Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sounds of Time

The 'Record Prince' store
Seventy year old Richard Phillips from Boston has his eyes lit as he looks at the priceless and diverse collection of record players lying in the shelf of the small shop in front of him.  Santana’s eponymous debut album from 1969, a bunch of albums by the Southern Rock legends Allman Brothers Band, records from the 70s by British progressive rock pioneers King Crimson; among others occupy the shelves of this small record store in Kolkata. Also lying near these are jazz must-haves like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, live albums by the Bill Evans Trio and Weather Report classics

“These are absolute gems; I have been looking for many of these in my country for quite some time. Imagine finding them here in this small nook!!  My wife is a big fan of the Allman Brothers. She would be absolutely delighted.” says Richard with the excitement of a 12 year old.

Located in the nostalgic neighbourhood of Free School Street in central Kolkata, Record Prince , popularly known here as ‘Chacha’s shop’, has been in existence since 1965 and is one of the very few shops still housing some of the most valued and precious record players there can be. This shop, as some claim here, is the Mecca of vinyl records in town and not to mention a few well-maintained gramophone players, some of which are even up for sale.

Anyone who might have possessed a record player once would know what a good quality one is, and shops like Record Prince do keep theirs well oiled. The owner of the shop, 67 year old Anis Ashraf, is a jolly man who hardly visits the store these days himself and lets his two sons handle it. He got most of these records from their previous owner Bakhtiar Jaan who used to run a nameless record store in these very lanes in the early 1950s. Ashraf who used to work as an employee in Bakhtiar’s store learnt all the nitty- gritty and other technical details of record players with perfection. For instance he can tell you in details as to how a 78rpm(revolutions per minute)- the standard speed of a record player-  is supposed to run smooth. He can also inform you about genres and artistes that lure people to these records; things which were poles apart from his upbringing.
“What’s special about these vinyl records is that even after years of endless and repeated use they never seem to lose their rich quality of sound. This can never be the case of cassettes or even these new age CDs.  Although I have lost a handful of my old records as they got broken, but I have got quite a few which are more than sixty years old.” says Anis assuredly while showing the worn-out diaries he still maintains that detail track names and artistes on a particular LP (Long Play, or long-playing microgroove record), year of publication and total length of the recording. These are details he says that customers absolutely relish. “It gives me immense pleasure when I provide the customers with the things they are looking for. There is no greater feeling when people from different parts of the globe say that they have heard about my shop from their friends," he adds with pride.

Some of the famous classics on the shelves of the store

Record Prince however is not just renowned for housing English classics; it caters to local tastes too by having some of the most treasured collectibles of Hindi songs of the yore. Records of everyone from Pandit Ravi Shankar to Rabindrasangeet renditions by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay decorate the shelves of the shop. 

Danish Ashraf at the store
However the real gems or his ‘special collections’ as ‘Chacha’ likes to call them are kept in a moldy hole in the wall, behind the shop. Arranged systematically in racks, the records are alphabetically arranged according to the artistes’ names. After a record-to-tape, or now record-to-CD, capture each one the records goes back to its original place of safety.  While Chacha claims he has sold off most of his collections, there still are close to around 5000 records at his store.

Of his two sons, 30 year old Danish Ashraf is the one who is mostly seen managing the store and learning the tricks of the trade from his father like a loyal son.  “I have no intentions of going anywhere else. I wish to continue doing this as long as I can and maybe expand it even further in the future. It is our family’s bread and butter and I can never let it go.”  says Danish confidently.

In the age of MP3 players, IPods and digital music, Record Prince has survived and lived to tell its tale.  “I guess I have in a way ensured this shop’s place as an important part of Kolkata’s nostalgia; howsoever small it might be.”  smiles Anis Ashraf before going off to greet a couple of eager customers. Though Anis today may have taken his self-imposed voluntary retirement from his shop, it seems that the magic of vinyl refuses to leave him.  

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