Saturday, December 27, 2014

Malik Ambar: Jehangir's Obsession

Malik Ambar (1549 – 1626) was an Ethiopian slave in India, who rose to become a minister and then an independent ruler with his capital at Aurangabad. The Mughal emperor Jahangir was obsessed with defeating Malik Ambar and wanted to see him crushed at any cost. Unable to defeat him in reality, Jehangir had to be content with fantasy.

The Mughal artist Abu’l Hasan drew a painting of the Emperor shooting arrows into the severed head of Malik Ambar. There are small inscriptions on the painting, one of them says "The face of the rebel has become the abode of the owl." (the owl is a symbol of bad luck, a bad omen). And the other one says "Thy arrow that lays the enemy low, sent out of the world Ambar, the owl who fled from the light." Two owls are shown in the picture.

The emperor is shown as a just divine ruler of the world. The world is borne upon the fish and bull. A Sufi master named Farid al-Din Attar wrote: “God placed Earth on the back of a bull, the bull on a fish, and the fish dancing on a silver spool of light.”

At the top of the painting are two winged infants, called putti, they were believed to influence human lives (because of contact with Europeans in Jahangir's court, elements such as putti came into the painting).

Temple at Satuwa Baba Ashram, Manikarnika Ghat

This is the temple at Satuwa Baba Ashram at Manikarnika Ghat. This ashram follows the Vaishnavite Rudra Sampradaya (a philosophy said to have been established by Shri Adi Vishnuswami in 3rd century BC).

Within traditional Vaishnavam there are four main Sampradayas (philosophies with guru-disciple lineages), each of which traces its roots back to a specific Vedic figure (Rudra Sampradaya, Brahma Sampradaya, Lakshmi Sampradaya, Kumara Sampradaya). Of these, Rudra Sampradaya of Vishnuswami is the oldest. The philosophy of Vishnuswami is called Shuddha Advaita, or Pure Advaita. Rudra or Shiva is said to be the foremost and ideal Vaishnavite, who teaches the Shudda Advaita philosophy to humankind.

The Satuwa Baba ashram was established in the 1800s by an ascetic from Bhavnagar in Gujarat who followed the Shudda Advaita philosophy. It is said that here Lord Shiva appeared to the Baba in the form of an old man and taught him the philosophy. The current mahant is Shri Santosh Das, who is the 7th Satuwa Baba. The previous mahant Shri Yamunacharyaji died in 2012 at the age of 99 years. Apart from being the head of the Satuwa Baba Ashram, he was also the head (Acharya) of the Vishnuswami Sampradaya itself, and a highly respected guru.

Many miracles are attributed to Satuwa Baba, such as bringing a dead man back to life, and miraculously finding gold coins in the river. As a result, the Satuwa Baba Ashram has become famous. Processions of dead bodies stop at this ashram and pay their respects before proceeding to the ghat. After the cremation ceremony the sanskar ghada (clay pot) is also broken here.

There are also ancient legends associated with Satuwa Baba Ashram. The ascetic Vishnuswami who founded the Rudra Sampradaya is believed to have visited this place in person (since the name Vishnuswami actually refers to 3 different people within the Rudra sampradaya, this legend probably refers to the second Vishnuswami who lived around 8th or 9th century, or to the third Vishnuswami who lived in the 14th century). Shankaracharya (8th century) is also believed to have visited this place, and it is said that he was tested here by Lord Shiva in the form of a Chandala.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Beautiful Photos of the British Residency, Hyderabad

Earlier this year I visited the British Residency in Hyderabad. It was an opulent mansion, built from 1789 to 1805 by the James Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad state. It was designed like a palladian villa but has some Indian elements to it - like a zenana (women's quarters) for Kirkpatrick's wife Khair-un-Nissa. It had full lenghth mirrors, large chandeliers, beautiful ceilings and winding staircases.

Now, of course, it's a shadow of its former glamour and lavishness. It was used after Independence as a college. After a number of years, the main mansion was abandoned as a college but the old elephant stables and surrounding buildings still have classes going on.

James Kirkpatrick was steeped in Indo-Persian 'Nizami' culture. He wore Indian dress, smoked hookah, chewed paan, and was fluent in Persian and Hindustani (Hindi). He converted to Islam and married a Hyderabadi noblewoman, Khair-un-nissa. They are said to have been truly in love.

