With restrictions placed on public performances due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the nature of venues for music performances has changed. Since large auditoria and open-air spaces were closed for performances, concert organisers and musicians had to perforce take to online platforms to reach out to audiences.

The performance space moved from these conventional spaces to musicians’ homes from where concerts were streamed live. When possible, the concerts were recorded in studios or streamed live from these locations. It isn’t as the problem has gone away, though, because restrictions continue on public performances.

However, in the case of online sessions, one of the elements that was an absolute necessity for offline public performances has been done away with. This relates to police licences for public performances.

For instance, in the context of Maharashtra, Section 33 of the Maharashtra Police Act, 1951, requires licences to be issued for public performances. Consequently, each time a public performance is scheduled, concert organisers have to procure such licences. Most musicians and music-lovers are not aware that this is only one of the many aspects that concert organisers have to take care of before the performance actually begins.

This is not a recent development: obtaining such licences was required even under the provisions of the City of Bombay Police Act from the pre-Independence era. Non-compliance met with stringent action as is evident in a case concerning Gauhar Jan, one of the most popular female vocalists of her time and one of the first musicians to have been recorded on the 78 rpm format.

Gauhar Jan acknowledged the generosity and respect she received from Bombay in a song that she presented in July 1907 at the Darbar Hall of Bombay’s Town Hall. Through the song, she eulogised the philanthropy of specific shetias or merchant-princes, showered praise on Bombay’s patronage to her, and prayed for the well-being of the city’s residents and for the long life of King Edward, the British monarch at the time.

This song was released on a 78 rpm disc entitled Dhun Kalyan, ending with an announcement, “My name is Gauhar Jan. Yeh gaanaa Town Hall mein gaayaa, Pherozeshah Mehta ki taareef mein” (translated: This song was sung at the Town Hall, in honour of Pherozeshah Mehta, eminent lawyer and political leader). More information about this record can be found here.

Hindi Gramophone Record Sangeet-Pratham Bhaag compiled by SP Jaini provides a transcription of the song:

Chali gulzaar aalam mein havaaein fazl rahmaanee
Phalaa phulaa khadaa hai kyaa ise har nakhl-bostaanee

Garza Hindu Musalmaan sab ke sab hain khandaaeen peshaanee
Hain to yeh asahaaq ab haath gar dastayon bhee man

Zaheeye majlis hoon jin ke sadar ser meedor ko maheenaa
Vah barq andaaz gokul das jee iqbaal hon baanee

Rahe aabaad ya rab bambai or bambai vale
Kahaan main ek musaafir aur kahaan yeh qasar sultaanee

Mujhe izzat jo baqshee aur jo qadar kee meree
Rahengee yaad mujhko bambai vaalon kee mahmaanee

Jooheen school ke maalik ratansee seth jee saahab
Kareen bacchon kee khidmat or karen un kee nigahbaanee

Khudaayaa shah Edward ko tu rakh zindaa qayaamat tak
Rahe qaayam hakoomat aur hove fazle rabbanee

The first three couplets are incoherent, but the third mentions Goculdas, probably referring to the shetia Goculdas Tejpal. The next four couplets can be translated as:

I, an insignificant visitor to this magnificent edifice
Pray that Bombay and its citizens may forever prosper

I was treated with great honour and respect
And (I) will forever remember the hospitality of the people of Bombay

The owner of schools, Ratansee Sethjee saahab,
Serves children and is a guardian to them

May God keep King Edward alive till the Day of Judgement
May his regime last and be showered with divine blessings

(I am grateful to scholar Sohail Hashmi for translating these couplets.)

But despite Gauhar Jan’s stature as an iconic singer and the special relationship she had with patrons in Bombay, the city police evidently treated at least one of her concerts in much the same way as they would have with any other public performance. This was a concert held on May 10, 1913, at the Framji Cawasji Hall in Dhobi Talao. It was advertised as a special concert of compositions in the raag Bhairavi rendered by Gauhar Jan.

According to a report that appeared in The Bombay Chronicle on August 22, 1913, Frank Soundy, the Manager of the Soundy & Co. Ltd., the company in charge of selling tickets for the concert, had not applied for a license for the performance as required by Section 127 of the City of Bombay Police Act (IV of 1902).

Soundy was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of Rs 10 as per the order of the court of the Girgaum Beach of Honorary Magistrates. He made an application in revision at the Bombay High Court, but the court decided not to interfere with the Honorary Magistrate’s order and discharged the rule.

Clearly, the rule of law at the time did not seem to differentiate between a concert featuring one of the most popular vocalists of the time and any other public performance. I am not sure if the same objectivity was demonstrated in the case of public performances featuring non-Indian performers and non-Indian music. But more importantly, it seems extraordinary that in present times, we find loudspeakers blaring at all hours of the day and night, often without requisite permissions being sought, despite the law strictly stating otherwise.

One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.