Perfect Sound Forever

Indian record collectors

by Robert Millis
(October 2008)

India is a sound enthusiast's heaven. On a recent trip to Tamil Nadu and Mumbai in Southern India, I recorded constantly, both maddened by and in love with the barrage of noise. Traffic sounds in Indian cities and towns reach near maddening decibel levels. Everyone drives with their horn and the variety of car, cab, motorcycle, auto rickshaw and truck horns keeps you in a constant state of awareness. The sense of personal space (both physical and aural) is very different than what we are used to in the West. It is a very crowded country. Parades seem to explode in crowded alleyways with fireworks and drums and horns. Music blares from speakers stacked precariously in the beds of pick up trucks. Religious music plays from speakers near temples; cassette shops ply their wares with make-shift tape machines. Radios play the latest hits, televisions tuned to endless Bollywood (or Tamil or Bengali) films leak out of everywhere. It seems unplanned and chaotic but I am sure there are processes at work to which outsiders aren't privy. It makes you wonder what it was like 130 years ago before the magic invention of the phonograph by Mr. Edison. And in fact this was one of the reasons I went to India: to look into her old Gramophone industry.

India had one of the earliest record industries outside of the West. The first Indian artists were recorded in London around 1899. Fred Gaisburg led the first recording expedition to India and the Far East on behalf of the "Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd" company of England in 1902. By 1908 thousands of recordings had been made in India and an actual pressing and manufacturing plant was established in Dum Dum near Calcutta. There was such a huge demand for recorded music in India that 78rpm records were produced in staggering numbers until the 1970's--classical music, popular music, folk music, film music. To my ear, it seems as though India's propensity for noise and chaos translated right across into the 78rpm medium, as well as her more sublime penchant for meditation, devotional beauty and complex melody and rhythm. However, for a country with a population of over a billion, a history of several thousand years as well as a tangle of untraceably ancient cultural threads, a 100 year old gramophone record seems more or less disposable. Added to that are the ravages of heat and dirt and time on fragile shellac records and sadly, an important era seems almost ready to slip away.

Scouring record shops and markets, I managed to find many extremely old recordings: distant scratchy music on beat up one-sided 78's with labels like Beka Grand, Gramophone Concert Record, and Zonophone. These dinosaurs were recorded "acoustically"--with no electricity, the musicians just played as loud as possible into a huge horn that inscribed a groove on a wax master. Those wax masters, if they survived the heat, were shipped to Europe for pressing (especially to Germany) until a pressing plant was established in India. I found some interesting labels: Young India, Ramagraph, Baby, Broadcast, and the Twin. I found Classical vocal music, solo instrumental pieces, comedy sketches, Gandhi's speeches and imitations of animal sounds. "Types of Madras Beggars" one label claims. I found Parsi wedding music and Gujarti folk songs, as well as more recent film music. The older labels have great hand lettering and the decaying sleeves the records came in have pictures of the musicians and lovely designs and drawings of court scenes and gods. I can only imagine what serious Indian record collectors must have in their collections. The mind boggles.

I met Suresh Chandvankar in Mumbai (the current name for the city of Bombay). Suresh is a physicist who is "deep into records" and is the "honorary secretary" of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, an organization devoted to the "documentation and preservation" of Indian music, especially that music released on 78rpm. My mind did boggle when I found out what the SIRC has access to through its various far-flung members: not only the cream of film music and Northern and Southern classical music from the 78 era, but everything else imaginable: jazz played in India, music therapy 78s, Zoroastrian religious discourse, dramas, long forgotten labels, recordings of instruments that are no longer used, puzzle records, radio transcriptions.

Many collectors both in India and the rest of the world (and Perfect Sound readers are no exception, I'm sure…) tend to hoard their records, they tend towards anti-social behavior, they want to brag about the records they own, but not necessarily give anyone else access to them. Musicians have the glory of being up on stage in front of an audience, collectors have their moment in the sun when they turn up the only known copy of something or the cleanest copy or the alternate take. They want to take that record to their grave, but would only worry (as American 78 collector extraordinaire Joe Bussard has said) that other collectors would only dig them up. Suresh Chandvankar is very different from this type of collector. Easy going, open, soft spoken, he is devoted to the idea of making record collections available to the world for research and enjoyment. Though his collection focuses on 78rpm records and Indian classical music, he enjoys music from all over the world. In his apartment, I even saw a Boney M record lurking next to a beautiful LP of ragas played on piano (an odd instrument to render a raga on for sure, as pianos are generally locked into the Western tempered scale and are not easily adapted to the microtonal explorations of Indian music).

PSF: When did you first start collecting?

Suresh Chandvankar: Since my early school days, in late '60's and early '70's.

PSF: What started you collecting?

