Another one bites the dust

HMV, Angelina, Nipper, Gaiesberg, Deloitte, and so on….

It was on a happy evening many a year ago that I held her slender arm by the elbow for the last time and slowly got her finger on the groove, to get the song going. One has to start at the beginning I said, as her fingers moved inwards. You see, some of them have thick arms, some have thin, but one thing was clear, at least in the old days they all had big mouths, mouths much used to unassisted hollering. Many had sleek burgundy figures, big mouths of course, and a blond top, but some had fat bases. Their voices tended to be a bit scratchy, a bit brassy at times and unless kept clean, provided somewhat unsatisfactory results. Hmmm…lest the reader get a little confused, let me hasten to clarify, I am talking about the old fashioned 78RPM record player a.k.a the wind up HMV player, like the player with the picture of that dog sitting in front of its big mouth.

Time went by, the wind up record player gave way to the electric motor varieties, then amplifiers got added and the brass Kolambi (spittoon like) or blond top was taken away, while the old ones in circulation became antiques consigned to corner tables. The electric ones got connected to amplifiers and people were happy for a while. Then they got unhappy again, looking for even more and settled on the spool tape machines, like the glorious Sony & Telefunken machines. Even that vanished quickly, to be replaced by the compact tape or the cassette players. That also fell by the wayside when the binary world became the norm, as ones and zeroes took over from the analog music era. The digital era and various media like the CD lived a short life to reach where we are now, where we have the soft files based music revolution, or the mp3 era. Even that will go away and end up with all the music made sitting in a cloud (as they call it) for people to quickly tap into when desired. Tell your digital assistant, the nippy girl named ‘Siri’(or some other name if it is not an Apple device you are holding), that you want to listen to Mehboob’s Kandam Bechoru kottane….and ching! It will play the song for you. No more downloads and archiving.

But naturally, the companies that started the musical century, like HMV, faced increasing pressure and as you may have heard, have recently declared bankruptcy, soon to be taken over by administrators. It was as Freddy Mercury put it in his soulful number ‘another one bites the dust’. As technology advanced, HMV struggled to keep up with the pace, and eventually failed, leaving only a bit of nostalgia for people like me who were used to many of the media listed above.

To go back through the ages and to the beginning of the HMV era in India would involve traveling to the very beginning of the 20th century. One hundred and 10 years later, they were history. For me personally, it was nice checking some of their early days in India and the involvement of people like Angelina and Gaiesberg, and of course learning about animate characters like Nipper and the inanimate like Deloitte. Perhaps it will interest you, perhaps it will not, but this article will be around, so that when somebody checks out all this information for some reason of the other (maybe the one participating in a quiz show or a journalist who needs quick information) working through our own Google MAMA (Google uncle) , it can be found here.

In 1901, the HMV operations in India started as the first overseas branch of Electrical & Musical Industries Limited, EMI London. It was the Gramophone and typewriter Ltd GTL until 1914. The company was incorporated on 13 August 1946 under the name of “The Gramophone Co. (India) Limited” A hundred years later, the name of the company was changed from “The Gramophone Company of India Limited” to “Saregama India Limited” on November 3, 2000. The Gramophone Company however, was always better known as HMV (His Master's Voice) in India. As we see it now, so strong has been this brand recognition, that even after various takeovers, the brand association with HMV could never be phased out. On the other end of the land mass, the HMV global chain, unconnected with HMV-Saregama India, was running into difficulties and finally as I mentioned earlier, on 15 January 2013 the HMV Group entered administration. The Deloitte group has been appointed to deal with the administration of the company. While HMV in the UK faced problems staving off competition from Virgin Megastores and so on, the Indian GCI faced problems from small upstarts like the T series and was eventually gobbled up by Virgin records India, Ironic, innit?

