May 1, 2024

Pioneering Female Artists of North India During the Gramophone Era

Indigenous Art & Culture


Aritri Majumder, PhD Research Scholar, Department of Performing Arts and Music, University of Calcutta & Prof. Dr. Tapasi Ghosh, Professor, Department of Home Science, University of Calcutta.


 In the glorious journey of the musical history of India, the Women performers of North India played a pivotal role always. In the era of the Gramophone, the scenario of the musical field was changed by technology. Tawaif, the women performer community, was introduced once again and they became the singing sensation of the Gramophone Era. They were the first performing artists who paved the way for future female performers. They pioneered a new path in the musical journey of women performers. Gramophone gave them an opportunity and a big platform though there was a capitalist mind. From Kotha culture to studio, this journey became possible by recording technology, these women performers and Gramophone introduced various genres of North Indian Classical and Semi-Classical Music. A new paradigm of North Indian Music developed and the magical voices reached every corner of the country.

Key Words: Gramophone, Technology, Tawaif, Kotha, Recording

The voices of women performers of north India remind many episodes, series of stories, and histories behind the curtain of success. North Indian music, especially classical and semi-classical, was newly recognized and reintroduced in that time of 18th century. And it is very pertinent and important to signify the significant role of women performers in north India. At the same time, it is also very important to note how Western thought, culture and technology had a great impact on Indian cultural ground., women performers who were known as Tawaif, Baiji or Kothewali, took the first step and used the opportunity, as a platform of performance and abide by technologies of West, but it was not an easy journey, their way to be an artist not only singing dancing girl but as a performing artist who played a pioneering role to change the perception and conception about women artists like them. Their contribution to north Indian music cannot be denied, they started a new era of north Indian music.

It will be crystal clear, if anyone turns the page of history, that the music practice in India during mid 19th century and 20th century acclaimed a drastic change. A revolution has happened, but not at a glance. In this time period radical changes in perspectives about women performers took place from court to commons. A reformist movement under the colonial canopy changed the scenario of performing art along with the professional side of Tawaifs. The nationalists and the social reformists made thinking about music and women music performers both an unethical and antisocial thing, their bad impact can disturb respectable families and women. A purity movement was started. On the other hand, the British administration made Tawaif culture a prostitution culture. These women performers became public women in the eye of society, their contribution to music, dance and poetry was overlooked, which favoured the British and created a misconception about the performing women. At the same time, British rulers wanted to break the relationship between the Nautch girl and Shahib. Missionaries also wanted to extend their education and culture and went against these Singing and dancing girls. The shadow of Victorian morality went against these women performers. There was a time when British rulers invited these women performers for their soldiers and officials for amusement and enjoyment. For the British, they were only Nautch girls or singing-dancing girls. But after a time a relationship was formed which became a concern of British rulers. They became more worried when they realized that the salon or Kotha of Tawaif was a shelter for freedom fighters. In another serious matter they were found guilty, they were claimed for venereal disease in European soldiers. These causes made their livelihood hard, they were stigmatized, and they became only sex symbols for society. As Shah describes in her book Jalsa “More so during the decades of British colonization that led to newly founded notions of morality among the reform minded upper and middle class Indians women performers where generalised as quotations and unfortunately even became synonymous with commonplace prostitutes in the era of the country’s independence.

It is very natural thinking did these Tawaifs the performing women gain their position? Did every Tawaifs get this opportunity to regain her position? why did they choose other professions to survive? did any other opportunity come to them to prove themselves as an artist? these all questions repeat the history of Tawaif culture. In the Mughal period, they were the court artists who presented their artistic performance, music and dance, delighting the entire court with their skilled forms. In the Mughal era Tawaif culture was a popular cultural form. In north India specially in Delhi, Lucknow, Banaras, Calcutta, Bombay, Kanpur, Agra, and Jaipur, they were popular for their cultural activity and in various names like Kanchani, Ramjani, Kasba, samath, burkini, muljadi, domini, deredar, natini gandharvi, tawaif, etc. They were categorized as per their activity also, they were known by different names in different provinces. Some of them came from singing communities, they were trained as well as professionals.

Their profession and talent were defined with complication, society made it complicated, in this context, Shah explained “A microcosm of talent and entertainment the world of baijis has always been a complex territory defying shallow definitions and categorization by outsiders. Its richness may have withered with the ravages of time, but its intrigue is everlasting.”