James Kirkpatrick (British Resident) and his wife Khair-un-nissa
During the construction of the Residency, Khair-un-Nissa expressed a wish to see the design of the building. But due to the conventions of 'modesty', she couldn't come to the building itself. So Kirkpatrick had a miniature Residency built for her, 100 yards away from the main building. Now she could see what the residency would be like.

The miniature Residency is now broken after a tree fell on it.
Eventually, Kirkpatrick was removed from his position by the Governor-General Lord Wellesley: partly due to his marriage to a non-European and partly due to his closeness to the Nizam.

Here are some pictures from my visit to the Residency:

The room with the dusty chandeliers and full length mirrors...
The colourful ballroom ceiling 
Close-up of the ceiling
Grand staircase leads to a statue of Gandhi and pictures of Tilak and S. Radhakrishnan
The domed ceiling
Another winding stairwell. At the bottom are chairs from the building's college days.
Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa's son and daughter
Another reminder of the college!
A room full of old notebooks, exam papers, attendance registers...!
The place is full of pigeons!
In fact, not only pigeons but goats seem to live here. Hope this beautiful building is restored and preserved.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Paintings of Y. G. Srimati

Y.G. Srimati (1927-2007) was a painter from Madras. She studied graphics in the Art Student League, New York, in 1964-66. She exhibited her works in various shows (single and group shows). A number of her works are in the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress. Apart from painting, Srimati was also a talented vocalist, and learnt both Hindustani and Carnatic styles. She played the veena, as well as several other instruments.

Here are some of her watercolours: the figures are tall and slender, and reminiscent of the wall murals at Ajanta.
Shiva Nataraja (1945)
Kali (1990)
Eklavya practicing archery (1945-46)

Parashurama (1946)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Somnath Temple: a place of pilgrimage

Somnath is one of the holiest pilgrimage destinations in India - one of the "Char Dham" and the "Sapta Puri". Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Somnath, "the lord/protector of the Moon". The temple is beautiful and lies on the shore of the Arabian Sea.

View of Somnath temple
Here are a couple of legends associated with the temple, and the history of the temple:

Somnath temple was first built in ancient times (in the era before Christ, exact date unknown). This ancient temple was rebuilt c.650 CE by the Yadava king.

In subsequent years, the temple was ransacked and destroyed multiple times (in 725 by the Arab governor Junayd; in 1024 by Mahmud of Ghazni; in 1296 by Alauddin Khilji; in 1451 by the Sultan of Gujarat; and in 1665 by Aurangzeb). Each time it was rebuilt (in 815 by king Nagabhata II; from 1026-1172 by king Bhoj of Malwa, and Solanki kings Bhimdev I and Kumarpal; in 1308 by Chudasama king Mahipala Deva; in 1783 by the Peshwa of Pune, Raja Bhonsle of Nagpur, Chhatrapati Bhonsle of Kolhapur, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore and Shrimant Patilbuwa Shinde of Gwalior). In 1947, it was reconstructed under the orders of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

An 1869 photo of Somnath temple. It had fallen into disrepair once again before being rebuilt by Sardar Patel in 1947.

Saadi's story about Somnath
On a side note, in the 13th century, Iranian poet Saadi Shirazi visited India and wrote the following tale about Somnath. Saadi came to the temple to debate the Hindu priests. First he put forth his points about the merits of Islam. In response, the priests prayed to the temple idol, which opened its arms. Shocked, Saadi came back later at night, inspected the idol secretly, and found a mechanism which controlled it arms! Must be a fake story but interesting nonetheless.

Here is a Mughal-era illustration of Saadi's Somnath story. Saadi's book Bustan (Garden), in which he recorded this tale, remained popular for centuries after his death. Many illustrated copies of the book were made.

Saadi at Somnath

A jyotirlinga (jyoti = light) is a linga where Lord Shiva appears in the form of a blinding column of light. What is the origin of jyotirlinga? Legend has it that once, Brahma and Vishnu challenged each other as to who was supreme. Shiva stepped in to arbitrate. He took the form of a column of light and told them to find the end of the column.

Leaving aside the results of the challenge (Vishnu honestly admitted defeat, Brahma lied and was cursed by Shiva), the places on earth where Shiva had manifested as a column of light are known as "jyotirlinga".

The Puranic king Daksha married his twenty-seven daughters to the Moon (Soma). But the Moon showered only one of the daughters with affection and ignored the others, and so they complained to their father Daksha. Daksha cursed the Moon, saying that his beauty and brightness would fade. Soon enough, the Moon began to wane, lost radiance, and all but disappeared.

Panicked, the Moon prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Shiva undid the curse partially - the Moon would not disappear completely, but would now have a waxing phase and a waning phase.

