The day the music died

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With the shutting down of the iconic music store Rhythm House, South Mumbai has lost a glittering jewel of its rich heritage. But this is a sign of the times and all we can do is celebrate the good times while it lasts, says Narendra Kusnur, as Rhythm House organised a last musical session for its fans.

On February 28, a group of music lovers got together at the Rhythm House store in Kala Ghoda, South Mumbai’s cultural precinct, one last time. A surprise music session had been planned to bid farewell to the place which had played a huge role in everyone’s musical upbringing. Flautist Rajeev Raja, singers Subhash Kamath and Mihir Joshi, guitarist Hitesh Dhutia, percussionist Anuradha Pal and violinist Sunita Bhuyan joined the party. Actor Jackie Shroff was seen in the crowd.

The following day, February 29, the store officially shut down. For 68 years, it had been the favourite spot of Mumbai’s music era, right from the era of vinyl records through cassettes and compact discs. Later, VHS tapes, VCDs, DVDs and Blue-Ray were added to the list.

From music equipment to Blue-Ray
Rhythm House has been in the music retail business since 1948. It was founded by Suleman Nensey, but eventually Mammoo Curmally became a partner. Initially, they sold music equipment, but soon got into vinyl records. In the mid-1970s, Mammoo invited his brother Amir to help him run the business, who heeded is called and left his advertising job in Kolkata.

Ever since, Amir handled the store with Mammoo’s son Mehmood Curmally, who was Managing Director. Explaining the reason for closure, he says: “Everyone in the store has been around for the love and passion for music and movies. We had to take this decision because of the way things have been going on in the music retail business. This has been the situation internationally too, where major music stores have been shutting down. Here, we couldn’t struggle and keep the economics going.”

According to Curmally, the store has been thinking of winding up for the past year and a half. “The way the physical music business is headed, we might have done so earlier. Because of online retail and downloading, sales of compact discs and DVDs have dropped. The only physical segment which is doing well is that of vinyl records, but that’s a small part of the business.”
The place has its own history. Many customers visited the place when they came to Fort or Colaba. Those working in Nariman Point sometimes dropped by on their way back home. Some clubbed it with a visit to the Jehangir Art Gallery, or with lunch at Trishna, Wayside Inn and Chetna.

A haunt for celebrities and music lovers
Well-known personalities also visited the place. Lata Mangeshkar would come often. Even today she calls Mehmood Curmally if she has any specific requests. Actor Shammi Kapoor, advertising guru Alyque Padamsee, and music directors Laxmikant, Pyarelal, Kalyanji and Anandji were regulars. Singer Usha Uthup, lyricist Gulzar and tabla player Anuradha Pal launched albums. The group ‘The Other People’ launched their song Christmas Is Here.

Inside Rythm House, a popular haunt of music lovers for many years

Inside Rythm House, a popular haunt of music lovers for many years

Kathak legend Sitara Devi, ghazal maestro Pankaj Udhas, santoor player Rahul Sharma and sitarist Anoushka Shankar visited often. Composer A.R. Rahman dropped by a few times. Rock band Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, members of the band Police and pop star Peter Andre have also visited the place.

“I used to visit Rhythm House even when I was in college. Little did I know that my own music would be displayed there,” says Pankaj Udhas. Adds Mahesh Tinaikar, guitarist of the band Indus Creed: “I would come after college as I stay close by. I would spend hours checking out the records, though very often I wouldn’t have enough money to buy them.”

Anuradha Pal says that whenever she attended a concert at the NCPA in Nariman Point, she would drop by to pick up some music. “I loved the place so much that I decided to launch my albums there. At times I would play at the Wayside Inn next door before the launch,” she recalls.

Mehmood Curmally says because of space constraints, it was not possible to have shows here. But the album launches drew good audiences. Usha Uthup was the first to release her album Scotch And Soda in the late 1960s.

A jam session on the last day with Rajeev Raja on flute, Subhash Kamath on vocals and guitar, Hitesh Dhutia on guitar, and Anuradha Pal on percussion

A jam session on the last day with Rajeev Raja on flute, Subhash Kamath on vocals and guitar, Hitesh Dhutia on guitar, and Anuradha Pal on percussion

The store also had a lot of autograph sessions. Reminisces Curmally: “Even today, customers recall the visit of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in 1993. There was a serpentine queue outside, and people waited in line for an hour,” he reminisces. Adds Udhas: “We did the first such session when I released my album Shagufta in 1987. I remember we had even printed a newspaper advertisement. The response was huge.”

It changed with the times
The listening booths were a very popular part of the store. Music industry professional Parag Kamani, a regular visitor, recalls: “We got the chance to listen to various albums that have all been part of our growing years. And nobody rushed us if we took a little more time.”

Curmally says the booths had to be shut when cassettes arrived in a big way in the mid-80s. “We had to display them in the store and not keep them in the back office. The only way out was to remove the booths. It was sad we had to do that, as they were really popular, especially among the younger lot,” he says.

The ticket counter was a huge success story. Those who wanted concerts, plays or other cultural events would often come here and book. “It was an idea mooted by Alyque Padamsee to sell tickets for his plays. He and my father were good friends. They sent their own people and we gave them space and a phone line,” Curmally recalls.

Soon, Rhythm House extended the ticketing to other events like the Jazz Yatra and classical music concerts. Says Curmally: “It added value to the store. Our name would appear in the newspaper ads. It also led to increased sales. However, with online booking now becoming the norm, fewer people come for that.”

Actor Jackie Shroff pays a last visit

Actor Jackie Shroff pays a last visit

For many years, Rhythm House was the only store of its kind. In the late 1990s, other music megastores came up. Planet M was launched opposite CST station, and Groove at Eros building in Churchgate. Hi-Hat came up in Khar. Says Curmally: “Yes, some of our regular customers visited other stores because of their location. But the loyal ones kept coming back to us. It also helped us reanalyse our strategy.”

Groove and Hi-Hat were the first to shut down. Planet M eventually went in for smaller stores, and shifted from music to mobile phones. Music World was huge in other cities, but stopped operations. Landmark and Reliance TimeOut specialised in books, music, gifts and toys. The former no longer sells music, and the latter has shut down.

Was it a conscious decision by Rhythm House not to set up other branches in Mumbai or other cities? Curmally replies: “We did think of opening other branches at one point, but realised it’s not so easy to spread out. In a way, it was a wise decision or we would have had other issues today.”

Asked whether Rhythm House will sustain the online retailing model or retain the vinyl records aspect as part of its future strategy, Curmally admits he has certain options in mind. “We still haven’t taken a decision on anything. Let’s see. Right now, we are feeling sad about leaving something we loved doing for years,” he concludes.

The regulars and old-timers would be sad too. No wonder, one could see so much emotion overflowing at the musical event that Sunday.


Narendra

Narendra Kusnur

The writer has been a music critic and columnist for over two decades. He has covered both Indian and international music extensively, and enjoys various genres like Hindustani classical, Carnatic, ghazals, old film music, regional music, western classical, rock, pop and jazz. He has also been involved with the music industry as a label manager with EMI Music India, and as a corporate trainer with Reliance TimeOut books and music stores.

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