1900 - 1930

Pioneering Musicians: Women Superstars Of The Early Gramophone Era

Archive of Indian Music

Archive of Indian Music (AIM)

The  invention of the Gramophone by Emile Berliner in 1887 revolutionized the world of audio recording. Berliner's first trial was a 5 inch diameter disc made of rubber, later 7 inch diameter Zinc and finally 7 inch records made of a substance called ‘Shellac’ were released as E-Berliner records. These rotated at a speed of 78 Revolutions per minute and hence called 78 RPM Shellac discs.

Frederick William Gaisberg became the first recording agent of the Gramophone Company formed in London in 1898 to go all over the world recording ‘native voices’. He came to India in 1902 and starting from Calcutta, the Company toured all over the country to capture voices of artists on the discs.

When recording came to India it was women who took the lead, disregarding several social prejudices and stigmas associated with this new technology and going ahead to record. This trend was seen all over India and thus, women became pioneers of the music industry in the country.  In the first two decades of recording, women like Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta, Malka Jaan of Agra, Janki Bai of Allahabad, Zohra Bai Agrewali, Husna Jaan of Banaras, Wazir Jaan of Banaras, Oomda Jaan of Hyderabad, Mehboob Jaan of Solapur, Mumtaz Jaan of Delhi, Binodini Dasi, Bedana Dasi, Manada Sundari Dasi and others of Calcutta and in the South singers like Salem Godaveri, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Dhanakoti of Kanchipuram, Coimbatore Thayi, Tiruchendur Shanmukhavadivu, Bangalore Thayi, Mysore Adi Lakshmi were among the super-stars.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Archive of Indian Music (AIM) pays tribute to these pioneering artists of the country, whose contributions have been sadly forgotten!


Archive of Indian Music (AIM) is a not-for-profit Trust that seeks to digitize and preserve old and rare gramophone records of our country. It is unfortunate that many of these rare records are on the verge of destruction and without timely action, these would be lost forever. The primary objective of AIM is to preserve the voices of our ancestors and make them easily and electronically available for researchers, musicians, students of music and the public at large. The range of gramophone records that we restore is Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, Folk music, Early Cinema, Theatre, Speeches of great leaders of the country and voices of common Indians that were recorded starting 1902.

These tracks can be listened by all from the confines of their homes, free of cost, on the AIM website www.archiveofindianmusic.org . The Archive has also curated audio exhibitions ‘Voices of India’ in several cities of India like Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. AIM wishes to disseminate this information freely with everyone and thereby address the issue of accessibility to these rare treasures.

The Archive has been established through the generous help of Mr. T.V. Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal Global Education. It is the brain-child of Bangalore based author-historian and Sahitya Akademi award winner Vikram Sampath, who is its Founder Trustee along with Mr. Sampath Srinivasan and Smt H.N. Nagamani. Chethan Kumar is the Chief Technical Officer of AIM.

The Archive would be grateful to receive your support in the form of monetary contributions or donation of old records. Register on our website and join us in this fascinating journey to preserve the rich cultural inheritance of India!

                      Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta-- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


 The first artist of the sub-continent to record on the gramophone commercially in November 1902, Gauhar Jaan was a diva and a super-star of her times. Born an Armenian Christian and baptized as Eileen Angelina Yeoward, she converted to Islam and established herself as a leading vocalist of Calcutta. She devised the wondrous formula of compressing Hindustani music to the 3 minute capsule, which is all that a single-side of a record could hold. She ended all her recordings with the loud announcement ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’ Feisty and hedonistic, she threw lavish parties and drove around Calcutta in horse driven buggies for which she even paid a hefty fine to the British Government as commoners were not allowed to ride horse buggies! Gauhar’s photographs appeared on picture post-cards of the time and also on match-boxes made in Austria. In her illustrious career she cut close to 600 records in over 12 languages that included Hindustani, Bengali, Urdu, Arabic, Sanskrit, Katchi and even English and French! Later in life, she sought refuge in the Mysore court under the patronage of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and died there as a state guest in January 1930.

