Talking about The Indian Talking Machine: An interview with Robert Millis

Robert Millis

Seattle-based sound artist and record producer Robert Millis began releasing cassettes of early 20th century 78rpm discs with his collaborator Jeffrey Taylor 20 years ago. As a performing and recording duo, Millis and Taylor called themselves the Climax Golden Twins and made collage soundscapes in folksong length that were at once shimmering and dreamy and encrusted in an abrasive grime. The tape series of 78rpm discs they called Victrola Favorites was, on the surface, a more prosaic project: They’d set a microphone in front of the horn of a windup gramophone and make digital tapes of their favorite old discs. The choice of material, though, was exceedingly exotic, and the effect was like hearing transmissions from another world. One tape presented, for instance, an entire century-old Cantonese opera, which, devoid of context, was a full blast of shrill squawks, ashy grinding, and crashes, equally organized and chaotic. Presented by and for artists in an age when research was limited to libraries rather than search engines, it was baffling.

A decade later, they consolidated the Victrola Favorites aesthetic on a double disc and book set for the Dust-to-Digital label, providing a line or two of notes for each track but filling the book instead with photos of ephemera—record labels, sleeves, needle tins, etc. —from the earliest days of sound recording across the globe. Recently, with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship, Millis spent months in India gathering images, sounds, and experiences from collectors and dealers of the old shellac discs. He has presented the material in a new book and CD set on the Sublime Frequencies label called "The Indian Talking Machine."

The book gives accounts of the personalities and motivations of some of India's most rabid collectors of 78s. Page after page of photos depict mold and weather worn teak soundboxes, half-legible inscriptions on gilded labels with the names of forgotten artists, and brittle torn bits of brown paper showing the images of goddesses that were once on the record sleeves. There are attempts to organize the masses of materials in cardboard boxes, with twine, in heaving, groaning piles. It is a vivid and sensual depiction of the losing battle between the culture of sound and the ravages of time. I talked to Millis about his experience making the anthology and about his unique perspective on that unhygienic, if periodically fashionable hobby of record collecting.


City Paper: What are the main differences you noticed between Indian and American 78 collectors?

Robert Millis: Indian collectors collect Indian 78s. Haha. Joke. Honestly though, there are not many differences when you get down to it. Some are venal hoarders that are about possessing, some are happy to share. Some have things neatly organized, some live in chaotic jumbles. Some focus on specific areas, some accumulate all that comes near. Ultimately, there were no real stereotypes. Among Western collectors, there is a much more accepted sense of what is collectable, what is of value and much research has been done to understand what is rare and why. In India, sales records exist, but no sense of what has survived and in whose hands is really understood. In the West, collectors will get things simply because they know it is rare and valuable and many have their eyes on reissue projects or resale. Not so much the case in India, in my experience. Further, an understanding of rarity and value probably leads to much more trading among collectors, which does not seem to be the case in India. At least right now.


CP: I'm interested in how 78 collectors have helped shape historical identity in America, particularly in terms of race and the question of white collectors taking up jazz and blues. In India, the record business blossomed in the 1940s as India went through a major upheaval, in achieving independence and being traumatically partitioned geographically and religiously into separate countries. Can you talk about how that trauma and its memory fed into the record collecting impulse and the ways in which collectors reacted to it?

RM: Man this is tricky question. Partition, especially in North India is the defining moment in recent history. It has colored everything and continues to color everything— like the Holocaust, or the break up of the Beatles. But that said, among collectors I find little animosity towards musicians from one side of the border or the other. Islamic traditions, Urdu, Hindu, all get equal respect and feed one another. My area of interest was before partition. It is really the acoustic [pre-microphone] era and the transition of music from an oral culture to a record culture, the end of the patronage system. So, speaking about partition is not my forte. As far as I am aware, there exists in India no narrative like in the U.S.A. with collectors shaping historical identity in quite the way white collectors shaped the discussions around jazz and blues. India being such an old country with so many people, languages and traditions really has a very different relationship to its past, to history, to archives and records. It is strange to think—not just in relation to India but the world over—how people that are killing each other might also be enjoying the same kind of music. To me, to someone who is very affected and effected by music, this seems impossible. How can you harm another human being after hearing Keserbai Kerkar sing? How can you break a heart after listening to Buddy Holly's 'Learning the Game'? But we do, that's what humans do. We compartmentalize. Bangladesh tends to claim Kazi Nazrul as its poet, its Islamic answer to Tagore. Yet really he is revered on both sides of the border and many would consider him a Bengali first, rather than Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. His music and poetry and songs are loved on both sides of the border and the fact that art is so often consumed or used by politics is a terrible disservice to humanity. OK, I'll get off the high horse now.

