Songs of the Nautch Girls

The first ever Indian voice was recorded by Fred Gaisberg in London in February 1899. These were 7 inch records with recording on one side only. Some 44 recordings, were made in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi. None of these records have been found by the collectors. In 1900 the population of India was approximately 234 million. The inhabitants spoke more than twenty different languages and hundreds of dialects, and had a musical culture reaching back several thousand years. This potential market led to three major recording tours by Gramophone Company experts between 1902 and 1908, led by Fred Gaisberg, William Sinkler Darby, and Will Gaisberg.

Gauhar Jan of Calcutta :

On November 14, 1902, the first recording of Hindustani classical music was engraved in the grooves of a gramophone record. A very rudimentary and makeshift recording studio had been set up in two large rooms of a hotel in Calcutta by the Gramophone Company. Gaisberg visited several theaters, attended mehfils at wealthy Jamindars‘ palaces, and thus found at least one promising artist to begin with. The artist was a very famous dancing girl, although her voice was not so sweet for European ears. She agreed to a recording session for the handsome fee of Rs. 3,000. Her name was Gauhar Jan.

Gauhar Jan of Calcutta – Bhairavi Thumri (1902) :  (Download)

Zohra Bai of Agra – Matki Mori (1905) :  (Download)

Zohra Bai of Agra – Paraj Tarana (1905) :  (Download)

In the beginning around 1902, many artists recorded songs in Calcutta. The artists were either ‘Nautch Girls‘ (dancing girls) or women under the patronage of kings and wealthy landlords. They belonged to Agra, Lucknow, Allahabad, Benares, Calcutta, and Delhi. Later on celebrity dancing girls like Janki Bai of Allahabad, Zohra Bai of Agra, Malka Jan of Agra recorded prolifically for the company. During 1902-1908, recordings of over 8-10 very famous artists helped in establishing the business in India. However, these are almost forgotten now. Here is an attempt to acknowledge these noted female singers of that period. The songs may not be good examples of the art of classical singing, but are of historic importance.

Janki Bai of Allahabad :

Malka Jan of Agra – Maro Pichkari (1906) :  (Download)

Janki Bai of Allahabad – Fana Kaisi Bana (1908) :  (Download)

Janki Bai of Allahabad – Medicine Men (1908) :  (Download)

In order to have recorded documentation for making paper labels, the artists were asked to announce their names in English at the end of singing. This helped the technicians in Germany in making the final records ready for sale. All the songs posted above have the announcement at the end. This continued for two more recording expeditions and about 3000 wax records were made, pressed in Germany and brought back to India for marketing.

Comments are welcome.