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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.