Art

So Long, and Thank You for the Music

Mumbai's iconic music store, Rhythm House which will be closing soon after seven decades. (Photo: Wire files.)

Mumbai’s iconic music store, Rhythm House which will be closing soon after seven decades. Credit: The Wire

In the socialist India of the 1970s, it was not easy to listen to western music, popular or classical.

With tight import controls in place, barely a few foreign goods – and that included vinyl records – made it to India. Government controlled radio played pop music perhaps once a week. For us rock-starved youngsters, Rhythm House in what was then Bombay was a small haven.

Rhythm House, which has been run by one single family, the Curmallys, for over seven decades, was known for keeping an eclectic collection – everything from jazz, which had a tiny following, to Bollywood bestsellers to the latest in pop and rock.

It served the needs of not just young music buffs but also veteran film music directors who would go there to learn the latest international trends.

Sheer bliss

As per the store’s policy, one could take up to three LPs to play on turntables that were helpfully provided in tiny, air-conditioned booths; the opportunity for a broke student to be able to enjoy an unaffordable Beatles record, was as you would imagine, utter bliss.

Store attendants also kept a beady eye out for young couples who may have wanted to snatch a bit of “privacy” in those booths.

But now, after nearly 75 years of bringing music and much joy to generations of customers, Rhythm House is shutting down.

The march of MP3

First, piracy and now the march of technology has meant that fewer customers are buying CDs; when mp3 files are available off the net directly on to a mobile phone, why would any youngster spend time in a brick and mortar store?

The announcement of the impending closure has been greeted with dismay by those who still recall vinyl and for whom Rhythm House was more than just a shop, but a port of call whenever they visited the Kala Ghoda area.

The original 'Kala Ghoda' statue of Edward VII, which was removed from its original location in the 1960s (Photo: Wire Files.)

The original ‘Kala Ghoda’ statue of Edward VII, which was removed from its original location in the 1960s (Photo: Wire Files.)

The Kala Ghoda (Black Horse) precinct in the southern part of Mumbai is a beguiling place. The equestrian statue of Prince of Wales Edward VII after which it was named, is long gone, removed during an outburst of anti-colonial fervour in 1965, but everyone still calls it that. Arrayed around a small traffic island in the centre, where the horse once stood, are buildings replete with history.

Opposite Rhythm House stands Esplanade Mansion, which was once the posh Watson’s Hotel, where the Brothers Lumiere showed their new invention – cinematography – to a Europeans-only audience in 1896.

Across it is the Wayside Inn, where Bhimrao Ambedkar dined daily and copiously wrote the notes that became the Indian Constitution.

Fraying soul

That was in the 1940s. Three decades later, the poet Arun Kolhatkar wrote his Kala Ghoda Poems describing the quotidian rhythms of the streets, of stray dogs and beggar women, and of Wayside Inn where he sat daily for years.

On another street across from the music shop is the Jehangir Art Gallery, a modernist structure where some of India’s leading artists have exhibited at one time or the other.

The Venetian Gothic styled David Sassoon Library, built in 1870 and named after a well-known Baghdadi Jewish businessman-philanthropist of the time is a quiet presence. And looming over all of this is the Gothic Elphinstone College, a 19th century institution that has produced some distinguished alumni.

With this history and legacy, both artistic and intellectual, it is hardly surprising that Kala Ghoda is often thought of as the soul of Mumbai.

But some of that soul is fraying. One by one, old institutions are either disappearing or are in poor shape. Esplanade Mansion has been vacated because it is in danger of collapsing – all attempts to restore it have come to naught.

A few years ago, Wayside Inn’s owners decided that the old style eatery with its checkered table cloth and westernised menu – steaks and grills – was outdated; so they upgraded it to a pan-Asian restaurant, no different to the many others dotted all over Mumbai.

One of the biggest blows to the area came in March this year, when Samovar, a café in the Art Gallery whose habitués were artists, filmmakers, writers and indigent students, had to vacate its rented premises after 50 years.

The bohemian élan of the area is vanishing and with it a certain kind of old Bombay which was more civil, creative and cosmopolitan.

Fears

Some of that spirit surfaces in the annual Kala Ghoda festival, which has been run by citizens’ groups for nearly 20 years. The emphasis here is on art, crafts, music and literature, which goes well with the ethos of the place.

But that’s just once a year. There are genuine fears that the neighbourhood may soon fall into the hands of not just greedy developers but also pushy politicians who dream of turning it into some kind of glitzy Times Square, with a back-lit flag, large electronic bill boards, and “Indian cartoon characters” walking around greeting tourists.

For the moment a plan on those lines has been dropped, but there is no saying when some bright spark will revive it in a bid to “modernise” the place.

A few trendy restaurants and designer stores have opened up and this, most agree, is good for the revival of the precinct. At the very least, these new enterprises will help in keeping the essential character of the place.

Will Rhythm House go the same way? Will it become a club for hipsters, or a store selling expensive clothes or, heaven’s forbid, a retail bank? The owners haven’t commented yet, but whatever it morphs into, the old memories of several generations will be buried there forever.

This piece was originally published in BBC.com