Don’t you think it will be a good idea to figure out how HMV the acronym came about? Emile Berliner of the US, who invented the gramophone record in 1887 and the player to go with it, founded The Gramophone Company in London in April 1898 to manufacture both. EMI can trace its history back to 1897, when it was known as The Gramophone Company GC and based in London. Two years later, the company bought Francis Barraud's painting originally titled 'Dog looking at and listening to a Phonograph' for advertising purposes and the cylinder phonograph was changed to a wind-up gramophone. The painting titled His masters voice done in 1899 by Francis Barraud of the dog Nipper listening to a cylinder phonograph. As it appears, the dog, a fox terrier named Nipper, originally belonged to Barraud's brother Mark. When Mark Barraud died, Francis inherited Nipper, along with a cylinder phonograph and a number of recordings of Mark's voice. Francis it seems observed the special interest that the dog took in the recorded voice of his late master emanating from the trumpet, and consigned the scene to canvas. The GC manager Gary Owen liked the painting and offered to buy it if Barraud would change the cylinder phonograph with a Berliner gramophone. The rest is history. Nipper as I discovered through Google mama, died in September 1895, having returned from Liverpool to live with Mark Barraud's widow in Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey.

How did this painting get known as His master’s voice? Basically he himself renamed it but found it difficult to get a taker, since "No one would know what the dog was doing" looking at the picture. Barraud's tried the Edison Bell Company, leading manufacturer of the cylinder phonograph, but again without success. "Dogs don't listen to phonographs," the company said. He was thus unable to sell the work to any cylinder phonograph company, but finally the Gramophone Company purchased it, under the condition that Barraud modify it to show one of their disc machines.

The GC merged with Columbia and became EMI. They went on to create music media and a lot of money, tied up with Beatles and the Spice girls to create even larger fan-bases, but finally ran out of steam around the turn of the 21st century.

Enough of dog stories and Nipper (may Nipper’s soul – if he had one, RIP and may Barraud’s Soul RIP), let’s get on with HMV in India. Well, how did they get there? We saw that HMV-GC was slowly starting up in England. Where else to transplant the idea but in their colonial jewel India (of course America was another, but we will not go there today). Here is when the next mysterious name in my list jumps up to explain. It is none other than the American, Gaiesberg. Frederick William Gaisberg was an American-born musician, recording engineer for GTL and one of the earliest classical music producers for the gramophone. Gaisberg concentrated on talent-spotting and traveling around the world, persuading singers to make recordings for the newly-invented machine called the gramophone. His entire life was spent talent scouting and he even refused directorship of HMV. As a keen engineer, he moved from mechanics to electrical technology as the machine developed, studying engineering on the way and concentrating on recording music, but at the same time getting paid handsomely. Although much of his work was behind the scenes, Gaisberg played a major role in both the technological form and the artistic content of the early sound recording industry. In a series of adventures in the early years of the 1900s, spent wandering around the globe transporting his bulky apparatus – scores of blank discs and an acid bath, he collected hundreds of discs of original local music. To study his involvement in talent scouting in India, we have to check out his diaries, replete with pictures of his visit to Calcutta in 1902, a trip he himself likened to Marco Polo’s.

Gaisberg (L)
 In Calcutta, many a curious onlookers awaited the arrival of the talking machine (But it should be noted that the first recordings in Hindi were done in 1899 by artistes Capt Bholanath, Harnamdas and Ahmed, though I am not sure if it was done in India. In fact even before Gaiesberg’s arrival, people like H Bose, Bhatia, Rose etc were already making and selling religious recordings using the cylinder machine – this of course was not possible with the Berliner disc machines where the media was made by the company). His first visit was to Harrison road, where there were local performances of Romeo and Juliet, done by Nautch girls whitened with applications of rice paste (For those who ask what Nautch is, it is the Anglicized version of the Hindi word Natch – meaning dance) which he found disappointing, as he was more interested in sourcing original Indian melodies. Regretfully, he was not enthused by the folk music, when he got to hearing a lot of it, it was so alien compared to the European classical music that his fundamentals were based on, harmony, chords, tempo…all miles away from the folk music he heard. He then started attending private parties, the mehfils, the wedding music and so on. Remember again that it was all only with the intent of making records his company could sell, not archiving Indian music in any way. His first recordings were actually with two nautch girls, Soshi and Fani. The next to follow was India’s first Diva.

That was how he met Gauhar Jan and Mallika Jan, the former who charged a heavy Rs 300 for a recording while the latter charged Rs 3,000, both lavish spending music and dance personalities of Calcutta. Each made many a recording and announced at the end, their names in English so that the record makers in Germany could get it all right with the title plates. Some 500 master recordings were thus made and soon enough, the prints, the 7-10 inch records were selling like hot cakes when introduced in India in 1903.