SC: I was fascinated with the very scene of sound emanating out of a box type phonograph when a heavy sound box needle was placed on the rotating groove of a record. [This is still fascinating and spectacular if you try it on young ones]. I used to watch this till the end of the three minute song. My father saw this and encouraged me into listening more and more by purchasing records for me in our old paper shop in Pune. He used to buy records @ 25 paise per KG of records. (we'll just say that's less than a US penny per KG) In my college days, I used to spend my pocket money and then when I came to Mumbai, I began to do it more religiously.

PSF: How did the Society of Indian Record Collectors come into being and what are its aims?

SC: I knew many record collectors in Mumbai and was aware about their possessiveness, rivalry and greed. In 1990, I met Michael Kinnear (an Australian music researcher and author of several books on the Indian 78 industry) and he stayed with me for over a month. Together we convened a meeting of record collectors from Mumbai and there was a good response. SIRC was founded for the ''Preservation, Documentation and Research' of Indian records. The idea was the dissemination' of the information on records among the collectors and music lovers. We decided to have 1] monthly guided listening sessions and 2] launch a magazine for the society - The Record News. We are growing slowly and steadily in the last 18 years. We have over 200 members subscribing to our magazine and units of SIRC in six cities.

PSF: My impression of India is that it is a very music/sound oriented society, probably much more so than the United States. What was the effect of "commoditizing" these sounds?

SC: Yes, Indians have music for every occasion beginning from the birth of a child to the mourning after death of a person. Family and community festivities and religious ceremonies are incomplete without dance and music. As the folks moved upwards from small villages or tribes to big towns and cities, the communities disintegrated into small units. They needed entertainment and music available any time and on demand. Recordings and ‘commoditizing' actually became quite useful and handy.

PSF: How did the very act of recording music from an "oral tradition" influenced that tradition? How did the very invention of recorded sound and the sale of records in India influence India's musical traditions and society?

SC: Oral tradition covered disciples and teachers from various sections of society, ranging from elites to professionals who earned living through music. In the beginning, recording music was always a forte of women from the downtrodden and lower class of society until about 1920. These were tawaifs (courtesans who were trained to sing and dance), prostitutes, devdasis (women who were literally married to deities and temples) and nautch (dancing) girls. Eminent musicians from elite classes entered much later in the field of recordings. They were reluctant to record since the time limit of three minutes was a constraint to them. However, some of them did record and mastered the technique. Later, these recordings although meant for entertainment, also became educational tools for students and researchers. Today these are the only audible documents for tracing any musical tradition of a gharana (school). (India has the classic tradition of the teacher and disciple--taught through repetition and listening--which was and very much still is an oral tradition of sorts).

PSF: How did the shorter lengths of 78s affect the music and performances? Were records accepted readily by musicians or not?

SC: Shorter lengths of 78's was a problem for many musicians who were used to rendering a piece for hours. However, it was not so difficult for women entertainers since they had learnt to accommodate the performances depending the moods of their patrons. However, recording engineers arranged for training camps/lessons for the aspiring and popular artists who had the potential of becoming ‘Gramophone Celebrities.' Those who mastered the technique made wonderful recordings [e.g. Zoharabai Agrewali and Abdul Karim Khan]. They made recordings from 60-90 seconds and still gave full justice to the piece.

PSF: I can think of quite a few contemporary musicians who might benefit from similar training camps... Many people in India when I talked to them about music suggested I listen to Indian instrumental music first. They said vocal music is harder to understand or more Indian in character. Why is this? Is it just the language barrier? Do we reserve a special place in our hearts for vocal music? Is the human voice the most important instrument in India?

SC: This, I think, is related to the exposure to sound since our infancy. We get trained to listen to all kinds of sounds and the majority of these are from different instruments [man made or natural]. When language and spoken words get in, then all kind of biases / training and understanding begins to enter. Vocal music invariably brings in words and languages that need to be understood and in different contexts.

PSF: Suresh once gave a talk about a phenomenon he refers to as "Hinglish." How music from one culture is adapted to the needs of another. He played me examples of music wherein the melody from a sad English song was set to happy lyrics in a Bollywood film... What are the prizes of your collection?

SC: Out of some 10,000 pieces in my collection 10% are priceless. Of course, this matter is highly subjective... and now time has come to begin to worry about the future of my so called precious collection…I would like to donate it to local archives or libraries that would care... even copies of the important recordings could be deposited at number of places including internet. To me, any 78 that was not very popular and not sold much is valuable since if not preserved the music inscribed will be lost for ever. Most popular records could be found at many places and collections. There is going to be someone out there who would be looking for these records say after 50-100 years from now. This is where archives can play a major role in collaboration with individual collectors.

