Indrani Majumdar

Bengali Language Initiative

Grant Period: Over two years

This grant under IFA’s Bengali Language Initiative will support researcher Indrani Majumdar to collect, digitise, annotate and archive 78 rpm gramophone records of Bengali plays performed from 1900 to 1930. The project will cover plays performed on stage as well as those produced exclusively for gramophone recordings. The gramophone companies launched their business in India by recording theatre pieces from Calcutta. Their association with the Bengali proscenium stage actors continued for many years, resulting in a significant body of theatre-related recordings. These recordings comprised of theatre songs, excerpts from plays, humorous songs and sketches, and short plays specifically written for the gramophone. Unfortunately, a large number of records containing early theatre pieces were not preserved properly and, as a result, many of the discs manufactured prior to the 1930s are difficult to locate today. Indrani fears that many of these early discs are probably lost forever.

Relatively small and specialised collections, however, are available with a handful of private collectors and theatre enthusiasts. Indrani is one such collector, who inherited a small collection of gramophone discs from her father and soon realised that the shellac discs were fragile, and decay quickly. In addition, early shellac discs developed scratches when played on a conventional 78 rpm player. Moreover, most private collectors possess limited knowledge when it comes to disc preservation. Some of the gramophone discs in her collection capture the voices of thespians like Surendranath Ghosh, son of pioneering theatre actor, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Nati Binodini, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, and Naresh Mitra. Indrani will locate other collectors and classify the collected discs into: (a) Songs from plays; (b) Dialogue and excerpts from plays; (c) Humorous sketches and songs written specially for gramophone companies; (d) Short plays; (e) Full length plays; (f) Background music for theatre productions that were orchestrated by famous bands like the Classic Theatre Orchestra. Indrani will collect about 100 tracks under these categories. Indrani will also digitise these tracks with the assistance of the School of Cultural Texts & Records (SCTR) at Jadavpur University. Prof. Dasgupta shall function as Indrani’s mentor for this project as the process of digitising fragile vintage discs involves complex technical manoeuvres.

The usability of the collection will be enhanced by Indrani’s detailed annotation. This includes biographical information of the artists and recording details. Indrani will transcribe full texts of humorous skits and songs which shall be written exclusively for the gramophone companies (that were not usually published). These texts will be of value to theatre practitioners, scholars, historians, and students. The digitised discs accompanied by the relevant metadata, copies of the transcribed scripts, record labels, reviews of plays and analyses of the period’s acting style, will be deposited at SCTR in digital form. SCTR is the appropriate institution to oversee the project and house the resulting collection. This assignment shall provide a fillip to theatre historiography not just in Bengal, but nationally as well.