The Wonder of Talking Machines

Before you begin to read, The wonder that was the cylinder by the father-daughter pair, A. N. Sharma and Anukriti A Sharma, you spend minutes gaping at it. It’s that kind of book, weighty, gold-edged and beautifully produced on art paper. Inside there are superb photographs of the world’s earliest cylinders and machines for reproducing sound, of their inventors and the Indian musicians who were recorded.

When you begin to read, you are overwhelmed by the rigorous research that has gone into the book, documenting the physics, commerce, politics and evolution of sound recording. Its history begins in the 19th century, when the urge to transmit, record and reproduce human sound drove scientists in Canada, France and America to invent first the telegraph, then the telephone, and then a series of “talking machines”. The most prolific inventor of them all was Thomas Alva Edison, whose tinfoil phonograph, patented in 1878, became the first reproducer of human sound. Although his tinfoil recording surface produced poor sound quality and soon gave way to wax, he was the first man in the field and, as the authors say, “The excitement of hearing one’s own voice made this wonder machine extremely popular and a great commercial success.”

Within a few years of its invention, the phonograph arrived in India. An amusing newspaper cutting reproduced in the book gives us a sense of that excitement. Father Eugene Lafont, science teacher at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, wrote to the editor of The Statesman on July 13, 1886, saying, “Sir, It may perhaps interest some of your readers to know that on Thursday evening at 7.30, I shall exhibit and work an excellent “Phonograph” at the lecture hall of the Indian Association, No 210, Bow-Bazaar. I shall make this wonderful talking machine speak, cough, laugh and sing.”  It sounded like a magic show. There is also a brilliant double-page reproduction of a photograph taken by Lala Deen Dayal on May 22, 1892, showing a demonstration of the phonograph at the royal court of Hyderabad with memsahibs and sahibs listening intently to the machine through ear tubes.

But these are only amusing sidelights showing the public reception of recorded sound. What concerns the authors more and forms the chief focus of this book is the recording of music in India. They devote chapter after chapter to detailed information about who recorded whom, who wasn’t recorded and why, and how many recordings exist today, in what state and where in the world and India.

Amongst chapters on musicians like Gauhar Jan, Ustad Alladiya Khan, Balgandharva and Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale, there is one that is totally different. Intriguingly titled, The Abha cylinders, it records that incredible thing called serendipity that crowns the work of researchers. Rummaging in a kabaadi shop, Abha, the third member of the Sharma family, stumbled upon a neglected stash of 200 cylinders. Going through them carefully, they found that 40 were still in working order. Even more exciting was the date inscribed on one of the cardboard covers -- May 26, 1899. That made it “the oldest recorded Indian cylinder in the world.”

Reflecting on the paucity of recordings of great classical musicians of the early 20th century, the authors blame both the recording industry and the circumstances surrounding the performance, teaching and patronage of music in those times. Sound recordists like the famous Frederick Gaisberg, who were sent to India by recording companies, had no knowledge of Indian music. Their local Anglo-Indian agents, who were supposed to guide them, were equally ignorant and contemptuous to boot. Our musicians on the other hand, were caught in a twin trap. Their patrons were loath to give them permission to record their music, over which they claimed a proprietary control; and the musicians themselves were loath to part with it because to them it was secret knowledge to be passed on only to the family.

The situation was exactly reversed with cinema. Edison’s kinetograph was the precursor of the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph which in turn launched Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian film. Fittingly, The wonder that was the cylinder, ends with a wax cylinder recording of our first filmmaker’s speech, where he declares, “I, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, want to render my services to the Indian masses, so they have an opportunity to watch this film. I also wish that Indian cinema should travel globally and in the future be well-received throughout the world.”

Edison, who wanted to bring “solace to all” with music, would have loved to meet Phalke.

Published On : 26-11-2014