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More than a collector

Senior IRS officer’s new book focuses on Indian sound recording history

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Book sequels are on shelves all over the place. Writing prequels, it seems, is a different task altogether. But then, A N Sharma has never believed in taking the easy way out. He has just come up with a prequel to his first book, published in 2012. Mumbai-based Sharma, Commissioner, Customs & Central Excise, is believed to be one of the largest collectors of old gramophone records in India (he diplomatically eschews discussing numbers though). But more than a collector, he would like posterity to remember him as an accomplished researcher of India’s fascinating sound recording history.

The first book, Bajanaama: A Study of Early Indian gramophone Records, was all about gramophone discs in India between 1902 and 1915. The latest, The Wonder That Was the Cylinder: Early and rare Indian Cylindrical Recordings (designed, published and printed by Spenta Multimedia), has been co-authored with his daughter Anukriti A Sharma, and covers the era of cylindrical records between 1899 and 1910.

The new book is a fascinating account of a long-forgotten era of the country’s musical heritage. It focuses on the legacy of cylindrical recordings encompassing music, theatre and cinema. Some of these recordings have been discovered by Sharma for the very first time. The book is a treasure trove for collectors, researchers and lovers of Indian music and history as it painstakingly details over 300 pages back stories of artistes, well-documented facts and rare photographs.

Talking about the book, Sharma says, “Our country unfortunately does not have any archive that documents the history of sound recording. For a long time it was commonly understood that recording began in 1902 after the advent of the disc that is played on the gramophone. But we have discovered wax cylinders dating back to 1899.” He hopes in the future the government will construct a memorial dedicated to the country’s sound history.

Much before the widespread popularity of circular shellac disc recordings, brown wax cylinders were the first sound recordings (played on phonographs) produced on a widespread commercial scale. During their heyday at the turn of the 20th century, the hollow, six inch long brown wax cylinders were sold with an accompanying slip of paper to identify the recording.

To Sharma goes the credit of discovering some of the oldest and rarest sound recordings in India going all the way back to 1899. He recently chanced upon 200 cylinders at a scrap dealer in Mumbai and to his delight, found later that they contained voices of  Rabindranath Tagore (reciting Vande Mataram), Pandit V D Paluskar, Ustad Alladiya Khan, Gauhar Jaan, Pandit Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle and Dadasaheb Phalke(talking about the making of Raja Harishchandra), among others. Sharma’s earlier cylinders had been sourced from private collectors. The true worth of the latest cache was unknown to the scrap dealer who thought they were textile rolls. Sharma has also searched for more cylinders in other places in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

It all started 25 years ago in Kolkata (then Calcutta) where Sharma was posted as an Assistant Collector of Customs. One evening, while strolling along Brabourne Road, he came across a roadside shop selling old records of the singing brothers Master Madan and Master Mohan. His curiosity piqued, Sharma started visiting the shop regularly and hobnobbing with other music aficionados who were regulars there.

 Caption1: Union Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar (centre) releasing the book in the presence of (from left) the co-authors and publisher Maneck Davar; (top) A N Sharma made a discovery of a lifetime when he stumbled upon 200 wax cylinders at a scrap dealer in Mumbai

Union Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar (centre) releasing the book in the presence of (from left) the co-authors and publisher Maneck Davar; (top) A N Sharma made a discovery of a lifetime when he stumbled upon 200 wax cylinders at a scrap dealer in Mumbai

Thus began his quest into the history of Indian musical recordings, which soon overlapped into a study of the socio-economic order of pre-independence India. “People don’t realise that the advent of the gramophone record energised India to a great extent. Earlier, anti-British sentiments could be expressed only through public gatherings which was often risky. But soon the gramophone record began to be used as a mass media. It became easier to spread nationalistic songs and speeches of Indian political leaders to people all over the country.” While roadside shops continue to be his primary source for information about old Indian music, Sharma also is in constant touch with libraries, researchers and collectors.

Sharma is proud of the “knowledge pool” he has built up over the decades in his relentless search into a little explored facet of India’s rich heritage. Don’t be surprised if he carries the same passion into his next two projects. He is planning his next book on the recorded and cultural history of nautch girls. He hopes to follow this up with another tome on the history of silent cinema. “More than a thousand silent movies have been made in India but not even five per cent of them have been documented.”

If his first two books are anything to go by, the next two should also succeed in ending up in the book collections of lovers of the rich Indian heritage.