HOMAGE TO THE GRAMOPHONE MACHINE
There is a generation in the country which has no idea of what a gramophone machine looked like. The Grammy Awards get their root name from this development of science. The trophy is a reminder of the way our grand-parents were, in their younger days, when they sang along with their favourite songs.
At the turn of the century, Indian had taken to the gramophone machine in a big way. No house worth its salt could not afford to have it. It adorned the centre position in the drawing room and the recordings were all stacked in a wooden decorative box kept close by, or under the table. Conversation would stop if there was one of those latest recordings of a known ‘Bai’ or public woman. Good girls did not record!
The gramophone made its appearance as an imported article from Germany , along with the latest arrivals of other material by ships from Southampton. First came the ‘drums’ containing the earliest songs, recorded in a factory in Hanover. Indian enterprise soon got a direct connection with this factory and began a trade of getting these drums with music master cast, and then shipped to Calcutta. The drums were clumsy and soon gave way to the flat discs. The local Calcuttans as soon as they got hold of these items began to refer to them as “tawa”, the word ‘gramophone records’ being a mouthful. But the more sophisticated in the up country crowd , after some time fell back to its manufactured name.
Since films were still silent, all gramophone recordings were private recordings. The business men who entered the trade to create these recording for their connesueirs, trudged far looking for singing talents. Once discovered, the singer was brought to Calcutta to cut discs on wax which were then turned into metal masters and put under the machines to press out copies. In the peak of rush to enter the recording business, saw more than 300 recording labels swamp the Indian market. Foreign music companies like Columbia, Odeon, Regal, Minerva, Burnswick, Angel, Megaphon, Decca all hugged the Indian shore. Columbia label stayed in Madras and captured the south Indian language market. Finally when the competition in the market became too sharp, most of the smaller companies came together to form the Gramophone Company of India and established a factory at Dum Dum for future manufacture(1909). The Nippy dog listening to a song on a machine, became the famous trade mark worldwide in 1915.
The original round recordings were made using the lac material drawn out of forest trees. An entire forest industry developed, collecting lac from the trees of Bengal, Tripura, Central India and Maharashtra. At one point of time, India controlled nearly 70 percent of world raw lac material. That ensured that finished recordings of even foreign language music, were made in Dum Dum.
The Second World War hit the music recording industry worldwide severely. Someone discovered the virtues of vinyl plastic in the USA, and overnight the lac recordings took a big hit. The trouble of lac recordings, was its brittle nature, which now promised unbreakable discs for the collectors.
The original problem of recording songs from operas, and musical Overtures and Symphonies was partly met by increasing the diameter of the lac recordings from 9 inches to 11 inches which meant that the listening time increased from approximately 2.50 mins to 6 mins. This also had its ripple effect on Indian cinema, which when sound came, limited their songs to the same length as the music in these records. Occasionally some recitals were divided into two or three parts. The speed of the spinning records on the electric gramophone, was also changed from 78 rpm to 45 rpm and finally to 33 and a half rpm.
In the 1930s, when Indian music took to the streets, the first singing stars were also born who took to central stage. In the 1920, the courtesans and young singing sex workers, hugged the bulky microphone and made themselves popular. Singers like Gohar Jaan Calcutte wali, Chappan Chury of Allahabad, and Krishna Bhamini from Kanpur were famous recording singers.
The sound movies put an end to such talent overnight as many singers found they could not sing along with the movie story. From this lot, emerged Amirbai Karnataki, Devika Rani, and Kanan Devi whose singing prowess, beauty and acting talent cornered all cinema markets.
The film producer now also jumped into this business and attempted to innovate to keep his film attractive. The first innovation brought about was in pressing the important dialogue of a very successful film. It was the Saigal starrer Devdas which experimented with these recordings and sets of eight recordings of famous scenes were pressed as collector item. The next ‘hit’ recording came much later in 1965 when the entire sound track of film Mughal-e-Azam was recreated on a long playing vinyl recording. Film Sholay followed the trend, but this proved to be the last time as vinyl records gave way to nylon tapes and cassette recordings.
Some of the private recordings of the era when sound film did not exist, still could be recalled. Amitabh Bachchan sang, “Mere angane mei tumhara kya kaam hai.” This song was originally a 1927 number, sung most at weddings among the ladies. Amit turned it around into a male voice with good effect.