Between 1877 and 1878, Thomas Alva Edison submitted patent applications for the phonograph in many countries, including British India. It is not known when these patents were granted, but it is known that in December 1878, the first phonograph recording was demonstrated in Kolkata.
For the next 30 years, recordings on the phonograph cylinder became quite popular, remaining so even in the early years of disc records.
Many members of royal families and wealthy people bought cylinder phonograph machines and recorded musicians and religious personalities. The Maharajah of Khetri recorded Swami Vivekananad’s speeches and discourses much before he went to America and gave his famous talks on religion. The internet is full of versions of his celebrated speeches.
Hemendra Mohan Bose (1864-1916) opened the Talking Machine Hall in Kolkata, a shop where one could get one’s voice recorded. Bose was a sound recording expert and also had an agency to sell Edison and Pathe brand phonograph machines. Many great writers, poets and political leaders would visit him and he would record their recitations and speeches.
A 1906 catalogue lists several cylinder recordings of Rabindranath Tagore. Unlike disc records, cylinders could not be reproduced for sale. Most of these cylinders have been lost. Some museums have broken or damaged copies of cylinders as artefacts but no audible sound can be extracted from them.
During agitations against the partition of Bengal in 1905, H Bose recorded many political speeches and songs, such as Bande Mataram, both on phonographs and disc records, and they became very popular. But his factory and shops were sealed, machines and discs destroyed ruthlessly by police. As a result, nothing has survived today except a very short piece from Bande Mataram, sung by Tagore.
Recording experts from Beka, a German company, were in Kolkata in November 1907. The British government went about destroying all nationalistic material, whereas the German company was the first to record a political speech right under the nose of the British.
The National Grand Record label had a saffron disc with a rising sun as the logo. On it was recorded a speech by Babu Surendranath Banerjee, on the partition of Bengal. The flipside of this unusual 78-rpm disc has a speech on Bande Mataram.
The man responsible for producing this disc was Sir Abdul Halim Guznavi, a political leader and agent for the Beka record company in Kolkata. Only few copies have survived. We have the image of the label only but no access to the audio file of this historically important recording.