How 20th Century Indian Courtesans Changed The Way You Consume Music Today

How 20th Century Indian Courtesans Changed The Way You Consume Music Today
Image Courtesy:National Film Archives of India, Pune.

Nobody dominated the 20th century Indian Classical music scene as much as Gauhar Jaan. With endless patronage from the rich and famous, Maharajas and Nawabs, Jaan was the life of the Jalsa, a celebration. Also known to be the first voice to be recorded on the gramophone in India, Gauhar Jaan did something even the Ustads didn’t dare do—embrace technology. Many courtesans of that era went on to walk into the studios to live forever in the hearts of connoisseurs and listeners. Bringing their lived reality to the fore with her new book ‘Jalsa - Indian Women and Their Journey from the Salon to the Studios,’ Vidya Shah and her husband Parthiv Shah, photographer, focus their lens on this slice of history.

Mezzo Soprano Vidya Shah has been working on this project for the last five years, working on the journey of these women performers who forged the medium of entertainment as we see it today. From salons to studios, the courtesans, baijis, Jaans, Tawaifs and true Indian classical experts traversed the road less taken. ‘The socio-economic implications of what the gramophone did to the lives of both practitioners and listeners, how it changed the way music was presented is dealt with in depth. As Shah points out—“Having to sing into the horn of the phonograph, vocalists were bound to limit their natural head movements”. The chapter Singing Sensations has profiles of cou­­rte­sans who tailor-made their musical presentations to fit the format of a three-minute disc,’ Outlook India reported.

Image Courtesy: SIRC Mumbai

When the gramophone was brought to India to test the commercial sale of music, the Gramophone and Typewriter company sought the popular musicians of the time as the idea had worked well in the western countries. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, some recordings had taken place too. They did the recce in India and sought popular performers of the time. Many of these women already had good audiences. Makeshift studios were created and gramophone tours began. Outlook reported sound engineer Fred Gaisberg’s (who did India’s first recording in Calcutta) words—“We made our first native records. Two little nautch girls, 14 and 16, with miserable voices. They persi­sted in covering their faces and never got over the emba­rrassment we inspired.”

“Jalsa is a journey of women performers and how the performances transformed after the gramophone entered India. The commercialization and the idea of selling music came into the picture through these very first recorded musical performances and female performers were the first to embrace it. They were already stars of their time and this medium lent immortality to their voices. They transitioned from gramophones, to performance arts like theatre and then talkies, which later became the Hindi film industry,” says Shah.

Outlook also traced the other artists that took on the challenge of new technology. ‘Zohra Bai Agrewali, a star khayal singer who recorded 60 songs on 78 rpm; Janki Bai Allahabadi, whose fee shot up from Rs 250 for 20 songs in the 1920s to Rs 5,000 in keeping with her popularity; the hugely talented Kesarbai Kerkar, who had misgivings about rec­ording technology, then did a turnaround; and Jaddan Bai (mother of Nar­gis), who went from being a tawaif to a film actress in Bombay, and then became the owner of Sangeet Movietone, a film company,’ the report said.

‘The need to record and sell music brought into focus the singing talents of courtesans and nautch girls. Unlike most male performers, courtesans had no reservations about sharing their talents, and sound engineers were indifferent to the taboos surrounding those women. What interested the engineers was the prospect of capitalising on the courtesans’ popularity,’ reported Scroll. Soon, Thumri, Khayal, Dadra, Ghazal, Bhajans and Geet were resonating around the country providing much legitimacy to these ‘fancy girls.’

Vidya Shah says that a lot of the men at the time were not comfortable with the idea of selling music as it was a deep-rooted Indian music system which is oral and the repertoire guarded in the tradition. “Indian classical music stems from a patriarchal space. Male Ustads would teach other male members of the family, son-in-laws or other male students. They refused to teach courtesans who would later learn from Sarangi accompanists that either travelled with Ustads or were ustads in their own field. You could say that women who came from the regular backgrounds wouldn’t indulge in creative arts,” she said.

Born in Banaras in 1880, Janki Bai was a popular and talented singer who went by the intriguing moniker Chhappan Chhurivali (one with 56 scars). Many interesting anecdotes recount the reasons for this rather unusual alias. According to one, she adopted the name after she was attacked by a jealous ruffian during one of her performances, and the 56 scars she received got her the title Chhappan Chhurivali. Excerpted from Jalsa.

Janki Bai’s singing became fairly popular among aristocratic circles in Allahabad and surrounding areas, and she performed frequently in many princely states of North India. She was a known contemporary and good friend of Gauhar Jan; and the duo were invited to sing together on King George V’s visit to Allahabad . The popularity of Janki’s performances soon won her a contract with the Gramophone Company. It is believed that between 1907 and 1929, she cut over 250 songs on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm discs in a range of popular and regional genres.

Janki Bai was famous for her effortless renditions of raags and light classical genres like Dadra, Hori, Kajri, Chaiti, Bhajan and Ghazal. Her foray into gramophone recording brought her attention from music-lovers across the country. While she had begun recording for a sum of merely Rs. 250 for 20 songs, due to her popularity the fee escalated to as much as Rs. 5000 for 20 songs. It is said that roads leading to the record shops would get blocked by lovers of her music whenever a new stock of discs arrived. Many of her records sold over 25,000 copies, something unheard of till then even for highly accomplished singers of her time,’ says an excerpt from the book Jalsa.

