist?” He adds that the sound of his ancient, scratchy 78rpm recordings had an almost ‘sonic connection’ with the crackling sounds of cremations.

Jewel of the Ear is currently available line (find it on Earpolitics.net). It’s a continuing project and the duo has toured Europe with it, playing it on the radio and performing it live at venues like the Phono Museum in Paris. They also performed at art space Clark House Initiative in Bombay, and are looking to collaborate with Indian artists, scholars and musicians, and someday, even hold an exhibition. “Old recordings are not just for historians to find out how people felt at the time,’ points out Aubry. “It’s important to understand what they mean today and what can we learn from them.”

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From HT Brunch, March 6, 2016

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