The grateful Moon built a great temple where Shiva would forever be worshipped as Somnath, "the lord of the Moon".
Statue of Somnath near the temple
Images from Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist architecture in Ajanta

- By Aishwarya Pramod

Viharas (monasteries) and chaitya-grihas (prayer halls) are the two important structures in early Buddhist architecture in India.

Viharas began as temporary shelters for wandering monks, but were later developed to accommodate the growing and increasingly formalised Buddhist monasticism. Chaitya-grihas (or chaityas) were prayer halls with a stupa at the end. The stupa was the focus of the monks' meditation and prayer.
General structure of a Vihara and Chaitya-Griha

Ajanta caves are prominently Buddhist.

Out of the 30 caves of Ajanta, 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29 are chaitya grihas (places of worship). In the earlier stages the stupas inside the chaitya grihas were plain, with no bodily representation of the Buddha. They were symbolic in nature; with the stupas usually containing a sacred relic. In the later phases, the Buddha began to be featured prominently in the stupas.
Chaitya-griha in Ajanta's cave 26 from the Mahayana period
There are also many Buddhist viharas found in India, such as the one in cave 16 of Ajanta.
Entrance to Ajanta's cave 16 - A vihara

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bangles of Bengal

- By Deepa Krishnan

In Bengal, married women wear red and white bangles. Called ‘Sannkha pola’, the white bangle is crafted from conch-shell while the red is made either of coral or lac.

These days with modernization of the traditional conch shell bangles craftsmen have started using gold on these bangles. Of course, those who cannot afford real gold can buy these popular red and while bangles in plastic.

I photographed this set of bangles in a small streetside shop in Kalighat.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How the Ajanta murals were created

The Ajanta cave paintings (from around 200 BCE to 500 CE) represent India's art at a great height of sophistication and skill. These scenes of the life of Buddha and the bodhisattvas, natural beauty and royal splendour have been called "the birth of Indian art".

So how were these works of art created? The Vishnudharmottara Purana, an encyclopedic text that deals with arts and sciences, gives us insights. The third khanda (chapter) deals with Painting and Image Making. The Vishnudharmottara Purana admits that it is only repeating things from earlier sources. Since those sources are not available, the Vishnudharmottara Purana (said to date to 4 CE) is our best possible guide.

Here are some of the ingenious methods that Indian painters used to create paintings that enthrall us to this day.
Scene from the Jataka Tales depicting king Mahajanaka
Methods of lighting up a dark cave to paint in:
Painters used many methods to light up the interiors of dark caves they had to paint. Apart from using torches lit with vegetable oil, they positioned large metal mirrors to angle sunshine. They poured water into shallow depressions they had made on the floor, to reflect sunlight onto the ceilings of the caves. They would also whitewash the walls of the caves with lime plaster before painting them, which would create a natural halo of light that would help them with their paintings.

The plaster base that enables the painting:
The painters covered the cave walls with two layers of plaster made of mud, vegetable fibre, paddy husk, rock-grit, sand, etc. The plaster was then covered with a thin coat of lime. Then they made their drawings on this.

Materials used to make paints and brushes:
Six pigments were used by the painters. They were mixed with water to create paints.
  • Yellow ochre (from a natural earth pigment containing hydrated iron oxide)
  • Red ochre (the same pigment with a large amount of hematite in it)
  • Blue (from crushed lapis lazuli)
  • Green (from glauconite or 'green sand')
  • White (from kaolin, lime or gypsum)
  • Black (from lamp-black, the soot left over from oil lamps
The brushes used for different types of effects:
They used several types of brushes, of different materials. One brush was a pointed rod made of khachora-root mixed with boiled rice. Another was a thin bamboo rod topped with a cotton swab. A third was made from the soft ear hair of a calf, and fixed with lac. Hair from a squirrel's tail and a sheep's belly was also used.

So there you have it - isn't it marvellous?!
Different pigments used to depict skin colour variations

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Art of Folding Sarees in Bengal

- By Deepa Krishnan

The word for folding of sarees is "bhaaj". In West Bengal the "guti bhaaj" folding system is typically used. In this system, the saree length is halved, then quartered, then made into one-eighth. After this, it is folded width-wise in such a way that the border design is displayed when opened. Then again folded length-wise.
Sarees folded and displayed for sale
Often the whole piece is then knotted with a string (you can see the string in the red saree which the seller is holding). There is also a different flat-folding system, this is used in Dhonekali sarees. It is a broader flat fold, you can see it on the far right in this photo.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Holy River Indrayani

- By Deepa Krishnan

The sacred river Indrayani originates a few kilometers from Pune, near Lonavla in the Sahyadri mountains, and flows east to meet the Bhima river, passing through the pilgrimage towns of Dehu and Alandi (both are in Pune District).
Dehu is the birthplace of the poet-saint Tukaram, and Alandi holds the samadhi of the poet-saint Dnyaneshwar. Because of these sacred associations, the Indrayani is revered as a holy river.