 Clip Details: Gauhar Jaan sings the evergreen Dadra ‘Aan Baan Jiya Mein Laagi’ set in Raag Gara and in Hindustani language. Don’t miss her announcing loudly at the end of the recording: her characteristic signature ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’

             Janki Bai of Allahabad-- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


Curiously titled ‘Chappan Churi’ because of the 56 scars that were allegedly made on her face by a lover who felt rebuffed when she did not respond, Janki Bai of Allahabad was one of the most leading Hindustani vocalists and most popular singers to record on the gramophone. She was also a talented poet and composed a book of Urdu poems called ‘Diwan-e-Janki’, Along with her famed contemporary Gauhar Jaan, Janki Bai had the privilege of performing for Emperor George V at the Delhi Durbar in 1911.

Clip Details: Janki Bai sings the Chaiti ‘Nahin Bhulai tumhari sooratiya’ set in Hindustani language. Don’t miss her announcing loudly at the end of the recording: her characteristic signature ‘Mera naam Janki bai Allahabad!’

                           Zohra Bai of Agra- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)

ZOHRA BAI OF AGRA (1868-1913)

 Zohrabai belonged to the Agra gharana. She was trained by Ustad Sher Khan, Ustad Kallan Khan and the noted composer Mehboob Khan (Daras Piya). She was known both for khayal as well as lighter varieties including Thumri and Ghazals which she learned from Ahmad Khan of Dhaka. Her singing influenced Ustad Faiyaz Khan, the greatest name in the Agra Gharana in modern times, and even Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharana held her in high regard. Zohrabai was one of the most noted and influential singers of Hindustani Classical Music from the early 1900s. Zohra’s khayal renditions in the limited 3 minute capsule are an example of her virtuosity, training and knowledge of the idiom. Along with Gauhar Jaan, she marks the dying phase of the courtesan singing tradition in Indian classical music. 

 Clip Details: Zohrabai sings the Khyal ‘Matki mori re’ set in Raag Jaunpuri and in Hindustani language. 

              Malka Jaan of Agra- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


Malka Jaan of Agra was one of Gauhar Jaan's contemporaries. Born in Azamgarh, she studied under several ustads of Agra. Later she became a court musician at the durbar of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta. Malka Jaan Agrewali became popular for developing her new full-throated thumri singing style. She had a wide repertoire that ranged from dhrupad, khayal and thumri to the so-called light and folk pieces of hori, chaiti, kajri, tappa and ghazal. Her ‘Beete jat barkha ritu sajan nahin aaye’ (‘The rainy season is coming to an end but my beloved hasn’t returned’) in Raga Desh and ‘Papihara piu piu kare’ (The papihara bird melodiously calls, piu piu) in Raga Sawan were immensely popular with the audiences both in live concerts and on gramophone discs. Later in life, Malka Jaan Agrewali had a long and torrid love affair with the famed Ustad of the Agra Gharana, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, who was much younger than her. Another musician, the extremely talented Maujuddin Khan, who was madly in love with her, almost ruined his life to alcohol when she spurned him.

Clip details: Malka Jaan sings the evergreen Thumri in Bhairavi 'Babul Mora Naihar chhooto jaay'- a composition of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

            Manada Sundari Dasi - Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


She was one of the most recorded artiste of her generation (1910-1920 being her peak recording period).  Most of her gramophone records were on Pathe, HMV and Beka labels.  She specialized in Tappa and Tap-khayals sung in Bengali and her voice production was immaculate even in the period of inferior acoustic recording.  She hailed from Kalighat region in South Kolkata where professional singing women were entertaining the travelers who came from all parts of India to the Kali temple.  She had extensive training in vocal classical music which is apparent from her taans, although very little is known about her tutelage. She received the patronage of people like Deshbandhu C.R.Das (who named one of the roads of Kolkata after her) and the Maharaja of Natore who it is said to have arranged a formal musical training for her from his court singer Biswanath Rao.

Clip Details: Manada Sundari Dasi sings a Bengali khayal ‘Kotobaar Ashiya’ set in Raga Kedar.

                  Bangalore Nagarathnamma- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)



Nagrathnamma was among the earliest artists of South India, along with Salem Godavari and Dhanakoti  Ammal of Kanchipuram to be recorded as early as 1904-05. She was a gifted musician, scholar, poetess and devadasi born in the princely Mysore State. She moved to Bangalore under the patronage of Justice Narahari Rao in the city. She later shifted to Madras which was emerging as the seat of Carnatic music. She was famous for publishing the controversial erotic love poetry ‘Radhika Santhvanamu’ of an 18th century Tanjore courtesan Muddu Pazhani. Copies of the book were banned and burnt in public, but she took the matter to court where after a prolonged fight she lost the case and the ban was upheld. Nagarathnamma made a passionate plea against the Devadasi Abolition that was enacted by the Madras Presidency. Later in life, she was instrumental in establishing the Samadhi of Saint-bard Thyagaraja in Tiruvaiyyaru in Tamil Nadu. Musicians flock to the Samadhi to this date on the occasion of the Saint’s death anniversary and render his Pancharatna Kritis.

