I’m very happy to host another guest post from my friend Robert Millis, who has a beautiful new release out featuring all manner of amazing Indian 78s (caveat: I worked on it, and am gladly biased). Rob will be appearing this Saturday, January 30, in Los Angeles, at the Velaslavasay Panorama (a unique and wonderful venue) and I’ll be second banana, playing some ear-piercing 78s in the gazebo. Please come by – tickets are almost sold out.
I would have loved to include a track by Zohra Bai in my Indian Talking Machine book/CD set recently released on Sublime Frequencies, but her records are scarce and highly coveted by collectors in India. I finally received one through a friend after the book was put to bed so I am using this Excavated Shellac guest post as a supplementary entry to my book.
In the book I relate a brief story of driving in a car in India while a tape of Zohra Bai was being played. One passenger (a musician) in the car kept turning mid-sentence to sing along with the tape, repeat an ornamentation or marvel at her technique. It was as if he was having two conversations, one with the present and one with the past. That was my introduction to her work, and it left a strong mark on me.
The first thing you notice about this record on its faded and stained label is that it is credited to “the late” Zohra Bai, and indeed it was issued after her death which occurred in 1913, though there is some speculation that she may have died in 1911, as the word “dead” was noted on her HMV contract possibly in that year (that’s some stiff upper lip British efficiency for you). Zohra Bai was born in 1868 and so died far too young, and the world was robbed of a unique and powerful voice.
She recorded 3 times for the Gramophone Company from 1908-1910, making a total of 78 recordings. She was under an exclusive contract and paid Rs 2500 per year. Outside of this, as with many early recording artists, not much is known about Zohra Bai: some say she was part of the courtesan tradition and was a dancer and performed in the courts of North India. Experts claim she learned from Ahmad Khan, a famous sarangi player, and hence you can hear the sarangi in her voice. Collectors assert she was beautiful, claiming you only have to listen to her voice to know this must have been true. There are two photographs of her, though neither has been proven beyond a doubt to actually be her. What is known is that her voice helped define the Agra gharana (style or school) in Indian classical music and that she was an enormous influence on Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and even perhaps Abdul Karim Khan, all stalwarts of the Hindustani classical tradition. To many, no higher honor can be paid to her than to say she influenced such singers.
This track was recorded in Delhi in 1910 by George Walter Dillnutt, but not issued until 1919. It is a thumri. Thumri’s are often referred to as “light classical” works. But here “light” in no way implies a less complicated form of music that might require less training or talent. It is simply that in such music more liberties can be taken with the raga, more melodic invention is “allowed” than in the stricter dhrupad or khyal styles, of which it is also said Zohra Bai was a master. This piece is a Zila, which means at least two ragas–including all their associated rules and moods–are interwoven by the performer during the performance. Thumri usually revolve around the erotic love stories of Krishna, and are usually told from the woman’s point of view. In this piece, Zohra laments how frogs (dadurwa) and peacocks (mor) are making so much noise (shor) that she is frightened. She is alone in the monsoon rains, unable to endure the longing she feels for her lover.
At the end you can hear her announce herself (as many vocalists did at this time in India), almost as if she is signing her work, making sure we know who was singing. This practice was common in India during the early recording era, with some artists going so far as to provide their address. But listen closely, it sounds almost as if she says “Zohra Bai died in Agra” You can hear this same phrase on several of her other recordings. Maybe she says something else, or maybe she had been mis-taught the English. Or are these recordings actually not her, but someone paying homage? Perhaps she is singing from the beyond. The mystery around this will never be solved, just as the facts of her life will never really be known. Another ghost haunting shellac grooves. But what a legacy of recordings left behind. Had she died a few years earlier we might not have had even this much.
Thanks to Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. Also musician Keshavchaitanya Kunte who helped with the translation of the bandish (lyrics). And, in absentia as always, Michael Kinnear for all the discographical work.
“Is this Zohra Bai?”
Label: Gramophone Company (HMV)
Issue Number: P 4023
Coupling Number: 8-13990
Matrix Number: 13684o