Tukaram was born in 1608 in Dehu. He is considered the single most influential figure in the history of Marathi literature. By composing in Marathi, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins who believed he had overstepped the bounds of his low caste. The local legend is that the Brahmins compelled Tukaram to throw his manuscripts into the river. Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, and after thirteen days the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems miraculously reappeared floating in the waters.
Dynaneshwar was born near Paithan, but attained samadhi at Alandi at the age of 21. He wrote Bhavarth Deepika, popularly known as Dynaneshwari. It is a commentary on the Bhagvad Gita, written in Marathi, and is considered a major milestone in Marathi literature.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bahinabai: The Maharashtrian Poetess

- By Aishwarya Pramod

Bahinabai Chaudhari (1880 - 1951) was a Marathi poet from Jalgaon district (just north of Aurangabad). She composed in Ahirani dialect of Marathi, commonly spoken in the region. Since she herself was illiterate, her son wrote down the poems for her. Her poetry is full of quiet wisdom and observations of nature and rural life around her.

Most of her poems were based on agriculture, nature and the lives of farmers.

Here are two of her many compositions:

Asaa Raajaa shetkari, chaallaare aalvaani,
Dekhaa tyaachyaa paayaakhaale, kaate gele vaakisani

(So royal is the farmer, walking barefooted,
Look under his feet, the thorns are bent)

Aala saas, gela saas, jeeva tujha re tantra
Arey jagna-marna eka sasacha antar

(Breath in, Breath out, life so is your doctrine
Life and death are just a breath apart)

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Maratha alliance with the British

This painting shows the signing of an important treaty between the East India Company and the Marathas in 1790. By signing this treaty, the Marathas agreed to join hands with the British against another Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
The representative of the East India company was Sir Charles Warre Malet. You can see him seated cross legged in this photo, although frankly, I don't know how he managed it in those tight pants :) Later he was awarded a Baronetcy for the strategic importance of this treaty. It was Malet who commissioned the painting, to commemorate his own role.

Originally, the Scottish artist James Wales was supposed to paint it. But he died in 1795, and eventually this painting was done was done by Thomas Daniell in 1805. Daniell painted it in England, but had previously travelled extensively in India, spending 10 years here.

The painting shows the interior of Shaniwarwada palace. The palace burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1828, but this painting shows us how beautiful the teakwood work was.

The head of the Marathas, the Peshwa at the time (seen seated on the gaddi) is Sawai Madhavrao II and near the Peshwa we can see the powerful advisor Nana Phadnavis, the "Machiavelli of the Deccan", who literally ran the Maratha empire.

According to a letter sent from India to the Board of Directors of the East India Company, the treaty could not be signed without "the spirited and unwearied exertions of your Resident Mr. Malet, the steadiness of the Minister Nana Furnavees, and the good offices of Behroo Punt, the agent of the Durbar for transacting the business of the English, and we must not exclude from the number of their friends the Mahratta Chief Mahdajee Sindia, who contributed by his own representations to forward the alliance"

Tipu sent a large amount of money to the Maratha generals to delay or avert this treaty, but it did not work. The three parties to the treaty, who aligned themselves against Tipu, were the Marathas, the East India Company, and the Nizam Asaf Jah of Hyderabad. Against this triple alliance, Tipu lost the third Anglo-Mysore war and was forced to cede half his territories to the allies, and deliver two of his sons as hostages pending payment of 3.3 crores.

Here is another painting, this one by James Wales. It is portrait of the Peshwa (on the left), with Nana Phadnavis (on the right). 

