Chronicling his love story with over five decades of esoteric Indian music, New Delhi’s Nishant Mittal spills on his triumphs and trials at the front lines of India’s vinyl revolution
“All I knew about records was from watching Almost Famous and High Fidelity, the movies about the record shop owners,” laughs Nishant Mittal AKA DigginginIndia, an entrepreneur, record collector, and music archivist based out of Delhi. “I think I must have been 19 or 20. I didn’t even know how it works at that time, I just bought it because I wanted to buy a record,” chuckles Mittal, reminiscing about the first time he purchased a record — a compilation named Discoparty2, curated by Hungarian music publisher Hungaroton and pressed by the Gramophone Company of India, Ltd. — a common marque you’ll find on many pre-1990s record sleeves.
A gift to a friend, Discoparty2 would echo much of Mittal’s future taste in music. Tempered with Pink Floyd and The Beatles in his youth, the 28-year-old eventually wandered through the discographies of Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis, before deep-diving in his early twenties into more esoteric genres, at least compared to the average Indian music enthusiast. This meant a studied, enthusiastic diet of genres such as city pop, jazz, afro, funk, and eventually a tour across the history of Indian artists — from jazz cats in the sixties, to rock and roll bands in the seventies, and of course, disco in the eighties.
Today, much of Mittal’s work revolves around excavating these forgotten relics from India’s past, primarily through highly curated uploads on his DigginginIndia persona, online. Here, Mittal explores everything from Bengali Boney M. covers to the intricacies of cover design, while tracing the culture of vinyl across the subcontinent with a delicate, passionate zeal. The genesis, however, of Mittal’s obsession with the Indian music rabbit hole, came through an early experience of discovering a very particular track, which was recorded over half a century ago.
“The first time I heard these Indian genres that no one knew about was a track by Usha Iyer — called Usha Uthup after marriage, of course,” says Mittal, referencing the iconic vocalist. “In 1969, she recorded a song with a band called The Trip by The Flintstones. At the time, a lot of ’60s and ’70s bands in India were covering The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, whatever, but this particular song by Usha Iyer? It completely blew my mind. After I heard it, I said to myself, ‘I wish I had a copy of this.’ It took me a couple years to find,” adds Mittal, “but ever since, the genre that would intrigue me the most then and now has been rock and roll from India in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Mittal’s mission to share his passion with the world comes along a wave of renewed interest in vinyl across the last decade. While 2007 saw the lowest-ever global sales numbers for the format, figures are currently at a 32-year high, with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reporting a 61 per cent increase between 2020-2021. In 2022, the statistics climbed even further, with several bigname artists such as Taylor Swift opting for multi-issue collectible vinyls of their latest albums. While some of this global fervour for the format has found its way to Indian shores, the Indian experience of record-collecting remains quite old-school.
“There’s not much culture when it comes to crate-digging in India — take Delhi’s population for example,” posits Mittal. “Two crore people, and like, three record stores. That’s nothing compared to the amount of people. If you have to be a collector in India, you have to go really deep to find records. By that, I mean you have to go into chor bazaars and antique shops. It’s not really a crate-digging culture, as much of a ‘finding and discovering’ culture. It’s not like you go to a town and there’s a record store over there. Rather, you go to a town, spend a day or two just to try and find out if there is someone who, by chance, is selling records out there. It’s a lot more tedious compared to Europe, for example,” he sighs.
For the most part, much of his own experiences with being a collector come with this sometimes-frustrating occasionally rewarding process of churning cultural gold from the bustling underbelly of urban India — everything from matchboxes to vintage posters, cassettes, and even vintage paper bags. (He’s not much of a compact disc fan.)
Despite the challenge involved, Mittal — through his own giveaways and trade networks for records — embraces and encourages the idea of building a collection from scratch, ignoring the ‘snob value’ sometimes associated with the crate-digging world. “Don’t go into it thinking that it’s a very tedious hobby,” cautions Mittal to newcomers. “Just be casual about it. Relax. At the end of the day, they’re just records — just another way of listening to music. Just buy records you like, store them, and play them with care, and buy a good record player for them — avoid cheap ones that damage your records, and just have a good time.”
“There’s something to be said about Mittal’s reminder that vinyls ought to be cherished, played, and enjoyed rather than shown off, which explains much of their modern-day appeal. The format allows us to really listen to an album with a degree of attention and reverence that’s almost ritualistic. My own experiences with collecting vinyl taught me these ‘rituals’. The long gazes at the artwork, the reading of the pamphlets, the lowering of the needle — all deliberate, measured actions that stood in stark contrast to hitting shuffle on an AIgenerated playlist. My own collection was, in fact, an attempt at reconstructing the playlists my parents would have created in their late teens, turning my father’s record player into less of a music box and more of a time machine.
Mittal agrees, and even shares those musical moments in the past that he’d have loved to see in person. “I have a soft spot for stuff from the last century — the last 40, 50 years, for sure. I think the folk era, like Cohen, Dylan would be really cool — just to be around them and people like Joan Baez and George Harrison.” Looking towards the future, Mittal aims to evolve the record industry with ambitions of recreating the discoverand-reissue model in India. “What happened with Rupa’s Disco Jazz? That’s an album that released over four decades ago. A label from Chicago, finds it, gets in touch with whoever owns the copyrights, and they reissue it,” explains Mittal. “I want to hopefully start a label in the future where I reissue old Indian records and put them out again for the whole world.”
“The kind of uploads I like to make are songs that just don’t exist anywhere,” enthuses Mittal. “Even if two people comment on it, saying that they’re hearing a track after 30 years, that makes my day.”
Images: Public Domain, Nishant Mittal