Before the silence: Rhythm House a haven for music lovers

In the fast-changing lives of Mumbaikars, Rhythm House stood as a haven for music lovers looking to discover new genres and seek out some solitude. With its closure, the city will lose not just an institution, but also a way of life.

Written by Paroma Mukherjee | Published: December 27, 2015 1:07 am
Rhythm House attracted all kinds of patrons. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty) Rhythm House attracted all kinds of patrons. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

There is a reason why we visit places frequently and make memories, conversations and photographs without tiring of them. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not, we make our own portraits there — a temporal presence that is etched on the geography of that place and its location in our lives. A few weeks ago, I heard that the iconic music store, Rhythm House, was slated to close permanently in Mumbai. Many memories came to mind with lots of music as a worthy background score.

I was born in Mumbai, a city that I remember very differently from what it is now. I had been taken to Rhythm House as a child but had very little memory of it. My engineer father held a government job, but was also an AIR (All India Radio) artiste, who managed to cut two LPs and a couple of cassettes and CDs in the ’80s and ’90s. As a child, I rarely saw him without his National Panasonic Walkman and Akai LP player after work. He also loved making mixtapes. He had an arrangement with a couple of local music stores. He would borrow cassettes, copy songs on his blank Meltrack tapes and then return them. He is still a voracious listener of music and my brother is a sessions guitarist and music arranger in Mumbai now. In my late teens, I heard a fair bit of jazz, flamenco and western classical music, thanks to my brother who would often play pieces by Andrés Segovia and Paco de Lucía on his guitar. Fondly called “the pirate” at home for my obviously inherited, serious commitment to making mixed tapes and burning CDs, I would carry an assortment of music for the long bus journey to college and back (Powai to Parsi Colony, Dadar).

Founded in the late 1930s, its catalogue was huge, diverse and inclusive of all genres of music. The shop is set to shut in February 2016. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

One morning, knowing well that there was no possibility of making it to college because of the unpredictable traffic at Sion, I decided to bunk altogether. I got down at Victoria Terminus (VT) and decided to explore the area on my own. Having had a fairly sheltered life, the burst of people, buses and taxis at VT overwhelmed me. I walked briskly to Kala Ghoda to finally reach Rhythm House. I knew it was a mecca for music lovers and I wanted to explore it and buy my own music. It stood tall and graceful, defining the little circle around it.

It was 9 am, and I stood outside with my backpack, waiting for it to open. About an hour later, I went in. The entire space seemed like it was available only for me to be lost in. I remember clearly the unending rows of cassettes, videos, CDs and records in this gorgeous store. I couldn’t gauge how the hours raced past but I had an education at the end of it. When I was 18, I even held a summer job at Planet M for two months because I wanted to experience working in a store that played and sold music. But it was only Rhythm House that was the real institution.

Founded in the late 1930s, its catalogue was huge, diverse and inclusive of all genres. As much as I liked listening to western music, I also spent enough time in their Hindustani classical and ghazals section. I’m forever grateful for having listened to Kumar Gandharva and Farida Khanum in the booths there as much as I’m indebted to it for having introduced me to Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.

During my visits, I saw all kinds of patrons there. Some were couples, enjoying music at a listening booth together, while others just wandered around like curious flâneurs. I heard that it’d made an appearance in Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It was also a worthy tourist destination that held its ground against the popular Samovar café and Kala Ghoda itself.

Much like the city, Rhythm House always offered wonderful refuge to solitary exploration. The idea behind those neatly curated rows of cassettes, CDs and LPs was, perhaps, to simplify choices and navigation for the shopper, but the real beauty was in the chaos that it created, letting you know that you could have a bit of everything and still experience the simplicity of music. As I started working, I saw Mumbai change, the weight of the city now very visible on its ailing infrastructure. That was also the time when websites like Napster were offering music sharing and downloading. A whole generation discovered listening to music for free, without physically browsing through covers and inlays and never feeling the need to step into a store.

Somewhere down the line, I fell prey to that trend as well. However, Rhythm House remained my place to go to in between assignments (as a photojournalist), after work and sometimes as a means to just let music enter my body like a drug that would force other residual toxins of the looming urbanity out. It was a bubble that I was comfortable being trapped in.

I moved to Delhi in 2007 and returned to Mumbai in 2013 for about a year as a freelancer. I had more time to spare than my working friends and I often spent hours waiting at Rhythm House either for them to get free or to simply buy more music to play as I drove. In no order of priority, I also went there to escape certain memories that I’d made in the city and to shop for gifts (they now stocked magazines, mobile covers, and headphones).

I visited Rhythm House last year during the Kala Ghoda festival and I saw that it was fairly empty even though right outside its door were thousands of people attending the fair. Too much has changed in the world in the last decade, driving niche businesses such as bookstores and music stores to near extinction. Seldom do you see someone spending time with their music or book in a public space. The chances of seeing someone take a selfie are much higher. In fact, that was exactly what was happening at the Kala Ghoda festival.

To now think that Rhythm House might not be there when I visit home next, leaves a little lump in my throat. It might just mean that my driving around the city reduces or that I’m less inclined to wait as happily for friends. For me, Kala Ghoda will seem awkward without its core and there will be no landmark for curious walkers. When I sit by the sea that engulfs the city, I will miss the music that I choose to drown in when I’m not listening to the waves. For everything and everyone that changed in Mumbai, Rhythm House stood pleasantly still and available for an education and an experience. Much like what music stands for.

Paroma Mukherjee is an independent photographer based in Delhi.

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