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”.