Edison’s phonograph of 1877 and Emile Berliner’s improved version, the gramophone, were landmark inventions that had a profound cultural impact. The advent of recorded music allowed for cultural cross-pollination on an unprecedented scale and gave birth to the music industry across the world.
Berliner’s Gramophone Company realised the global potential of their 78rpm records, and quickly set up shop globally. A Calcutta office was established in 1901, and by the end of 1902, the first Indian “recording expedition” to produce records for an Indian market was underway. The most successful of the early recordings proved to be classical vocal performances by “Baiji’s”, the highly trained female musicians and dancers whose tradition had roots in the sophisticated entertainers of the Mughal courts. Gauhar Jaan, who caught the attention of the Gramophone Company during the 1902 expedition, went on to become India’s first “Gramophone Star”. Being an accomplished bi-lingual singer, she recorded over 500 songs with the Gramophone Company that represented the diversity of Indian music.
By 1908, a pressing plant was set up near Calcutta to keep up with increasing demand. The Gramophone Company formed alliances across the country and established a near monopoly; producing records under various labels which included the world-renowned HMV with the iconic image of the dog looking eagerly into a gramophone. A notable indigenous competitor was the National Gramophone Record Manufacturing Company of Bombay with their iconic label “Young India”.
National formed an alliance with Prabhat Films, and their 1934 releases of songs from the 1933 film Sairandhri proved to be a hit. This established the long-standing Indian tradition of song releases accompanying films, and solidified the inexorable unison of music and cinema in Indian culture.
The 78rpm records remain to be a significant part of Indian musical heritage, and in-fact, India clung onto the 78s for over a decade after they were superseded by the LP, another topic that we will definitely cover in much detail later in this series.