Sunday, June 17, 2007

City Secrets - Jama Masjid Melodies

Long Play Records and old album covers entice collectors to Old Delhi.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Overshadowed by Jama Masjid, amidst scampering goats and the air redolent with the smell of milky chai and mutton curry, stands a nondescript shop. The unimpressive exterior belies the uniqueness of this establishment that boast of over fifty thousand music records.

Newspaper-wrapped piles of LPs, 78 and 56 RPMs sit on shelves that creak. Hemmed in by antique gramophones and faded Muhammad Rafi photographs Syed Akbar Shah, the owner, spends the market hours waiting for masjid azaans and music connoisseurs.

"My place attracts collectors, not customers," he says. Only a true collector can wade through the narrow lanes of Meena Bazaar - lined with shacks selling mostly machine tools - where the mid-day chaos resembles an ant colony under fire.

With the help of his son Zafar, Mr. Shah runs the 80-years-old Shah Music Centre. It is a treasure trove. One could while away an entire day flipping through the music albums, pausing to look at Dimple Kapadia's plump arms on the cover of 1973 hit Bobby, or admiring the portrait of young Pandit Ravi Shankar on the 1967 album, Transmigration Macabre, or frowning at a frowning Prithviraj Kapoor (1960 Mughal-E-Azam).

The 'Long Play' records that stored around twenty minutes of music, before needing to be turned over, have long since given way to CDs and now MP3s. The shop lives on through patronage from music lovers, album cover aficionados, and retroverts, who come from all over India and abroad to take a look. The first-time visitors often ask Mr. Shah whether the records actually work to which he happily plays the discs on any of his old Hand-Winding Gramophones. Reflecting the collection's eclectic character, the large-horned gramophone is as likely to play Tansen's Deepak Raga as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

While the treasure trove was accumulated through years of dedication by his father, Mr. Shah exercises the same missionary spirit and attitude. His agents in cities like Calcutta, Kanpur, and Allahabad keep eyes on crumbling bungalows whose owners occasionally give away their vinyl inheritance to raddiwallas. Equally active in overseas takeovers, he claimed to using connections in London to get hold of the extremely limited copies of the 2004 film Veer Zaara – possibly the last gramophone records manufactured in India. You are free to gawk at the rare 3-record set, but it is not on sale.

Some of these countless film songs, ghazals, qawwalis, ragas, and even Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam movie numbers are so rare they cannot even be found in the libraries of music companies. I half expectantly asked for Devika Rani's 1933 film Karma and, like a magician, Mr. Shah produced it from a back shelf. (Unfortunately, the album cover did not sport her legendary kiss!) Apart from Hindustani and Western classical collection, there are delights for those who seek pleasure in Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Frank Sinatra – with stunning covers!

Though buying records here is cheaper than say, in the street fairs and flea markets of Manhattan's West Village and Chelsea, do not allow yourself to be fleeced. Exercise restrain if your first impulse upon spotting A Star is Born (topless Barbara Streisand hugging Kris Kristofferson) is to quickly pay and run with the album. Pretend outrage. Discuss, argue, and pester Mr. Shah until you arrive at a modest settlement. Finally make a note of the landmarks around Shop No. 256 when you leave. You may want to come back.

Where 256, Meena Bazaar, Jama Masjid Delhi.

Piles of LPs, 78 and 56 RPMs sit on Shelves that Creak

'Long Play' Records have given way to CDs and MP3s

Special Suitcases in-built with Hand-Winding Gramophones

Album Covers - Ashish Khan's LA Concert

Album Covers - Forgotten Bangladeshi Sensation Runa Laila

Album Covers - 16 Years Old Dimple Kapadia in Bobby

Album Covers - Shehnai Ustad Bismillah Khan

The Record Store's Rooftop Decor

Mughal-e-Azam's Black & White Romance

Album Covers - 60s Heart-throb Dev Anand

Mr. Shah has Inherited his Father's Passion

Jama Masjid Melodies

The Photographer's Self-Portrait


Thomas said...

Again a wonderful article.

In Europe, record sales have picked up again after a long period of losing out against CDs. Who knows, perhaps India will see the same trend?

Anonymous said...

This Blog is a sheer combination of art, ethnicity, human sentiments and gone day’s values. very few magazines are available in the market with such a diverse articles (want to mention Frontline). I think this is one of the advantage with blog reading… Great effort dude…keep going

Sugarlips said...

Mayank, I agree with the person above your blog is a sheer combination of art :)

Lovely article and the shops looks fabulous. Mohammad Rafi, Runa Laila and so many other great singers I spotted through your pics. I want you to take me to this shop when I visit you :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I will one day, I hope, get the chance to come to India. Did you get any records while you were there? If so, which one's? Thanks again.

djdrrrtypoonjabi said...

Amazing. I'm going to be all over this next time I'm in Delhi.

menopausal_ballerina said...

eeeexcellent......i think i see the light..

ive been hunting for stylists/needles/pointy whatchumacallits for the record player (Cosmic) and i couldnt get the right size anywhere...(well at least not in goa or chor bazaar -bombay)...and now i see the player of the same model in your photograph!

this looks hopefull..


Anonymous said...

I am super thrilled and very proud of this man to have carried on the legacy with such dedication. very impressive.

....... old timer.

Gajendra said...

How much does he charge for the songs? Does he only sell records or he rips them as mp3 etc as well?
I have been looking for some rare songs. If his price is fitting a student's budget I may consider approaching him.

Anonymous said...

i'm from singapore.
i found your article very fascinating!
could you get in touch please?
i kind of need your help in tracking the people at the shop.