The timbre of Gauhar Jaan’s (1873-1930) voice is no less alluring than the story of her life, which had punishing singing schedules and idyllic rides in quaint horse-buggies in equal parts. Her contemporary in the south, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, (1878-1952), was a feisty rebel and trendsetter in Carnatic music. Little is known about the life of singer Mehboob Jaan of Solapur — except that her version of the devotional song, Krishna Ni Begane Baro, has since become legend.
The above facts about the lives and work of iconic women singers of the country may serve as interesting trivia to the curious eye. However, for Bangalore-based Vikram Sampath, executive director at the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts, New Delhi, their works are way of life. In July 2013, Sampath launched the website, Archive of Indian Music (AIM), a comprehensive online repository for digitisation and preservation of old and rare Indian gramophone records. Now, Sampath has joined hands with the Google Cultural Institute and curated the first online exhibition of 10 pioneering Indian women of the gramophone era.
“The online exhibition at Google is free and is aimed at getting more listeners to discover recordings which have been acquired from passionate record collectors and over my numerous trips to Chor Bazaar,” says Sampath. He is now working with a French digital distribution company to make these rare recordings available for download at a nominal rate.
The Google exhibition features almost-three-minute-long recordings of the greatest women artists of India — Janki Bai, Coimbatore Thayi, Malka Jaan, Dhanakoti, among others. Vikram Sampath picks his favourites:
Gauhar Jaan: Gauhar Jaan is a personal favourite. She cut 600 records in 15 languages, and I love her voice — it was as flamboyant and unapologetic as her life. She was the first Indian artiste to record on a gramophone, which could record a raag only for three minutes. She had the knack of condensing the best of a five-hour raag — the taan, the sargam, the khayal — to a measly three minutes, and every other artiste learnt a lot from her there.
Bai Sunderbai: I admire her work because she was so very versatile and performed across media — she cut gramophone records, worked in radio and films, and also directed music. She extensively worked with Bal Gandharva’s theatre troupe over her career.
Coimbatore Thayi: She was so adept at her art that in 1912, a renowned French musician heard her recording in Paris and travelled all the way to Madras to learn music from her. Her rendition of the Raag Malika is unparalleled.