Got the Rhythm House Blues: India’s Prime Music Haven to Shut Shop

Digital downloads – legal or illegal—have made the fountainhead of Indian and global music redundant.

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Rhythm House in Mumbai&nbsp;(Photo: <a href="http://www.tripoto.com/trip/my-perfect-day-in-bombay-2682">tripoto.com/Neehar Mishra</a>)

Last month, when I dropped by at India’s most famous music store to shoot a scene for a short film– showing a woman browsing through CD racks – I expected much fuss-‘n’-fret from its owners and staff.

Or at least a wad of money for video-shooting on the visually striking premises. But I just had to ask, and was told, “Go right ahead. No problem. You’ve been an old customer here.” Moreover, the staff helped out in lugging the camera and batteries. From an intercom, the store’s owner, Mehmood Curmally tall as a basketball player, in a baritone voice inquired, “Hope all’s going well. Need any tea or coffee? Water?”

That’s Rhythm House for you, the last bastion for music lovers in Mumbai, where the city’s spirit of courtesy and service has lasted ever since the 1950s. That’s the cheery news.

The absolutely depressing news is that circa February next year, the landmark located in the heart of Kala Ghoda, will shut shop.

The Attack of Technology

Digital downloads – legal or illegal—have made the fountainhead of Indian and global music redundant. Indeed, whenever I pick up some CDs from that addictive store, I’m heckled by all and sundry, “You must be crazy. Everything’s accessible on the net. Why pay for something you can get for free?” I have no answer for that: foggy sounds emanating from i-pods and pen drives is not my scene.

Digital downloads – legal or illegal—have made the fountainhead of Indian and global music redundant.&nbsp;(Photo: iStock)
Digital downloads – legal or illegal—have made the fountainhead of Indian and global music redundant. (Photo: iStock)

In a way, it’s like the advent of the Kindle. Why buy books when they can be downloaded or clicked on that thingamujig? If I say, the scent of paper, the cover design and the print fonts are the way books should be read, I’m met with raised eyebrows, “Uncle, you’ve lost it.”

Lost it, I have, and it’s the rhapsodic romance of monthly if not weekly visits to the sanctum sanctorum, Rhythm House, a virtual (pardon the word) Alibaba’s Cave of Riches, ranging from the Indian and western classical, film soundtracks to international rock, pop, jazz. You name it.

In the course of one such browsing spree there, I’d asked of Curmally, “How’re you coping up with the attack of technology? Will you have to close down?” To that, he shrugged stoically, “You tell me. Do you have any bright ideas about how I can run this establishment with decreasing footfalls? Still, let’s see. We’ll cross the bridge when we come to it.” Apparently, it’s time now for that crossing.

Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Has Lost It’s Essence

Real estate prices at Kala Ghoda, and particularly of its artery Rampart Row, are at such a premium that a sale is inescapable. The south Mumbai precinct is now home to a concatenation of tony restaurants, designer wear boutiques, mini-malls and upscale art galleries, standing cheek by jowl to the stray survivor like the Jehangir Art Gallery, which isn’t exactly as inviting as it used to be. On and off, the neighbouring Max Mueller Bhavan hosts important exhibitions of photographs and art but that’s it.

Visitors are reflected in a mirror at a curio shop at the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai February 13, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)
Visitors are reflected in a mirror at a curio shop at the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai February 13, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)

The quaint and affordable Wayside Inn is dead. Ditto the Samovar in a corridor of the Jehangir Art Gallery. Their absence has spawned pricey specialty cuisine franchises instead. Today, Masaba Gupta sells her haute couture at Kala Ghoda. So has Sabyasachi Mukherjee. The Chemould Art Gallery has shifted. And pavement artists sketching portraits of tourists have gone into the category of an extinct species.

Of course, I’m aware that to romanticise the oases that were, is an exercise in futility. With financial pressures, yesterday’s halcyon halts have to vanish with the wind. The cosy booths to test out vinyl LPs, an USP at the Rhythm House, in fact, had to give way to racks of glossy magazines, cellphone appliances, and assorted stationery. To prevent shop-lifting, extra staff (wearing red alert uniforms) added to the overheads.

Meanwhile, in an inconspicuous corner, an ageless lady, has booked seats for theatre performances. But does anyone book tickets nowadays. Simpler to go online for a Zubin Mehta concert or a Naseeruddin Shah play, isn’t it? Presumably, that zealot saleswoman of theatre tickets will now have to get comp-savvy. Or live unhappily ever after.

“Yes, For Dad Rhythm House Was His First Home”

Akbar bhai, a salesman behind the Rhythm House counter for decades, retired and passed away before he could witness the closure. For years he kept in touch, sighing that he missed listing the 10 top of the month’s charts. Akbar bhai introduced many of us students from the Cathedral School who would hang out there, to the magic of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppellin, suggesting, “But do try out Eartha Kitt, Begum Akhtar and Ray Charles, when you grow older. Right now, your taste in music is in its infancy.”

Newcastle, United Kingdom - September 18, 2012: The Beatles featured on a Postage Stamp from the Republique du Benin (Photo: iStock)
Newcastle, United Kingdom - September 18, 2012: The Beatles featured on a Postage Stamp from the Republique du Benin (Photo: iStock)

And if I wanted to buy the soundtrack of the movie Ben-Hur, of all things, he’d caution, “Are you sure? It’s not easy listening for kids.” I bought it anyway, the LP is with me, and it’s still not easy listening. Akbar bhai’s son is an income-tax officer. On connecting on Facebook, he said, “Yes, for dad Rhythm House was his first home. Thousands of music aficionados remember him fondly. We must meet.” We haven’t but Akbar bhai remains the closest I’ve ever got to a music teacher in my life.

Music stores in Delhi, Bengalaru, Chennai, Kolkata and practically every Indian town have closed shop.

Rhythm House was a given,though, taken for granted. No it couldn’t go away, it would somehow survive on a respirator. That hope was in vain.

Pulling out the plug couldn’t have been easy for the store’s proud, tradition-bound Curmallys. So here’s, just replaying the George Harrison song:

All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So I must be on my way
And face another day…

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter)

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