Kolkata’s Record Royalty

Digging for records in India

by Arjuna Sayyed

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After two trips to India to pursue spiritual interests, the third time around I decided to bring my portable turntable and allow some time for record digging. My first stop, Kolkata, home of the renowned spiritual masters Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, plus thirteen million other people, seemed like a perfect place to find some wax. The first two days were spent soaking up the peaceful vibrations of the inner-city temples Belur Mat and Daksineswar, but I came up empty handed as far as records were concerned.

On my third night, following a recommendation from a local friend, I set out to find Wellington Square, a bazaar where second-hand goods are sold for dirt cheap. Just a few blocks into my journey I chanced upon the Record Prince, a cluttered storefront bursting at the seams with cassette tapes, CDs, gramophones, and unrecognizable vinyl. Within minutes I had collected an armful of records that, judging by the covers, were worthy of at least a listen. Not being a connoisseur of funk-inspired Bollywood soundtracks, I looked for the obvious giveaways—guns, ridiculous disco scenes, and English song titles. Seeing my growing pile of records and the undoubtedly fiendish look in my eyes, the rather young looking shopkeeper struck up a conversation.

It didn’t take long for me to explain my b-boy background and addiction to break-worthy beats. To demonstrate my point, I easily located the Blood, Sweat and Tears LP that I had just flipped past and dropped the needle on the bass-heavy drum break of “More and More.” Though we shared only a few words in common, this immediately drove the point home, exciting my new friend as he began his own search for recommendations that fit my interest.

At this point, the sky, which had grown dark with clouds, began to unleash a merciless shower of Kolkata’s summertime monsoon rain. Seeing he had a serious customer on his hands, Abid, the shopkeeper, ushered me into his humble store determined not to let the sudden downpour scare his sales away. Once inside the decrepit building, Abid led me to a cramped storage room that reeked of the familiar smell of moldy records. Gramophones and boxes of 45s and 78s blocked entire shelves stacked with buried Bollywood treasures that could only be dug out with a full body suit, a respirator, and a week’s worth of time.

Unfortunately, I had only three days to explore this untouched treasure and the rest of the city. With no time to spare, I set up shop in the only area that wasn’t consumed by music paraphernalia—a floor space no larger than a welcome mat that was littered with ancient dust and rat shit the size of marbles. Abid and his older brother Danish posted in the doorway, dropping history as I eagerly dug through five-inch mildewed clumps of records, many whose covers were being feasted on by maggots and other Indian insects. To add to the adventure, the routine rains caused power outages, at times plunging the entire room into darkness for up to twenty-five minutes without notice. On day two, I got smart and came prepared with a flashlight so that I’d at least have some light to make my escape if the rats decided to make their move.

After three days of digging, I not only walked away with some serious luggage, which proved to be a pain during my 2,000-mile travels in the blazing summer heat, I also befriended two of Kolkata’s finest record collectors. I’m indebted to Abid and Danish, Kolkata’s record royalty, for opening up their outrageous underworld of Indian music and sharing their love for music with me. To cap my experience, on the last night Abid persuaded me to give a small breakin’ demo on the sidewalk in front of their shop. Though I still had a stomach full of curry from dinner and wasn’t necessarily trying to throw down, it felt good to bring a smile to their faces just like they had brought one to mine.

The most difficult part of the whole experience (aside from handling molded, insect infested records) was making my final selections. There was no possible way I could afford the one hundred plus records I initially picked out, much less carry them around India for the rest of my trip. Below are just a few of my purchases that are prime examples of the incredibly funky music Bollywood produced in the 1970s and ’80s. Having gained more knowledge of Bollywood soundtracks since my visit, it’s easy to imagine what other gems I passed over or wasn’t able to reach through all the junk.

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4 Responses

  1. Sounds cool, remember me?

    – jeremy hunkin

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