Life for performing women was harder than the pleasure of fame. “It was more difficult for women to prove their merit and establish themselves as they carried a lot of social baggage. Even when they did manage to find success, that baggage was hard for them to get rid of and yet they continued to do what they were best at. With this project, we are trying to bring them into public memory, make them understand the legacy of these baiji’s and what they had to give up to get this to the audience,” Shah explains.

Tawaifs or courtesans are usually associated with the notions of pleasure. Vidya Shah says that the pleasure for these women came at a cost of great struggle. “Music was their livelihood and life. It was pleasure entwined with struggle, your agency which you didn’t have access to. Your audience experiences the pleasure through you, but you yourself don’t. They were excluded from experiencing this pleasure that drives every creative space because they had to struggle. They were excluded from that space. Many yearned for the respectability and did command it, but could never have a normal household life with husbands and children which they yearned for. The baijis were not considered mainstream women and if they wanted a regular life they had to give up their music,” she explained.

Shah’s photographer husband also toured the famous Jalsaghars around the country to visit the spaces that housed this art. “Jalsaghars were a part of the big badis or houses of land owners and Zamindars of the time. That is the space where the performances took place, artists were invited and a ‘Mehfil’ was arranged. Some of those spaces still exist with their silver furniture, gramophones, chandeliers and billiards tables. There has been a transformation in the social perception of the Mehfil,” says Vidya Shah.

Jalsaghar Rajbari Shovabazaar. Image Credits: Parthiv Shah

Shah has many more avenues to showcase this history. “I had actually thought making this a narrative for the stage. Taking the visuals from the sepia era and how the technology first came through listening to recorded music. Women were willing to enterprise and the project serves as a documentation purpose. Jalsa is a part of a larger project where I am travelling with the performance to USA and Bangladesh besides taking it to other part of the country. We are also planning a series at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We will move beyond the Gramophone and looking at the journey from the Mehfil to The Multiplexes,” she concludes.

An excerpt from ‘Jalsa- Indian Women and their Journeys from the Salon to the Studio’ republished here with author’s permission.

Women and Recording

Fred William Gaisberg, the sound engineer at GTL arrived on the shores of Calcutta aboard the “Coromandel” on 27 October 1902. With little knowledge of Indian genres and limited access to local artistes, the task that lay ahead was far from easy. Gaisberg conducted the first recording with Gauhar Jan, the famed singer of Calcutta. Gauhar Jan amazed her audience both by the improvisations of her voice and her luxurious lifestyle: “Calve came to our lab with far less cortege, and required much less attendants. The Mohammedan girl could lay considerable claim to coloratura voice.”

She remained the mainstay of GTL’s enterprise in the early years, recording over 400 songs in as many as twenty different languages, and was a key figure in the success of commercial sound recording in India.Beginning with Calcutta, GTL’s network spread to other major towns and cities of India including Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Benares and Lucknow. Other major recording labels like Beka, Odeon, Pathe and Twin soon formed associations with native businessmen to capitalize on the newlyfound market. From north to south, one recording expedition followed another, laying the early foundations of what was to later become the country’s music industry.

“Several reasons contributed to a scenario where women singers became a preferred choice over their male counterparts. As music became available to the general public with the entry of the gramophone, there was no deciding as to who could or could not sing. Anybody who could learn and adapt found an audience. The courtesans had no reservations about sharing their repertoire. Since they were born entertainers, the recording industry represented just one more opportunity for them to reach out to more people: more than they could ever reach through their performances in courts or at Kothas.”

Coincidentally, even the technology at that time was more suited to recording feminine voices. The early recording machines were relatively less suitable for recording deep masculine voices. Hiring male artistes was hardly a profitable proposition, although some male artistes went so far as to imitate the feminine voice signature by trying to sing in a higher pitch. Peara Saheb, who for a short time served as a court musician to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, was among the few male artistes to have sung for recording companies in the initial years, and he had a peculiar feminine voice.

As professional singers the women were often dependent upon their male patrons, but records provided them with new avenues of self - expression. Their voices could finally reach the drawing rooms of those who could not come to their salons to attend soirées. Records were their way around societal taboos.

“Gramophone fame”, as it was referred to at the time, was achieved, in part, through a concerted publicity and marketing campaign on behalf of the record companies. For example, women artistes figured prominently and widely in the print media. Advertised and featured in the popular press, pictures of these new singing stars were reproduced in numerous publications including songbooks, newspapers, journals and posters. This helped to transform stage performers into a new kind of gramophone recording stars with greatly expanded audiences beyond the face-to-face relationship of a live performance.

Most importantly, the records for the first time laid the foundations of a female bastion in Indian music culture, which served as an inspiration for generations of women to follow and learn from.

Jaddan Bai (Nargis Dutt's mother) and Hridaya Manthan (1936.) Image Courtesy:National Film Archives of India, Pune.

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