Endangered Archives

EAP796: Collection, preservation, documentation & digitisation of ethnic recordings made in India in the acoustic recording process on shellac 78rpm gramophone records

Mr Sunny Mathew Kunnelpurayidom, Independent Researcher
2015 award - Major project
£22,000 for 24 months

Archival partner: Roja Muthiah Research Library

Project Overview

Gramophone records were introduced in India in 1902 and many short-lived Indian and foreign companies made recordings. During this period India was divided among small Princely states and British India with the culture and music of each tiny kingdom differing from one another. According to the report of the Linguistic Survey of India conducted from 1898 to 1928, there were 179 languages and 544 dialects in India. This project will preserve, digitise and document ethnic audio recordings currently not generally available to the public. These recordings are on highly brittle and perishable shellac records which are 88 to 113 years old.

Recordings made during the first quarter of the 20th century were made without using electricity. The singers of this period had to sing loudly into the horn of the gramophone recorder to make a satisfactory recording. Since the recording artists in this period were known only locally and not all over the country due to linguistic and cultural differences, very few copies of each record were released at that time. Only a few recordings by successful artists were reissued. These records were manufactured using Shellac. Considering the cost of the shellac, when new records were released, companies had a policy of buying back old records from the consumer in exchange for a discount on new records. As such, most of the records made during this period were lost or endangered even at that time. The present generation has little interest in these old recordings and most of the remaining records are left to perish in the cellars and attics of old buildings and sometimes appear in local markets.

A major portion of the remaining records are in the collections of individual collectors. The majority of these collectors are elderly and very few youngsters are interested in these records. Hence records with these collectors are at risk of being sold off at markets. Since there are few takers for these very old recordings made before the popular culture era, old goods sellers take little care in dealing with these rare records. It is high time to conserve these valuable treasures of the past and make them available to those interested: scholars, researchers, and music lovers.

Most of the female singers from South India during this period were ‘Devadasis’ attached to the local temple and most of the songs by them are the praises of the deity of the temple to which they belonged. Most of the male singers from South India were actors from the local drama troupes which enacted musical dramas. The Devadasi system and musical dramas no longer exist. North Indian female singers were mainly dancing girls. Artists of musical dramas and many hindusthani classical singers sang for recording. Since most of the singers of this period were by mostly unknown artists, these recordings were rarely reissued. Most of the singers were not alive when the recording system entered the electrical recording era. So reissues of old recordings were rarely done. The quality of these acoustic recordings is inferior to electrically recorded ones. So, when electrical recordings came, people lost interest in the old recordings and did not care for these old recordings. Every record found now may be the only remaining copy and needs to be preserved.

The following types of content are commonly found in these records:

    Carnatic music (South Indian Classical) - vocal and instrumental
    Hindusthani music (North Indian classical) - vocal and instrumental
    Devotional songs
    Imitations, comics, and many local art forms
    Abridged forms of musical dramas

The following gramophone record companies had record pressing units in India during the acoustic recording period:

    The Wellington Cycle Co. Bombay (1905 to 1907)
    The Binapani Recording Co. Calcutta (1908 to 1909)
    The Gramophone Co. Calcutta (from 1908)
    The Kamala recording Co. Calcutta (1909)
    Valabhdas Runchordas & Co. Bombay.(1914)

Record pressing for companies under the control of Carl Lindström AG and The Gramophone Co. were done in Germany until 1908. Records of Pathé were pressed in France.

During this period labels such as Pathé, Beka, Sun, Odeon, James Opera, Ramagraph, Singer, Lyrophone, Viel-o-phone, Heywa, Elephone and various labels of the Gramophone Company like Gramophone Record, Gramophone Concert Record, Gramophone Monarch Record, Zonophone, Cinch, Twin, His Master's Voice etc were present in India.

Approximately 20,000 recordings were issued on more than 10,000 shellac records. Records were initially released as single side in 7, 10 and 12 inch diameter sizes. From 1908 onwards, double sided records became the norm. It is assessed that around 1,000 records issued between 1902 and 1927 have survived and are highly endangered.

More than 2,000 audio files will be created, together with scanned image files of the record labels. Copies will be deposited with several institutions, universities and libraries within India and with the British Library.

Project Outcome