Nana Phadnavis (1742 - 1800) inherited his position from his grandfather, who was a minister for Chattrapati Shahu. He held the Maratha state together through a period of extreme political turmoil and intrigue, and helped it survive many threats from within and without. Apart from dealing with internal dissension, rivalries and sudden transfers of power, Nana Phadnavis was involved in several battles with the Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore, and the English East India Company. The above portrait was commissioned by Madhavrao II in 1792.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mansarovar Ghat, Varanasi

Like Manmandir Ghat, Mansarovar Ghat was built by Raja Man Singh of Amber (Jaipur) in 1585. The king also added a pool (kund) nearby called Mansarovar Kund. It was believed that the water in the pool gave equal merit as the sacred Lake Mansarovar (in Tibet): thus the nearby ghat was also given the name Mansarovar.
And right in the middle of it is this bright red guest house, owned by one Mr. Tandon.
The ghat was rebuilt multiple times, by the king's descendants and by the government of Uttar Pradesh. While the ghat became pucca, the pool (kund) became smaller due to lack of space and turned into a well called Mansarovar Kupa.

Another name of Mansarovar Ghat is Kshemeshvara Ghat. This is named after Kshema Gana, one of Lord Shiva's ganas, who is said to be the founder of the linga in a Shiva temple nearby.

In 1962, the upper part of the ghat was purchased by the Kumaraswamy Matt, established by the 17th century saint Kumaragurupapar in Kashi. He was born in Tamil Nadu and later travelled to Kashi to spread the teachings of Shaivism. The Matt has now constructed a building with shrines and rest houses for pilgrims.
Kumaraguruparar Swamigal

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bibi ka Maqbara - The Taj of Deccan

- By Aishwarya Pramod

Bibi ka Maqbara (Mausoleum of the Lady) was built for Dilras Banu Begum, the wife of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It was built after her death by her son, Prince Azam Shah between 1651 and 1661.
Bibi ka Maqbara - also called 'Taj of Deccan'
It was intended to rival the Taj, but eventually ended up with smaller proportions. So what, I say? It's still gorgeous! The symmetry and delicacy of the mausoleum, built in pure marble ox-carted all the way from Jaipur, is as stunning as ever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The "kaajerlok" of Calcutta

The kaajerlok are many. Kaaj = Work, Lok = People. These are the working people of Calcutta, the energy that keeps the machine going. Drivers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, rickshawallahs, shop assistants, odd-job men, labourers; they are all over the streets of the city.

Incomes range from Rs 50 a day for basic jobs, to Rs 300 for more skilled jobs. Some look more prosperous, like these two men I saw, one of them has a cell phone in his hand, and I wondered if they had some specialist skill or trade for which they could be hired for the day. 
Waiting for the day's work to begin. Early morning photo, side street somewhere off Sadananda Road
Often you can identify the kaajerlok by what they wear. There is almost a uniform sometimes - the red gamcha (towel), banian (sleeveless vest), and the lungi (sarong). The gamcha is bright red when it is new; it is starched, crisp, so much so that even after 5 washes it continues to be stubbornly stiff. But as time goes, the red fades, it becomes very soft. It is versatile, a cloth put to many uses, to wipe off sweat, to shield the nape of the neck, to protect from the mid-day sun.
Labourers outside a grain market in Calcutta
The kaajerlok are also women; some wizened, some young, and many work as domestic help. You don't see them on the streets that much, unless they have been sent out on an errand. But they exist - an army of maids, washing clothes, doing the dishes and sweeping floors. If you go to a middle-class Bengali home, you will see them. Many of them work in multiple homes. They assist with cooking as well.

The kaajerlok all have one thing in common - a desh, or a gaon, a village to which they return year after year. This is of course, the very village whose clutches they escaped to come to the city. But they will return, as frequently as they can. It is a hungry gaping maw, this desh, it takes every last scrap of their city earnings and leaves them more broke than ever.

If you talk to labourers in Calcutta, you will hear tales of a small village home, of extended family, old debts and above all, of poverty. But they will speak of the village with fondness and nostalgia, even though it sucks every penny they save in the city. Often they go to the village for extended periods; and when they return, they are half the size that they were, they come back sunburnt and looking half-starved, and ready to let the city grind their bones all over again.
Cart-puller and assistant, Howrah
Young shop assistants in a tiny snack-shop, Chitpur

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bazaars of Hyderabad: Moazaam Jahi Market, then and now

Built in the 1930's at a major crossroad of the city, Moazzam Jahi Market even today remains a busy and important market. 
After the Musi floods of 1908 and the plague of 1911, Mir Osman Ali, the Last Nizam of Hyderabad, undertook measures for improving water management, sanitation and urban planning in Hyderabad. The famous Sri Visveswaraiya from Mysore state, who had engineered many marvels there, was invited to Hyderabad. A City Improvement Trust was formed, and many new buildings were erected. These included the Osmania General Hospital, Unani Hospital, High Court, City College, Patherghati Complex and Moazzam Jahi Market.

