[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.