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When music came in a cylinder

The coffee table book, The Wonder that was the Cylinder, highlights India's contribution to sound recording, beginning from the late 19th century, an era characterised by the phonograph and the wax cylinder. In the book, author AN Sharma along with daughter Anukriti Sharma takes readers on a musical journey, delving on the 200 rare cylindrical recordings unearthed over two decades and featuring music by legendary Indian artistes

One of the earliest mediums to record sound was the hollow phonographic cylinder. With an audio recording engraved on the surface, the music could be reproduced, when played on a phonograph.

music-Cylinder

Delving on this aspect of sound is author AN Sharma, who along with his daughter Anukriti, probes into India’s past of sound recording in his recent book, The Wonder that was the Cylinder.

Aan Baan Jiya Mein Lage
A rare brown wax cylindrical record of Miss Gauhar Jan of Calcutta, with the rendering of Aan Baan Jiya Mein Lage

He traces the earliest voice recordings from the late 19th century (1899 onwards) and brings to light 200 rare and preserved cylindrical recordings of legendary Indian artistes, collected over two decades, which were thought to be lost to the annals of time. Uncannily enough, Sharma discovered the cylinders while ambling through Chor Bazaar.

Early advertisements of demonstrations of the phonograph in The Statesman (1886); Paricharika (1890); and fascimiles of other Bengali magazines such as Samachar Chandrika, which published early news on the advent of phonographs in India
Early advertisements of demonstrations of the phonograph in The Statesman (1886); Paricharika (1890); and fascimiles of other Bengali magazines such as Samachar Chandrika, which published early news on the advent of phonographs in India

AN Sharma
AN Sharma

The book contains a DVD documenting the cylindrical recordings of the doyens of Indian cinema and Hindustani Classical music like Dadasaheb Phalke, Ustad Alladiya Khan, Balgandharva, Gauhar Jaan, and others; some of the recordings are being showcased for the first time.

Cylinder
The Wonder that was the Cylinder, AN Sharma and Anukriti A Sharma, Spenta Multimedia, R6,000. Available  at leading bookstores.

Sharma is a serving Commissioner of Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax in Mumbai. In the past, he has written Bajanaama: A Study of Early Indian Gramophone Records.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison, the world-renowned inventor with what is credited to be one of his greatest inventions: the phonograph. Edison pioneered the sound recording industry with his revolutionary machine.

Speaking about the book, Sharma says, “The technology of cylindrical recordings did not come to India on a commercial level. Those who could afford it, privately procured the phonograph and cylindrical blanks. Recordings were, by and large, made privately. With the passing of time, they perished and became extinct.”

Records of artistes Alladia
Records of artistes Alladia, Allah Di and Allah Dino Khan — similarly named artistes of the era, not to be confused with Ustad Alladiya Khan

Sharma admits that writing the book involved extensive research and they had to hunt for materials throughout the country (primarily, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi and Kolkata). “We also contacted many resource persons as well as institutions and they all obliged,” he adds, emphasising that the greatest challenge was the non-availability of material such as cylinders and photographs as well as the process of cleaning the newly-found cylinders and preserving the voices contained therein.

Bal Gandharva
Balgandharva’s personal record album and one of his most famous disc records, personally installed by him.

Summing up his reasons for embarking on this quest, Sharma says, “Indian recorded cylinders are the rarest object of sound recording in the world and this book is one of the first to document the same in a multi-disciplinary manner.”

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