Both Pathaghatti and Moazaam Jahi are bazaar areas, intended for business. In Moazzam Jahi market, there are more than 100 shops, selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat, paan, attar, metalwork and of course, the famous ice-creams! There's a shop called FAMOUS ICECREAM at this market, and there is another one called BILAL. Some time ago, I wrote about the ice-creams at Bilals, inside this market. You can see how the inside of this market looks in this ice-cream story here:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Hill Forts of Rajasthan, Aravalli Range

I clicked this photo from one of the many viewing points in Amer Fort. You can see the Aravalli Hills in this photo. Beginning in Gujarat, near Ahmedabad, the Aravallis stretch across Rajasthan in a north-easterly direction, ending in Delhi.
The Aravallis are India's oldest mountain range. They define the ecology of Rajasthan, by providing a barrier to the Thar desert; they prevent the desert from growing. Several rivers originate in the Aravallis.

Many of Rajasthan's superb forts are located on hilltops in the Aravallis. Last year six of them were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites: Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Ranthambhore (Sawai Madhopur), Jhalawar, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer.  I've marked them out on a map below.

More information about the forts and how to visit them is in my article here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Abode of Nana Phadnavis

- Aishwarya Pramod

Nana Wada is the residence of Nana Phadnavis, who was Prime Minister to the Peshwas in the second half of the 1700's. This was a period of political instability as one Peshwa was rapidly succeeded by another, and there were many controversial transfers of power. Nana Phadnavis played a pivotal role in holding the Maratha Confederacy together in the midst of internal dissension and the growing power of the British East India Company.
Entrance to Nana Wada
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Deccan Education Society began operating the New English School in this Wada. A new building was built for this school. The addition of this new structure with its colonial influences is another interesting layer over the Maratha architecture from Nana Phadnavis' time.
Nana Wada

Monday, October 20, 2014

"My name is Gauhar Jaan" - the beginnings of the recorded music industry in India

Gramophone recording came to India towards the end of the 1900s. The Indian elite had been importing them as a luxury item already. But there were no local recordings. In fact, many leading male artistes of Indian musical traditions rejected the gramophone. Perhaps they feared that this new-fangled device would make their music too easily accessible, and thus compromise their ability to command high prices for live performances. Or perhaps they balked at the idea of condensing a long classical music performance to meet the restrictions of this new format.

However, several female courtesans came forward to record their voices; I am really not sure why. Maybe it was a chance to become more widely known; maybe they were already very wealthy and didn't have to worry about financials. Or maybe they were attracted by the potential of this new device. Whatever the reason, it was these "nautch-women" who became pioneers of the music industry in India.

India's first commercial 78rpm disc was recorded in 1902 by Fredrerick William Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. The singer was Gauhar Jaan, Kolkata's most famous courtesan. The recording was done in a makeshift studio in two large rooms of a hotel in Kolkata. 

Traditionally Hindustani music performances were long affairs, but Gauhar Jaan devised a unique template for presenting it in just 3 minutes, which was all that a single disc could record at the time. 

At the end of each recording, she would announce in English "My name is Gauhar Jaan". In those days, there were no facilities in India to cut the the master disk (acetate). So the master tape of the recording was sent to The Gramophone Company's pressing plan in Hanover (Germany). The announcement of the name at the end of the song helped the technician identify the singer. 

By 1903, Gauhar Jaan's records started appearing in Indian markets and were in great demand. She recorded over 600 records in 10 languages. She became very famous; so much so that when King George visited India for the Delhi Durbar, Gauhar Jaan was invited to Delhi to sing for him. She sang a special song congratulating the emperor on his coronation She was accompanied by Allahabad's famous courtesan, Janaki Bai (pictured here).

In 1908, a record pressing plant was set up at Sealdah, Calcutta (availability of plenty of lac/shellac was one of the reasons). With this plant, there was no need to send the wax masters to Germany, and as a result, the name announcements at the end of the song also disappeared. The workers at this plant called it "Baaja-Khana", the Music House. The harmonium or baaja was the most commonly used musical instrument accompanying vocalists.

P. S. Technically speaking, Gauhar Jaan was not the first recording that the Gramophone Company did. Three days before recording Gauhar Jaan, Fredrerick William Gaisberg recorded two other girls, Shoshimukhi and Fani Bala. He was not impressed with their voices. It was Gauhar Jaan who went on to achieve stardom, while the two singers before her remained unknown.