PSF: While I was in India, I bought a 78 on Gramophone Concert Record --an instrumental track by Professor Kaukub, playing an instrument the label claims is a banjo. Of course it is not a banjo in the traditional Western sense.

SC: No, this is not banjo but simply called one by the British engineer for the convenience of the German engineer at Hanover who would press the shellac discs and make labels. This is how he visualized and understood the instrument. Many early records of 'shehnai' are labeled as 'bag pipe.' The instrument on your record is a sarod – a modified rabab from the Middle East. There are of course many sarod players who have recorded prolifically - e.g. Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan.

[Performances recorded in India (and other locales) by Western engineers in the very earliest days of recording were often mislabeled in this way, perhaps revealing the engineers lack of interest in what they were recording and reproducing. Similarly, performers were asked to recite their names at the end or the beginning of their records during recording, to make sure the records were correctly labeled. Sometimes the young performers would give their full address--a good promotional trick, I suppose. Suresh also pointed out to me a few examples when you could hear odd bits of studio chatter in the background of some ancient 78's.]

PSF: Did religion and/or caste make a difference in who was recorded and what was bought by the public? I ask this question because I am curious about how the record industry reflected society. In the United States, this was a big issue: white people did not buy black records, and this contributed to the rarity of many early 78rpm records. In the '40's India underwent a brutal partition when the British left (separating into ostensibly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan) and there was much racial tension and violence.

SC: No, fortunately for us in the area of arts and recorded music we are not divided racially and that has not affected recording industries. In fact Bismillah Khan's (a Muslim) shehnai recordings are MUST to any Hindu marriage. There are several recordings in which Hindu/Muslim/Christian and even Jew musicians have played together and Indian film music is an excellent example of these cultural and racial confluences. Recordings and gramophones, in the early days, were always a forte of rich people and the poor would listen to them only in public places where a big gramophone would be placed and people gathered around it to listen.

PSF: I suppose also very few if any Indian farmers, villagers and tribal peoples had gramophones in the early days so it made more sense financially to concentrate on music consumed by the wealthier classes. I am especially interested in researching recordings of "tribal" and folk music on 78 and how those recordings might have been made and how they might have influenced classical and popular forms.

SC: Early gramophone records were made in big cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras. HMV or other companies never went to tribal localities for field recordings. (unlike in America, where record companies realized there were profits to be made by heading South and recording rural music, setting up makeshift recording studios in hotels). Most of the ‘folk' music that they recorded is by the artists residing well in cities and small towns. However, the artists in turn may have imbibed many folk and tribal traditions learnt from their teachers and communities. So, it is very difficult to get/claim ‘original' tribal or folk music. It has always changed with time and the place.

PSF: There is a sense in the West that music on 78 is "nostalgic" and from a distant past that is not relevant to today.

SC: Over the last 20 years, I have changed but the records in my collection are the same. My attitudes towards records and music has changed. These recordings inscribed in the 78rpm shellac grooves represent the musical past of Indian music traditions and hence I feel that it MUST be preserved and passed on to present and future generations. It is not just a ‘nostalgia' per se, but sort of cultural obligation and duty.

The records in Suresh's collection are the same--they are constant, defined moments in time--but his attitude towards collecting, music, and preservation has evolved. Quite possibly, he only understands how he has changed by the very presence of the unchanging records. Perhaps society at large will understand this too and more people will realize the value of these old collections. Whereas Western classical music seems delineated by periods and styles, Indian classical music appears as a long constantly evolving tradition. 78s provide a glimpse into how that art form has developed and will continue to develop. But more than that, music from the 78rpm era is important as a source of inspiration, as something to build on and as great music that should not simply be put aside because it sounds different (in fact, to some of us, the surface noise is half the fun). Music from this era, from other worlds, from another time, can sound to "hungry ears" as alien and as inventive and as fresh as free jazz or the classical avant garde sounded to my ears when I was but a lad. 78s are also a connection to the time before mass marketing and enormous entertainment juggernauts forced music down your throats and into every corner of our lives, when music developed through individuals, when memories of performances and imagination had to do.

The SIRC continues to hold meetings and publish a yearly newsletter. They also assist the larger record companies in India by providing the only known copies of certain performances by famous artists. Suresh recently received an Endangered Archives grant for a huge archival project: documenting and digitizing all the releases on the "Young India" label (numbering thousands of 78rpm issues). This label is interesting because it is one of the few significant labels that was not bought or swallowed up by the British juggernaut EMI, and so contains a wealth of Indian recorded sound history that has yet to see the light of day. In addition, Suresh's collection will feature prominently in an Indian vintage music compilation that is in the works for the Dust to Digital label.

Robert Millis is a contributor to the Sublime Frequencies label and a founding member of Climax Golden Twins whose most recent project is Victrola Favorites, recently released on Dust to Digital.

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