It was the Nawabi era when these Tawaifs were truly the epitome of culture. Their high cultural qualification, scholarly knowledge and cultural tastes would prove who they were. Nawab sent their heir to them to learn ‘tahezeeb’ and ‘tameez’. After the fall of the Mughal dynasty, Tawaifs spread out and started looking for a cultural shelter to save their art forms. Awadh became their priority. They became a cultural community and high taxpayer in Awadh (Sampath, 2023). They were searching for an opportunity to reestablish themselves. They established Kotha permanently. Kotha was that place from where North Indian Music got many new forms of music. It was like the cultural hub. It has its own rules. The stalwarts and patrons visited there regularly, not only did they enjoy themselves, Kotha became a centre of cultural practice of Music, Dance and Poetry. As Sampath explains “Aristocrats, poets, wealthy patrons, and rich famous men of the city congregated at the kothas every evening for their daily entertainment.”

In their ‘Lavish Kotha’ they were patronized by the ‘nobility and the wealthiest’, here intellectual thinking and scholarly knowledge were exchanged. Tawaifs were the symbolism of ‘Tameez’ and ‘Tahezeeb’ ‘Aadab’. Aristocrats sent their sons and daughters to learn etiquette and manners. As Rout mentions in her article “Tales from the Lavish Kothas” “The Kothas often housed women known for their added, tehezeeb and grace. People would often send their daughters to Kothas so they learn nuances of feminine elegance.”In Mujras of Lucknow Kotha, there were some rules. Visitors or stalwarts could enjoy the music, moves and dance with some opium but no alcohol was allowed there. This culture of Kotha was the proof of superiority of Kotha and Tawaif (Rout…..).

After 1857, when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah lost his ‘Lucknow Nagarai’ and made ‘Chhota Lucknow’ at Metiaburj, many Tawaifs came here to preserve their art form and Nawab started Awadhi culture here. Tawaifs came from many places. These famous Tawaifs enriched the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who was himself an artist and exponent. Tawaifs lit up the court with their mesmerizing voices and Kathak dance (Sudipto……).

Gradually, at the end of the Nawabi era, an anti-nautch movement was started against Tawaifs. At this very time, a revolutionary invention of the Western world made the world. It was not only invention, it was that discovery which began to lead further. It was 9th January 1878, Bengali periodical ‘Samachar Chandrika’ reported about the “Woundrous Talking Machine”.Now it was the time of that technology which changed the whole scenario of the world. India was Introduced with it and the cultural structure was again framed, cultural essence was newly spread out (Sampath,2023).

With the invention of Thomas Alva Edison’s Phonograph, it took very little time to become popular after its discovery. In the Indian market, it was entered and imported by Maharaj Lal &Sons of Delhi. It became demanding as Shah noted in her book ‘Jalsa”: “They became a fairly popular novelty among the ‘native’ elite. Colloquialism sprang up to describe this western invention.”

Phonograph made the thirst and interest of invention. A discovery begets more discoveries. Edison was inspired by the new generation of scientists, their invention and also their new thought. Emile Berliner was one of them. He started his experiment when unexpectedly Frederick William Gaisberg wanted to join him. In 1891 their experiment surprisingly took the shape, of a zinc disc record, which was named Gramophone. They realized this Zinc disc could not keep the real ‘impression permanently’, ‘shellac’ was the new substance of zinc disc. Sampath (2023) mentions noticeably in his book “Indian Classical Music and the Gramophone,1900-1930” that “Berliner and Gaisberg realized that unless the Gramophone was fitted with a clock-driven motor, it would never become a serious commercial proposition and merely remains a toy for the curious.”(P-18).

It was 1898, Emile Berliner founded the Gramophone Company in London. Gramophone was better than the Phonograph, its ‘quality’, ‘portability’ and ‘ability’ was far better than the Phonograph. Gramophone Company started the marketing procedure. It spread to different parts of the world. The company sent J.W.Hawd to Calcutta to open a branch office of Gramophone. They wanted to record ‘native voices’ for a business purpose. Many Indian artists refused to record, they thought once their culture and tradition were handed over to the company, they could never be recovered. But there was a community of performing artists who were ready to record their voices and took the opportunity to regain and prove themselves. According to Gaisbergit was quite impossible to record the voice of respected women, here the ‘public women’ came forward to record their voices. These women artists were the leading voices of the performing artist community. They were the Tawaifs who never be afraid to step forward (Nair, 2016). Gramophone not only gave the opportunity but also made a platform, from where music could be reached to everyone. In her article“Musical Revolution: How these artistes adapted to Gramophone Records in the Early 1900s” Nair (2016) describes: “The Gramophone ‘democratise’ the music of these artistes, taking it to the middle class and to housewives who would never be allowed to attend the soirees/salons where these artists performed.”

From the courtroom and salon, Tawaifs, the North Indian performing community, started another journey to reestablish themselves as an artist of Indian Performing Art. Before Gramophone, these women performers were dependent on patrons, as Shah (2016) explains in her book “Jalsa”: “Their voice could finally reach the drawing rooms of those who could not come to attend soirees. Records were their way around societal taboos.”But this recording journey was not very easy. At that time singers recorded their songs in loud voices. The technology of that time was not the same as now. Before a wax horn, they sang loudly and end of their recording announced their name. A minimum time was allotted for recording (Nair, 2016).