Later recording expeditions were led in 1906 by William Gaiesberg, and he was the first to make some 300-500 Telugu and Tamil recordings at Hyderabad & Madras. As I mentioned earlier, the prints were made in Germany, where they classified Indian music as ‘screams and cries which pass for music but in great demand in India’!! On the other side, it was not that all the popular singers allowed their voices to be recorded on wax, some thought their souls might even get broken and refused. Then again others maintained that music is adapted to the occasion and should not be captured in the environs of a recording studio. In fact some even thought that singing into “this evil English instrument” would cause them to lose their voice. Rahimat Khan Haddu Khan for example stormed out of an HMV playback session because someone who sounded just like him was singing back through the horn!!

The Nightingale of Bengal – Gauhar Jaan

Time to find out a little about Angelina Yeoward a.k.a Gauhar Jaan. This girl who went on to become a famed singer and who lived to soar to great heights and like so many other celebrities, to fall into a deep chasm, ending up in obscurity, and dying a lonely death, actually hailed from a remote area of Uttar Pradesh, which I myself know quite well. Azamgarh…I remember my visits to the place in the 80’s in connection with a UP electricity board’s building of an EHV substation. Not much happened there, and not much continues to happen, but once upon a time, Azamgarh, founded by Azmat Khan, was a place where Indigo was cultivated. As one account states, this girl was born in 1873 to William Robert Yeoward, who worked as an engineer in a dry ice factory (Some other accounts mention that Robert worked in the Indigo farms)and mother Victoria Hemmings. In 1879 their marriage ended, and mother and daughter migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who it seems, appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband. Victoria soon converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'.

Gauhar jaan, soon rose to fame as a Kathak dancer and singer and was known as Bade Mallika Jaan. Before we go any further, I have to remind you of my previous article on Babul Mora and Wajid Ali Shah, remember him? Well, Gauhar became a dancer in this Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s court, meanwhile perfecting her classical singing, Ghazals and Robindra sangeet. By 1896, she was a professional singer and dancer in Calcutta, much in demand.

So as we saw, in 1902, Fred Gaisberg, a talent scout eager to replace phonograph cylinders with 78 rpm flat discs, arrived in India to collect matter and later to make the very first recordings there. One of his early subjects was none other than Gauhar Jaan, whom he chanced to see at the home of a wealthy Bengali patron and whose voice he later recorded in a makeshift studio in a Calcutta hotel room.

As Sampath puts it - Gaisberg recollects that at 9:00 AM on Saturday, 8 November 1902, a fair-skinned young lady, full of jewelry, entered the room with paraphernalia, relatives, and accompanists on sarangi, harmonium and tabla. Gauhar watched as a thick shellac disc was placed on the turntable rotating at 78 RPM and on the wall was hung a huge horn into which she was told to sing loudly, and for just under three minutes. At the end of each recording she says, “My name is Gauhar Jaan” so that mastering technicians in Hanover, Germany, to which the discs were sent, would know what to print on the record labels. Thus ended India’s first ever ‘commercial’ recording session and thus began a new epoch in the long history of Indian musical arts and in mass media.

Why do you think most recordings are only about 3 minutes long, especially movie songs? Because that was all the record could hold and that is the reason why many of India’s great voices and players of the early twentieth century never saw because most performances were far too long to fit on a 78 RPM disc.

Gauhar Jaan’s fame and fortune steadily increased in both the commercial sector and by way of traditional private patronage. She also had many legal property hassles first with Bhaglu her mother’s maid’s son, then with Abbas, her young secretary who had taken charge and comforted her through the court hearings, and to whom Gauhar later entered into muta. By the end of it Gauhar was drained emotionally and financially. Then there was the anti-nautch movement fostered by rising Christian evangelicalism in the subcontinent which saw the impoverishment of thousands of tawaifs across India. Reportedly even Gandhi rejected them from his movement as “obscene”. Gauhar Jaan moved from place to place, eventually ending up in the Mysore palace in 1928, and it was in Mysore that she died of fever in Krishna Rajendra Hospital, alone and forlorn, obscure and unknown as the day she was born.

Gauhar sang in many languages, purportedly some 13-20 of them (perhaps not- perhaps they made her render songs in all languages popular then, for posterity). Gauhar Jaan, also visited Madras at the invitation of C. Gopala Chetty who had organized a concert for her in the Victoria Public Hall. She was a big spender, celebrating even her cat’s delivery, horse racing, clothes and diamonds, once even demanding a train for her to travel.