Clip Details: Bangalore Nagarathnamma was famous for her Sanskrit Shlokas and Virutthams along with Raga alapanas that she recorded for the Gramophone Company with a clear and chaste diction. Nagrathnamma sings a Carnatic Shlokam, ‘Gacchami achyuta’.

                 Dhanakoti of Kanchipuram - Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


Dhanakoti Ammal was among the early recording stars of the South. She did not cut too many discs though. But her family had close ties to that of Veena Dhanammal and the two women considered themselves as sisters. They belonged to the shishya parampara or student lineage of one of the Trinity of Carnatic music--- Shyama Shastri.  Dhanakoti and her sister Kamakshi performed together as the ‘Dhanakoti Sisters’. Dhanakoti possessed a powerful and resonant voice and met with success wherever she performed. She was supposedly very popular in Andhra Pradesh: in Kakinada, Eluru, Rajamahendrapuram and so on. She had a wide repertoire of Tamil songs too and knew several Ramayana compositions of Tamil poet Arunachala Kavirayar.

Several of Shyama Shastri's rare compositions too were popularized by her on gramophone discs and in concerts. Dhanakoti was the aunt and guru of one of the outstanding artists of the 20th century Kanchipuram Naina Pillai.

Clip Details:  Here she sings Shyama Shastri's composition Saroja Dala Netri in Raga Shankarabharanam

                 Coimbatore Thayi- Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


She was born in 1872 to a celebrated devadasi singer Vengamaal and named Palanikunjaram. The child, affectionately called Thayi, was introduced to sadir (as Bharatanatyam used to be called) and music. In 1908, she was among the most popular singers in Madras. The Gramaphone Company even allotted two weeks for the “Coimbatore Thayi Recording Sessions”. Thayi’s was a natural talent. She learnt Kannada songs after a chance meeting with singer Mysore Kempe Gowda. By the 1890s, in her prime, she moved to Madras, and set up residence in George Town, where most devadasis lived. Veena Dhanammal was her friend and teacher. Eventually, Thayi gave up dance and focussed on music. Thayi was also a prolific recording artiste; she cut about 300 discs in her lifetime. Thayi died early (in her 40s), but she left behind a rich repertoire of songs, including the compositions of Tyagaraja, Shyama Sastri and Dikshithar, padams, javalis, the Thirupugazh.

Clip Details: Coimbatore Thayi sings a devotional Carnatic song, ‘Naan Pattu paattu’ set in Tamil language.

                Bai Sundarabai of Pune - Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


Born in the family of a contractor Marot Rao, Sundarabai was a child prodigy and had her early training in Satara and then Pune. She trained in Hindustani classical music as also folk forms of Marathi like the Lavani and was famous for her melodious Bhajans and Ghazals. Her diction in Hindi and Urdu too were phenomenal. She was the official music director for Bal Gandharva’s Theatre Company and scored the music for his plays like ‘Ekach Pyala’. She was a prominent figure of All India Radio Bombay Station and also acted in Prabhat Films’ ‘Manoos’, remade in Hindi as ‘Aadmi’. She inspired all her fellow women artists to sing on the gramophone and radio as that was the way forward for them all.

Clip Details:  Bai Sundara Bai sings a Marathi Natyasangeeth song ‘Bhulvila mama jeev boha’.

               Mehboob Jaan of Solapur - Archive of Indian Music (AIM)


Very little is known about this talented musician who was perhaps born around 1900 and appears to be musically active during 1925-40. Her very first 78 rpm disc was recorded by HMV in Feb 1932 – Shri Girija jane Shriram- in Raag khambavati, and Dattaguru in Raag Sohoni. She sang in Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Kannada, and seems to have had a wide range – raag sangeet, bhajans, ghazals and even film songs. In 1936 she sang two songs in the Marathi film ‘Saavkari Paas’ and is said to have played a role in the film too. The last one hears of her is around 1965 when she lived a lonely life in Pune and died there around that time.

Clip Details: Mehboob Jaan sings the popular Kannada devaranama ‘Krishna nee Begane baa’ in a Hindustani style.

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