CP: Given the massive amount of material at hand, what types of 78s do Indian collectors tend to disregard out of hand or physically discard?

RM: My only real way to judge this is by what's available in most used record shops and junk markets, and that's film material from the 1960s. There are stacks and stacks of it. Some of that is simply to do with how much of that material was issued and the fact that by the 1960s much was also available on LP and 45 (in India 78s were manufactured until the early 1970s). Also as in the U.S.A., as time has gone on, the older material is simply already bought and in collections. Initially, obviously enough, the focus of recording was on classical styles, simply because films did not yet exist. This changed in India through the 1930s and into the 1940s—film music became the dominant force in the country, it is the popular music, the nostalgic music, it controls the industry—from the North to the South and in between. Classical musicians recorded for the film industry, musicians first famous through film tried their hands at other music—but all popularized, marketed, advertised through film. Something that has to be understood is that India is a very different country than the U.S.A.. There are sharp language divides throughout the country. So accordingly, someone may focus on Malayalam (such a lovely word) film material, but a lover of Hindi cinema would disregard these titles; someone else may focus on Bengali music, whereas a non-Bengali speaker would not; fans of North Indian (Hindustani) classical styles may have no entry point into Southern Carnatic styles.

CP: Can you comment on the relationship between India as a huge market for recording and its former colonial power, the UK, in terms of the record business? I think of the UK as having used India as a source for shellac and then as a huge market for sales as gleeful exploitation over decades. The occurrence of the independent record labels in parallel to the Swadeshi [independence] movement is particularly interesting.

RM: Shellac comes from all over the northeast region of India, including present-day Bangladesh and Burma and Thailand, as far as I know. There are endless discussions over the best types of shellac but one of the main areas for shellac production was the NE of India and Assam. When shellac was an important material, when the shellac record market was huge, India was a British colony, and so was Burma. So it made perfect sense for the Gramophone Co. to come to India to look for markets for these new fangled records. It is undeniable that the market grew fast in India, perhaps faster than elsewhere in the world, outside of the West. By 1908 the Gramophone Co had a pressing plant near Calcutta—in part because of Calcutta's importance to the shellac trade, in part because India was proving to be such a vast market. It is hard to say why: Does India have a special relation to sound and music not found elsewhere in the world? It sure seems like a loud country and full of music, but music is important everywhere. Gleeful exploitation about sums it up. Whether it was a conscious colonial exploitative drive to control the record markets in India or simply the typical desire of all business to control its market shares I do not know. It is very popular these days, in some circles, to discuss everything in terms of post-colonialism, to view the world today as largely a product of the exploitations of the colonial era and what that might show about the colonizers and the colonized. I think it is more complicated than that, and also simpler. I tend to think [the colonial] era, though terrible and fascinating and terribly fascinating, was really just another stop along the way in how humans deal with one another. Worse things are happening now, worse will come, and better also. Nothing is isolated.

CP: Are Indian reissuers involved in a process similar to what you see in the West in terms of reconstructing and preserving the music (and therefore values) of the past?

RM: Sadly no. There is basically no such thing as a reissue label in India. No one buys records or CDs, all the stores are closing or have closed. The market is purely for downloads to cell phones. Some websites, some individual archives are trying to generate interest in older music, but again the relationship India has with its past is different than in the West. Of course certain artists, certain titles are only accessible through collectors and a few songs, here and there, have been found and reissued on compilations or on websites, but as of this writing there are no hipster, indie record labels.


CP: Do you experience a feeling like "loss" when you listen back to the old Indian records while living in or thinking about modern India?

RM: No. It's not my past, not my nostalgia to feel. Can you feel nostalgia for something you did not experience? I will admit to having the occasional fantasy of being a Zamindar (landlord) or minor maharaja that had a music room (as in Satyajit Ray's "Jalsagar") and musicians on hire for my evening entertainment. But that's different. I have a bit of a sadness at the volume of modern life in India that changes people's approach to sound and music, the noise pollution, the car horns. But that's not so much a loss as just part of the general disappointment in humanity that I feel all over the world. I think things were not always so good in the past. There were the beginnings of the end, always, at all times. "In my beginning is my end" to quote T.S. Eliot.

Robert Millis presents "Indian Talking Machine" at RhizomeDC (6950 Maple St. NW) in Washington D.C. on May 20 at 8 p.m.