She was the ultimate diva of her time, getting thrown out by her patron Nawab Hamid Ali Khan for allowing an Englishman Lord Irwin to ‘touch her breasts’. Seems he was just checking the many medals she wore!! Paying daily penalty for her use of horse carriages (only the English could do that), having maids who wore diamond studded shoes, grooming Jadden bai, Nargis’s mother, getting paid by Edward V a hundred guineas as a token of his appreciation when she sang during his visit and so on. For those interested in details of Gohar or Gauhar Jaan’s life, read Vikaram Sampath’s book titled “My Name is Gauhar Jaan!” The Life and Times of a Musician.

By 1910 there were over 75 recording companies in India and much of the shellac (close to 75%) required for the records came from India. Indian pressings started in 1908 at Sealdah and Dum Dum continuing until 2000 to about half a million records ( to me that looks small but that is what this reference source states, quoting Suresh Chandavankar - Walter Benjamin and Art By Andrew Benjamin ) in total. HMV basically had a virtual monopoly but there were others - Odeon, Ruby, Columbia, remember all these other names? But then again, much of these recordings between 1930’s and the 21st century were related to the Indian film industry and re-recording from soundtracks. It was many years later that recording took place in individual recording studios. In spite of all this HMV held sway until the70’s and it was the entrance of T series and Gulshan Kumar with their launch of the Rs 25/- cassettes broke their backs. Saregama HMV never focused on the lower end of the music buying public, those with little money to spend. CD’s came and then the mp3 wave…..

It has come a long way from all those days; the gramophone is gone, though I still have a modern version and about 50 records. I never used a cylindrical Edison machine which made churis (called so as they looked like bangles) as they were long gone. I do not possess a spool machine; maybe I will buy one soon for the heck of it. I have a dual cassette deck, and I have CD players and DVD players, Blue ray and various MP3 players and streaming machines. What next? Who knows?? On the other side, the recording domain, we no longer have singers nervously singing their hearts out standing in the middle of a whole bunch of talented musicians like the old days, we have the tracks made in advance with track singers, and the singer comes and does his bit when he or she is free. Sometimes music directors get multiple singers to do the same track and pick what they want; sometimes they get various bits recorded and mix them in appropriate fashion. It is all very complex and impersonal, I guess.

Want to hear a sample of the first recordings? A sample from Gauhar Jaan and her proud proclamation at the end – My name is Gauhar Jaan can be found here


The Place of Music By Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, George Revill
The Gramaphone Company's First Indian Recordings, 1899-1908 By Michael S. Kinnear
Gaisberg Diaries – Part 2

Pics - as linked, thanks to the contributors

Trivia - "Another One Bites the Dust" was used in a study to train medical professionals to provide the correct number of chest compressions per minute while performing CPR. The song has close to 110 beats per minute, and 100–120 chest compressions per minute are recommended by the British Heart Foundation!!!



Kadambari said...

Very interesting topic. Even companies seem to have a life. There is a birth, rise, fall and eventually death.

On Gauhar Jaan - It appears that pioneers (in any field) typically possess the characteristics that she had.
There have been(still are) entrepreneurs who believe in an idea far ahead of their age, and work on it with full gusto.
The team of people working with him/her, tolerate their behaviour, not really comprehending the idea, waiting for the right time to loot and run away.

Enjoyed reading this blog. Thanks :)

Maddy said...

Thanks kadamabari..
looks like this was not too interesting for many others, judging by its popularity..guess the MP3 world kills memories too..

Brahmanyan said...

Very interesting information. As an octogenarian I enjoyed reading this Blog. My Grandmother used to mention the name of "Gohar Jaan". I have heard the record of "Coimbatore Thayee" mentioning her name in the end.
Best wishes.

Maddy said...

thanks Brahmanyan..
glad that you enjoyed it. i have been trying to get the tamil song Gohar sang, it is out there somewhere

Sanghamitra Sen said...

Of course companies have a life! And very often it's intricately linked with socio-economic experiences of its consumers. Fortunately in India some companies are waking up to preserve their long histories, but a lot more needs to be done.

Maddy said...

Thanks sanghamitra..
like you said, companies never die, they are reborn or recasted...
should be interesting to see how this goes...