They came from the bylanes of the courtesans' colonies in heartland India to become legends in the annals of recorded music.
An exhibition, 'Women on Record: Celebrating the Music of Women in the Early 20th Century', traces the history of women in Indian classical music and their involvement with the 78 rpm vinyl records through a series of collages, texts, archival prints and photographs of the women, their lives and their patrons.
The 15-day exhibition at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's wife Gurcharan Kaur Friday, is spread across three sections.
The introductory section, 'Think Through' was a seminar that brought together artistes, historians and filmmakers to discuss the 'idea of touring companies', the construction of the music market, the voice hierarchy, the gendered performer and the status of women professionals in the entertainment industry.
The second section - 'Music and Nostalgia' - was the exhibition offering an overview of women who sang in the gramaphone era and the third section was a scripted narrative-based performance and concert that chronicled the challenges faced by the women performers.
'Women had to struggle so hard to make livelihoods and a name for themselves with their musical prowess in that era. We should be grateful to them for the songs that they sung and for leaving behind such a rich body of composition and diversity of voices,' Gurcharan Kaur told IANS, commenting on the tradition of women's involvement with the vinyl.
Women recorded several kinds of classical and semi-classical music like Dhrupad, Dhamar, Sadra, Khayal, Chaturang, Tarana, Thumris and Dadras - while some blended folk with religious music.
Over 500 women artistes recorded their music in different regional languages across the country.
The second section featured Malka Jan - an Armenian musician - the most notable 'gaanewali' at the turn of the century who became a gramaphone celebrity. She was an Armenian jew and like Eurasian women had a flair for music.
She later married a European and after the birth of a daughter moved to Varanasi to revive her career. She also trained her daughter Gauhar Jan, who became the first superstar 'gaanewali' of the 20th century.
Gauhar, known for her crystal voice and childlike demeanour and who proclaimed 'my name is Gauhar Jan' after each concert, was one of the most expensive vocalist of her time. She charged Rs.300 for every recording.
Gauhar, who could sing in 20 languages and regional dialects, served as a court musician at Darbhanga and Rampur. Her's are among the first 600 records that made up the legacy of gramaphone music in India.
In India, most of the recordings of the gramaphone era belong to the Baijis, the professional women singers who were tutored by the 'ustads'.
An excerpt from the life stories of exponent of the Kirana gharana, late Gangubai Hangal, read: 'For my first recording, when HMV insisted that I go to Bombay, I went there because they were taking care of my journey and sight-seeing. Later, they gave me Rs.400 for my recording but my family was annoyed because my name read as Gandhari Hubali on the record.'
Between 1902 and 1910, the Gramaphone Company and its rival units had recorded more than 2,000 songs in Bengali, Parsi, Gujarati, Urdu and Marathi.
The textual references at the exhibition estimate that the number of records issued in India over the past 100 years would amount to 500,000 - a large number of which remain inaccessible.