Gaisberg came to Calcutta and realized the actual culture of this place. His capitalist mind did not take long to figure out whose song would be the most famous on Gramophone record. He was taken to an elite house where he first time heard the mesmerizing voice of a female vocalist, who presented pure classical and semi-classical of North India and could sing in ‘twenty languages and dialects’. Gaisberg did not think twice about what to do. The golden voice of that era-Gauharjaan did the first commercial recording of Indian Classical Music, it was 1902. She became the idol of that era to this era. Farrel describes in his article “The early days of the Gramophone industry in India: historical, social and Musical Perspective”: “Gauharjan was an appropriate figure to play a role which bridge tradition and modernity, India and the West…..Gauharjan was multi-lingual, glamorous, flamboyant and fully aware of the commercial potential of the new medium.”(P-36)

Gauharjaan did her first recording-Khayal in Raag Jogiya, Teen taal, she presented Khayal in a three-minute format. At the end of the recording, she announced her name-“My name is Gauhar Jaan”.She recorded two hundred songs on 78rpm disc, she recorded many Thumri like- “Sawariya Ne Man Har Lino, “Ghor Ghar Barsat Mehrva (Thumri in Malhar), “Aan Baan Jiya Mein Lago-(Gara, Thumri), “Paniya Jo Baran Gayi Bhich Dagar Ghero” (Desh Thumri), “Mere Darde Jigar Ki Khabar Nahin” (Jhinjhoti Thumri), “Nahak Laye Gawanwa Mora” (Bhairavi Thumri), “Choro Choro Bahiya Piya” (Bhairavi Thumri) and many more (Kinnera,1994). She also recorded Dhrupad, many Khayal, Bhajan, Dadra, Chaiti, Jhoola. Tarana and Bengali Songs. As Shah (2016) noted in her book “Jalsa”: “Her discs over the entire range of Indian musical genres from Dhrupad and Khayal to the Bhajan, apart from the tawaif’s usual repertory of Thumri, Dadra and the like.” (P-43)

Gauhar Jaan was an idol, she was the pioneer who showed the way to establish herself not only as a Tawaif but also as a performing artist. In this new platform, many famous names were added, in them Janki Bai Allahabadi or Janki Bai Chappan Chhuri was popular. This talented Tawaif belonged to the ‘Vaggeyakar Community’. This community was famous for writing, composing and singing. Her musical talent was nurtured by the famous Ustad Hassu Khan of Gwalior Gharana. Her talent was not only in singing, she was an excellent composer also. Her performance made a history in Gramophone. She recorded about 250 songs on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm discs. She recorded-Khayal, Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti, Hori, and Ghazal, such as “Nahi bhulayere Tumri Suratiya ho Rama (Chaiti), “Laage Dukh Dayan”(Kafi Thumri), “Barkha Lage Mori Guiyan Sayian Nahi Aaye Han” (Kajri), “Jamna Tat Ram Khelan Hori” (Faag), “Aabas Hairan Karte ho  Nigaho se Nihan ho kar” (Ghazal), “Sri Ramchandra Krupal Bhaj Man” (Bhajan) and many more (Kinnera,1994).

Zohra Bai Agrewali, this name was associated with the Aagra style. Whenever this name is pronounced, a picture of a lady with a tanpura and her little son on her lap comes to a glimpse of the eye. For 25 recordings she was paid Rs.2500.She was an expert in Khayal singing, and her ‘fast and sharp’ taan was popular. As Shah (2016), noted in her book “Jalsa”: “Between 1908 and 1917, Zohra Bai recorded over sixty songs on 78 rpm discs. Though relatively small in number, her recordings were best-sellers for many years to follow and her singing an inspiration to fellow musicians” (P-46). It was tragic that she passed away in 1913 before her recordings were introduced to the listeners of India (Shah, 2016).

Mentioning these three names is only an example of the contribution of the Tawaifs to North Indian Classical Music. The names which were pronounced simultaneously- Malka Jaan of Agra, Zaddan Bai, Husna Jaan of Banaras, Oomda Jaan of Hyderabad, Mehboobjaan of Solapur, Kali Jaan, Mumtaj Jaan of Delhi, Mohammad Bandi of Patna, Badi Moti Bai, Rasoolan Bai of Banaras, Begum Akhtar and Binodini Dasi, Bedana Dasi, Manada Sundari Dasi, Jodumoni, Angurbala Devi of Bengal. Their recordings and their songs are invaluable assets of India. Their songs still guide the way forward. After their names, society included Tawaif, Baiji or Kothewali, but could not add a title that separated them as singers, though they were the actual performing artists of North India.