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The Abha Cylinders

Partho Datta

By A.N. Sharma  and Anukriti A. Sharma 
Spenta, Mumbai, 2014, pp. 300, Rs. 6000.00


This is a remarkable story. The author, his wife and daughter (the book has been authored by the father-daughter duo)—all enthusiasts, music lovers, avid collectors are rummaging through a kabadi shop when Abha (wife) stumbles across dusty cartons of cylinders which the shopkeeper tells her are textile yarn winding accessories. They bring the cartons home. Some of the cylinders are labelled and dated. Going back to the late 1890s they are without doubt some of the oldest wax cylinder recordings of Indian music. Their survival is a miracle. In honour of Abha who discovered this precious trove the cylinders are appropriately named the Abha cylinders. A.N. Sharma is already well-known as the author of the rich documentary history of Indian music Baajanama (2012). But this book surpasses the early volume. Tastefully designed and in large format, with many rare photographs and illustrations, the text is accompanied by a DVD which presents excerpts from these early recordings. Historians of recorded music will have to revise their chronology and engage with these new findings. For historians of music the opportunity to hear maestros from the past—whose voices were presumed lost for ever, these discoveries are very exciting, even humbling. There is certainly something magical about listening to the voice of the legendary vocalists like Alladiya Khan, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and many others. There were almost 200 cylinders and the authors found them in three different sizes— the large concert size and the smaller 6 inch and 4 inch ones. All the cylinders neatly encased in paper and cotton were placed inside metallic and cardboard covers. A century had passed since they had been issued and the careful encasing had either decayed or moulded. After careful cleaning, two batches of 28 and 40 cylinders were recovered—most of these had labels and a precious handful could be played. The authors have provided a complete list of these batches. The labelling and details in Urdu have been translated. Some of the cylinders had ‘Columbia Company’ written on the boxes which gives a clue to their provenance. The large format cylinders the authors tell us cannot be heard since appropriate machines for playing them are now unavailable. The first list of 28 has different genres of Islamic religious songs or recitations from the Quran—the Naat, Hamd, Qataa, Qarat. The second batch is more varied and there are recordings of ragas, thumri, bhajan, ghazal, dramatic dialogue, recitations as well ...

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