Shoshimukhi’s Song

In search of the first voice recorded in India

Panchu Gopal Biswas’s gramophone collection includes the first voice recorded in India, that of theatre actress Shoshimukhi. SUDHITI NASKAR FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2013

WHEN FREDERICK WILLIAM GAISBERG ARRIVED in India in 1902, he had a daunting task ahead of him. In a country that had never before encountered sound recording technology, Gaisberg, a recording engineer with the Gramophone and Typewriter Company had been assigned the job of recording promising voices for commercial distribution. On 11 November that year, in a hotel room in Kolkata, Gaisberg recorded the voice of Gauhar Jaan, a singer of Armenian descent.

Gauhar Jaan went on to become the first commercial recording artist in India, and her career and work are now legendary. But hers was not the first voice that Gaisberg recorded.

“It was Shoshimukhi,” said Indrani Majumdar, a Kolkata-based researcher and collector of old Bengali gramophone records. Shoshimukhi, Majumdar told me when I met her in her east Kolkata studio in March, was an actor in the city’s thriving theatre scene at the turn of the 20th century. “The first recorded content was a Bengali song, ‘Ami ki shojoni kusumeri’ (Is my beloved a flower),” Majumdar said. Gaisberg hadn’t been impressed with the voices of Shoshimukhi or Fani Bala, the other singer he recorded in his first session on 8 November. In his diary, he described them as “two little nautch girls ... with miserable voices”.

Majumdar has been immersed in the early history of recording in India as part of a project to collect, digitise and archive 78 rpm gramophone recordings of Bengali theatre performed between 1900 and 1930. Her research, now funded by the India Foundation for Arts and the Berlin Phonogramm Archive, began seven years ago, after she chanced upon a collection of 400 records that belonged to her late grandfather. “Some had labels of drama companies on them,” Majumdar said. “Not much was known about the plays of this period. I thought it would be great if I could do something to restore that part of history.” In the course of her work, she has consulted a number of sources, among them Gaisberg’s own published diaries and researcher Michael Kinnear’s detailed book The Gramophone Company’s First Recordings, which identifies the matrix number of Shoshimukhi’s recording, India’s first, as 13024.

Majumdar’s research has given her a sense of how the theatre community in Kolkata reacted to the advent of recording technology. The fact that no recordings have been found of some theatre legends, like the actor, writer and director Girish Ghosh, suggests that not everyone took to the idea. “Probably because the 78 rpm records were considered a fluke”, said Majumdar. “These [records] typically played for two-and-a-half minutes to a minute more. How to cut down an hours-long play, or an elaborate thumri into that tiny time frame was the question.”

But others from the theatre community were enthusiastic, like Amarendra Nath Dutta, who introduced Gaisberg to Shoshimukhi, a performer with his company Classic Theatre. The theatre recordings went on to be successful, with listeners lapping up encore pieces of Bengali plays, theatre songs like Shoshimukhi’s, full plays recorded over multiple discs, and comic skits. “It’s not easy to know all the relevant information for lack of documentation. I have yet to find the song of Shoshimukhi. But the search is on.”

Having left Majumdar’s studio seized with curiosity about Shoshimukhi’s recording, I made some phone calls to friends in the Kolkata recording industry. Two days later, I sat in the Dum Dum house of Panchu Gopal Biswas, a retired employee of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “This is my collection,” Biswas said, pointing to the piles of records neatly stashed in cupboards all over the room. Fishing out a brown envelope from one pile, he carefully extracted a disc from it and laid it on the bed. A worn purple label had fading words on it—‘Shoshimukhi’, and in Bengali, the name of the song, ‘Ami ki shojonee kusumeri’. Stamped on the record was the matrix number—13024.

As the record began to spin on the player, the shrill voice of a young girl filled the room. I thought to myself: Gaisberg may not have been too harsh when he described the voice as miserable. The singer sounded nervous and out of breath. Then, midway through the song, she appeared to gain confidence. The breathing grew more controlled, the words clearer. The refrain was a passionate declaration of love—valo bashi, valo bashi.

“Don’t tell too many people about this,” Biswas said after the song was over, smiling apologetically as he put the record back in its pile. I asked if he would be willing to help a researcher like Majumdar. “Of course I will,” he said. “I’m in if it’s for non-commercial use.” As I made my way out of Dum Dum, my mind was filled with thoughts of Shoshimukhi, sitting in a hotel room all those years ago, surrounded by foreigners, singing into a machine.