The Master’s Voice

While researching for a book, AN Sharma, a commissioner with the excise department in Mumbai, discovered the lost voice of Ustad Alladiya Khan on a gramophone record.

Written by Kevin Lobo | Updated: September 7, 2014 12:00:41 am
Sharma found the record at a scrap shop in Chor Bazaar. Sharma found the record at a scrap shop in Chor Bazaar.

In India, bureaucracy is often believed to be the undoing of the arts. So, it isn’t often that one comes across a senior official employed with the government who is also a classical music enthusiast. AN Sharma, Commissioner, Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax, Mumbai, and also the author of Bajanaama, a book on old gramophone records — may have discovered a rare musical recording by a maestro, Ustad Alladiya Khan, who is believed to have never been recorded.

Khan (1885-1946) was the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana that singers such as Kishori Amonkar and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande belong to. Like many great musicians of his time, it was thought that his voice was lost forever. However, Sharma, while researching for his new book, The Wonder that Was the Cylinder, stumbled upon two of the musician’s recordings.

“We have lost many great voices because singers were afraid that people would replicate their style or that they would not do justice to a raag in six minutes, which was the longest one could record at the time. It was believed that Ustad Alladiya Khan’s voice too was not recorded on disc,” says Sharma.

During the research for his book, Sharma was rummaging through a pile of over 400 records at a scrap shop in Chor Bazaar, when he saw a disc with the title Tappa Thumri by Aladia Khan, released by a major record company of the time, Beka Grand Record. The author’s reaction was a mixture of surprise and fear. “This record has ‘Tappa Thumri’ written on it, and Khan was never known to have sung thumris,” recounts Sharma, who has included a section on his finding in his new book that launched this weekend.

However, after speaking to a few classical music aficionados and making them listen to the recording, Sharma was convinced that the voice indeed belongs to the maestro. To be certain, the book includes a notation of the raga by Dr Nishtha Sharma, a lecturer in Kanpur, “so that the Pandits can decide which composition he is singing”.

Khan served in the royal courts of Rajasthan before moving to Mumbai in the 1920s. In his long, genre-defining career, he composed many ragas and is credited with resurrecting complex compositions such as Nat kamod, Bhoop nat, Kaunsi kanada and Sampoorna malkauns, among others. Vocalist Amarendra Dhaneshwar, an expert on Indian classical music, says, “There are many legends surrounding Ustad Alladiya Khan, and given that he is the patriarch of a gharana, he has inspired generations of singers. This recording will help future generations know what the legend sounded like.”

But Sharma’s book — co-authored by his daughter, Anukriti A Sharma — looks beyond the discs to explore an even earlier medium of recording music, the wax cylinders. Decades before the gramophone record was invented, sound used to be recorded on wax cylinders with minute grooves that could be played on a gramophone player. His book, thus, attempts to uncover the oldest recorded Indian. To do so, Sharma spent over 18 months travelling across Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, in search for these cylinders. “I did this with a missionary’s zeal,” he says.

What he ultimately found has been worthwhile. A wax cylinder with a recording of an unknown voice, titled Abha X, which Sharma believes is the oldest Indian voice on record. Dating back to 1899, after converting the hijri calendar date written on the canister, Sharma found the wax cylinder at a kabadi shop in Mumbai whose owner thought they were cotton spools. “Out of the 200 cylinders I found that day, only 40 of them work. But they are historically important,” says Sharma.

His other discoveries include wax cylinders with recordings of Dadasaheb Phalke taking notes on India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra; vocalist Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, known for having composed the bhajan Raghupati raghava raja ram, singing an unknown raga; and legendary Marathi thespian Bhaurao Kolhatkar singing a piece from a play, among others.

Sharma has not used any dating techniques, nor has he tried to get the cylinders cleaned by scientific methods. This, he says, should be the prerogative of the science community. He hopes that someday the government will construct a museum specially dedicated to India’s sound history.

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