Musician Vidya Shah is known for her stirring and soulful performances. However, she’s now stepped into the realm of archiving music and its memorable stars. Speaking with Srijana Mitra Das, Shah explains Women on Record (WoR), her multimedia project documenting female singers of the gramophone era – and why this is relevant in modern times:
Please tell us about‘Women on Record’ – what inspired you to capture the voices and experiences of women singing in a far-removed era of jalsaghars and mehfils?
WoR began a few years ago when i was requested to perform the repertoire of the lesserknown Baijis at a concert in Delhi. I heard a lot of the music from this time and in the process got introduced to women who sang on these records and the incredible versatility theyshowed. This became the beginning of my journey into early 20th-century India.
Fascinatingly, women were at the forefront of this phenomenon. As a woman performer, i felt that perhaps there was a continuum here – the intersection of women and the record made way for the likes of me to take to the stage, but comfortably, without the social baggage they had dealt with.
Why is it important to celebrate women who sang in the gramophone era?
The Baijis were important to the world of performance, yet they have not been part of a mainstream discourse on music in India. Initially, it was mostly women who recorded in different regional languages across India in the early 20th century. These women of the 78 RPM era made a significant contribution not only to Hindustani music but also to literature, especially Urdu prose and poetry and, later, by their active involvement, to the worlds of theatre and film.
Will the project appeal to younger people whose tastes in music are so different?
Young people today are so challenged by the options they have – so much to choose from! But the flip side is, they have an appetite for all kinds of creative endeavours. We have tried to produce this project with attractive ingredients – it has stunning visuals, different kinds of music, songs, riddles, and now a website. It’s received fantastic responses from young and old audiences in the subcontinent. Having said that, something like this, even if very popular, will never match up to a Bollywood-like scale.
From the gramophone to the iPod, has the evolution of technology shaped music too?
The advent of sound recording changed the experience of listening to music forever. It redefined the world of entertainment. Artistes took on the challenge presented by this new technology – mainly of presenting an improvisatory genre in approximately three minutes. From these beginnings, music production has undergone a sea change. It continues to be more and more democratised. Technology has become very powerful in its presence, be it in live concerts or a recording.
Music is meant to soothe the senses – yet there are musicianslikeyoualsotakingup causes as activists, grappling with hard reality. Can the two roles be reconciled?
Culture has always played an important role in our pluralistic traditions, epitomised by the Bhakti and Sufi movements… but over the years, this critical space has been displaced by a very modular implosion – music has to be entertaining and commercial, its message becoming passé…however, i do not see my role as mutually exclusive to my creative expression. If i perform for World Peace Day, it’s also because i believe in the works of Faiz, Kabir or Surdas…it’s time we stop softpedalling our culture.