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Indian music through the decades: 1900-1949



Indian music, whether Hindustani, Carnatic, ghazals or regional folk, has a long and interesting history. Those who have studied Indian music often take the names of icons like Miyan Tansen, Baiju Bawra, Sadarang, Thyagaraja, Kabir, Meera, Mirza Ghalib, Bulleh Shah and many others who made huge contributions much before the advent of the 20th century.

This series does not attempt to go that far back. Here, we shall concentrate on the important developments of the 20th century, and talk of the main musicians, genres, trends and ways of accessing music. The first part shall cover the period between 1900 and 1949, which set the path for the future. Thereafter, we shall look at developments decade-wise, till the end of the 1990s.

It was another era, another technology. Much before vinyl record players became popular, a select group listened to music on wax cylinders. Many well-known voices were recorded on these hollow rolls, most of which have been sadly lost.

The advent of music companies

The first Indian to manufacture wax cylinders indigenously was H. Bose. Some of the artistes recorded were Gauhar Jaan, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Allah Bandi, Alladiya Khan, Maharashtrian musical giants Bal Gandharva, Bhaskarbuva Bakhale and Bhaurao Kolhatkar, and the legendary Rabindranath Tagore’s recitations.

The story of wax cylinders is encapsulated in detail in the book ‘The Wonder That Was The Cylinder’ by A.N. Sharma and his daughter Anukriti. The senior Sharma, a Mumbai-based commissioner of customs and excise, had found 200 cylinders lying untouched in a scrap market.

The vinyl gramophone player slowly replaced the wax cylinder, especially after the music was introduced in films in the 1930s. The Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd (known as Saregama India today and also as HMV) had already begun putting out records with singer Gauhar Jaan in 1901. When the first talkie film Alam Ara was released in 1931 the record company had its music rights and was subsequently involved with all major film and classical records. Earlier, it was the overseas branch of EMI London and became a private limited company in 1946 under the name Gramophone Company of India.


Between 1931 and 1949, the main forms of Indian music heard were film music, Hindustani classical in the north, Carnatic in the south, devotional, ghazals and qawwalis, and regional folk forms like Natya sangeet in Maharashtra, Rabindra Sangeet, Baul, Nazrul Geeti and Bhatiyali in Bengal, besides Rajasthani, Punjabi, Gujarati and devotional music.

Not all of them were recorded on vinyl, though, and listening was restricted to private mehfils and occasionally to public concerts. The biggest demand was for Hindi and Bengali film music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, whereas devotional music was part of many homes.

In Hindustani music, the gharana system was already in place, wherein different styles were categorised under various schools. Thus we had the Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur-Atrauli, Kirana, Patiala, Rampur and Mewati styles in vocal music. Instrumental music and percussion had their own gharanas.

The popular musicians included Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar of Gwalior gharana, Ustad Faiyaz Khan of Agra, Alladiya Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar of Jaipur-Atrauli, Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva, Gangubai Hangal and a young Bhimsen Joshi from the Kirana school, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of Patiala, Amir Khan of Indore, multi-instrumentalist Alauddin Khan, sitar maestro Inayat Khan, sarod player Hafiz Ali Khan and shehnai wizard Bismillah Khan. Sitar great Ravi Shankar and sarod exponent Ali Akbar Khan were beginning to establish themselves, and in the ghazal world, Begum Akhtar created a storm.

Bismillah Khan

Those days, Hindustani music festivals were few. Though the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan was started in Jalandhar in 1875 and the All India Music Conference was held in Calcutta, other known events like the Tansen Samaroh near Gwalior and Dover Lane in Calcutta were launched only after India’s independence. Royal families hosted concerts for invited audiences, but otherwise, people had to make do with baithaks at someone’s residence.

The styles of Indian music education too. Traditionally, Hindustani music is taught under the guru shishya parampara, where the student learns directly from the teacher on a one-on-one basis. However, there came in a few attempts to institutionalise the system. Paluskar formed the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, first in Lahore and then in Bombay. Musicologist V.N. Bhatkhande formed the Marris College in Lucknow. Many youngsters, however, continued to learn under the guru shishya parampara.

The role of carnatic music

To listen to music, the general public depended a lot on the radio. The Bombay Presidency Radio Club, Colaba, was the first to broadcast radio shows. After a few ownership changes, All India Radio (AIR) came into formal existence in 1936. With that, access to Hindustani, Carnatic and film music became easier across pre-partition India, especially for those who could not afford record players.

The Carnatic music scene boasted of the Madras Music Season, which was started in 1927 to give a platform to both established names and young artists. The event began as a month-long musical affair but later ran up to six weeks too, covering dance and theatre as well.

Those who started the season formed the Madras Music Academy in 1929. Many famous vocalists like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.L. Vasanthakumari, D.K. Pattammal, and G.N. Balasubramaniam performed regularly during the season. Most singers would render compositions of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri, something which is foĺlowed even today.

MS Subbulakshmi
M.S. Subbulakshmi

The most popular form, of course, was Hindi film music and the undisputed superstar of that period was Kundan Lal Saigal, till his untimely death in 1947. Other established names included singers singer-composers Pankaj Mullick and K.C. Dey, singers Noorjehan and Amirbai Karnataki, and music directors Raichand Boral, Timir Baran, Sachin Dev Burman, Ghulam Haider, and Anil Biswas. In Bengal, Pahadi Sanyal created waves as a singer-actor.

Initially, the actors would sing the songs, but slowly, the concept of playback singing came in. Here, the actors would mime as specialised singers sang them.

Indian music in 1940s

The 1940s introduced many musicians who would become big names in the following decade. These included composer Naushad, C. Ramchandra, and Shankar-Jaikishen, lyricists Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni and Sahir Ludhianvi, and singers Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, and Asha Bhosle. Some playback singers like Talat Mehmood and Shamshad Begum had made a mark in ghazals even before this decade.

But it was Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat in 1949 that provided the biggest break. Though she had made her singing debut earlier, Lata Mangeshkar became a major star with ‘Jiya Beqarar Hai’, ‘Hawa Mein Udta Jaaye’ and ‘Mujhe Kisise Pyaar Ho Gaya’ composed for this film by Shankar-Jaikishen.

Hawa me

The rest is history. Await the next part of the series to read about the importance of the 1950s in the history of Indian music.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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