Sunday, September 25, 2005

My name is Gauharjaan...

Well, of course it isn't. I suppose the desire to be a uni-browed turn-of-the-century (the last one, not this one) courtesan in colonial Calcutta is not that odd, or that implausible. Beats being a graduate student in the twenty-first century pretty easily. I would, it seems, have had many lovers (okay, that's not so different), no lasting romantic attachments (also not that different) but also fame, fortune, and an important place in the annals of the history of recorded sound in India....

But I digress. On one of my recent peregrinations through Musicindiaonline.com, I found that they'd uploaded a bunch of very early Bangla recordings which, it appears, have recently been remastered by HMV as part of a series they've released to commemorate 100 years of recorded music in India. One of the most charming (and I can't think at this point of a better word) is what must be one of the very first audio recordings ever to be made in India, in which Gauharjaan Kalkattewali sings 'Phanki Diye Praner Pakhi' - a tappa of sorts, I suppose. Charming, more than anything else, because she claims authorship (in English, at that) of the recording by saying 'My name is Gauharjaan. This is bengali song. Hear my song!'.

I've come across the practice of saying one's name at the end of a recording once or twice earlier, when listening to some old recordings that my grandfather had. One, if I recall correctly, was a thumri at the end of which the singer matter-of-factly announces her name, which is Zohrabai Agrewali. (Apparently there was also a famous Zohrabai Ambalewali, hence the importance of the distinction). It's interesting that the idea of authorship was so important to singers from the outset: I have often assumed that it came later, with royalties and associated financial issues (I doubt very much that Gauharjaan made any or much money from the recording, which HMV is still flogging a hundred years on). Yet it must have been an issue, if not a financial one, from the beginning of recorded sound. 'How do I ensure people know this is me?' cannot have been much of a question when the only performances were live, but it's fascinating that singers caught on to its importance as soon as they came into contact with the new technology of recording. In some ways, they were much smarter than subsequent generations of singers, who trusted studios to attribute authorship correctly: there have been so many disputes about exactly who sang a particular song in a movie. On a different note, think of the whole dispute over who spoke Kirron Kher's lines in Bariwali: Rituporno claimed it was the actress, but it appears that a Bengali actress may have dubbed for her, but has not been given credit. I don't suppose she could have said her name after each line, cinema being the medium that it is...

Perhaps, then, I ought not to have been surprised that the apparently canny Gauharjaan was clever enough to pre-empt any such issues arising with her recording: certainly, I doubt very much that we'd know today whose voice that was unless she had bothered to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that her name was Gauharjaan. But I'm still charmed. More than the crackliness of the recording, the matter-of-factness of her phrasing, the tendency of the recording technology of the time to make her sound higher-pitched than she must have been (only in the elaborate taan-kari does the true quality of the voice shine through), it was those words at the end that made listening to the piece feel uncannily like time-travel.

2 Comments:

Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bangali naaki? My father has a fascination for tappa, though it is limited to Rabindranath's songs that pay a slight homage to tappa.

I've heard the song you are talking about, it's rather sweet, the earnestness with which she announces it, and in English too. I wonder why.

11:37 AM  
Blogger annie said...

someol'guy, nice post.
in response to your question about a movie blog... well, the problem si I've got too many collablogs and i neglect most of them, selfishly, because i am partial to Known Turf. (there are a few movie blogs already existing - Zero's Movie Lane, and another blog called Naach-Gaana.) Maybe a collaborative blog could work if you asked a lot of people who like doing reviews to contribute and cross-post?

12:17 AM  

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