The Last Vestiges of Lost Gramophones at Kolkata’s Sudder Street
Vestiges of a rusty old world that echoed squeaky old tunes, now taken over by digital mediums.
Vestiges of a rusty old world that echoed squeaky old tunes, now taken over by digital mediums.(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

The Last Vestiges of Lost Gramophones at Kolkata’s Sudder Street

There was a time when venturing into the shady lanes of Sudder Street, Kolkata – 13, would have introduced one to a rusty world of gramophones.

At one time, more than a hundred shops thronged the sidewalks of this famous street. Now only three remain.
At one time, more than a hundred shops thronged the sidewalks of this famous street. Now only three remain.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

When the concept of the world wide web and Youtube was still an alien one, when CDs and MP3 players were unheard of, these lanes proudly boasted of gramophone record shops which crowded the sidewalks.

Numbering more than a hundred, they continued at a stretch from Mirza Ghalib Street all the way up to Free School Street.

Currently, only three functional shops remain, in rather pitiable conditions and seemingly bereft of any hope for redemption.

These roads that once welcomed passers-by with a plethora of squeaky echoes of erstwhile trending hits, at present has only faint music emanating from these shops.

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The Mecca of Vinyl Records, Left To Gather Dust

Two of the shops are located before the corner where the road takes a turn into the bustle of Lindsay Street, and the third one is located further away towards Tottie Lane.

The oldest and most well-known is The Record Prince, which was established by Anis Ashraf in 1965 and presently maintained by his son. Locals around the area would not hesitate to tell you that this particular shop is the Mecca of vinyl records in town.

Danish Ashraf in front of his shop The Record Prince – the Mecca of vinyl records
Danish Ashraf in front of his shop The Record Prince – the Mecca of vinyl records
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)
“Anyone who is even remotely knowledgeable about a record player would know the sound of a well-oiled one,” opines Danish Ashraf, who currently looks after the Record Prince, claiming that the players for sale in his shop are the best in quality, which are priced at Rs 4,000-5,000.
A shopkeeping assistant, Nandu, operates the gramophone.
A shopkeeping assistant, Nandu, operates the gramophone.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

Stacked in racks, the records are on display – alphabetically arranged according to the artistes’ names. He still has over 5,000 records in his possession, some of which are about five or six decades old.

They include rarities like Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer, live albums by the Bill Evans Trio, Pink Floyd, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Debussy; not to mention Rabindrasangeet renditions by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay.

“Sales, however, has dipped and hit an all-time low, as everything is now easily available on the internet,” Ashraf laments.

People only buy gramophones nowadays as show-pieces and some foreigners generally come and buy the English records at times. Otherwise most of them just gather dust and are left to themselves.
Ashraf to The Quint
Unused or damaged records used to decorate the pillar adjacent to the shop.
Unused or damaged records used to decorate the pillar adjacent to the shop.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

One is bound to be mildly surprised at Ashraf’s expansive knowledge of music.

He claims that he “inherited” the gems from his father, and while working with him, got to learn of not only technicalities but also of genres and artists the world over. As a child, he had to maintain worn-out diaries that detailed track names and artists, year of publication and total lengths of the recordings. Details like these were prized information that customers would ask for, once upon a time.

“The charm of the vinyl is that even with years of repeated playing, these do not lose their rich sound. I cannot say the same about MP3 players and CDs,” Ashraf smiles ruefully.
The Gramophone Company, one of the most widely known manufacturers of gramophones. The tagline reads “His Master’s Voice”
The Gramophone Company, one of the most widely known manufacturers of gramophones. The tagline reads “His Master’s Voice”
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

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Rare Moments of Hope For A Legacy That is Fast Dwindling

Md Arif Khan’s record shop, National Country Paper Decorator, has a hard-to-miss, picture-perfect gramophone propped up on a podium and placed on the pavement.

Md Arif Khan, in front of his shop.
Md Arif Khan, in front of his shop.
(Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

Khan claims that although it’s a legacy that is fast dwindling, it will not go away completely. There will always be at least one out of twenty people who is a vinyl aficionado and it is for those few people that this culture will never be completely lost.

Finding alternative uses for a legacy that is fast dwindling.
Finding alternative uses for a legacy that is fast dwindling.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/The Quint)
“I have very infrequent aged customers who collect records, but once in a blue moon some youngsters do come and inquire about the prices, and that always gives me newfound hope,” alleged Khan in raspy Hindi.
In absence of buyers, half of the shop remains closed on most days.
In absence of buyers, half of the shop remains closed on most days.
(Photo: Srijita Dutta/ The Quint)

The price of the records is another thing to be considered, he points out. Records these days usually don’t cost below 500-700 rupees and some of the rarer ones can even cost upto five thousand.

“It is mostly turning into antique collectibles now. Why should people pay so much when they can hear the same thing for absolutely free online?” he asks, brandishing a very rare Joan Baez record, priced at Rs 2,000.

Joan Baez’s 1972 album “Come from the Shadows” priced at two thousand INR
Joan Baez’s 1972 album “Come from the Shadows” priced at two thousand INR
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

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Family Legacy That Needs To Be Kept Alive: But What’s The Cost of Sustenance?

With the turning to Tottie Lane on the right, the last record shop is Vibrations. The shop is currently manned by Md Shah Nawaz whose grandfather set up the store almost seven decades ago.

Vibrations - the record shop dating back seven decades.
Vibrations - the record shop dating back seven decades.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

Apart from being a bequest from his grandfather, it is also a family legacy that has to be kept alive. He runs other small businesses side by side for sustenance, but cannot give this one up completely.

Md. Shah Nawaz in front of his store that was set up by his grandfather.
Md. Shah Nawaz in front of his store that was set up by his grandfather.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)
“More than CDs or MP3s, it is the smartphones that has jeopardised this business the most. New records aren’t being manufactured to cater to the new generation and our assets include only old records like Lata, Rafi, Mukesh and RD Burman, which is only in demand as collectibles at this point,” he says.
Damaged records recycled and hung from trees.
Damaged records recycled and hung from trees.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

Although at first glance, his shop is nothing much to look at, a closer inspection would prove it holds treasures worth making our wallets lighter.

For starters, he has live albums of The Beatles and Kraftwerk.

His personal collection of vinyls boast rare numbers like a 78 RPM Jana Gana Mana record from the early sixties and an Iron Maiden limited edition from the 80s, which any die-hard fan of the band would tell you is a collector’s item.

He went on to confess that he holds a rather soft spot for these and isn’t very willing to part with them as they were his grandfather’s prized possessions and subsequently, his father’s too.

A limited edition Iron Maiden album, “Killers” which was released in 1981 and is a collector’s item.
A limited edition Iron Maiden album, “Killers” which was released in 1981 and is a collector’s item.
(Photo: Srijita Datta/ The Quint)
Rare collectible records of live albums of The Beatles and Kraftwerk.
Rare collectible records of live albums of The Beatles and Kraftwerk.
(Srijita Datta/ The Quint)

As the records gradually stopped turning by virtue of music becoming widely available to us, the story of these old shops started veering towards their end. It may not be very long till the legacy, currently on its last leg, becomes a thing of the past.

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