The End of an Era: An Insider’s View of the Iconic Rhythm House
GROWING UP in a music store in the 1980s and ‘90s was a bit like growing up in a real-life version of YouTube. Everywhere you looked, there was an image of a musician and a lot of cool words describing the music. The names of bands, in and of themselves, were enough to cause excitement and at times mild discomfort — The Sex Pistols and Engelbert Humperdinck, to name but two. As a six-year old, even spelling r-h-y-t-h-m was a challenge, because this was a word with no vowels, for heaven’s sake. I was distraught when I misspelled it once as ‘Rhythem’ in school (in an essay on ‘What does your father do?’), and I came home and begged my dad to please change the name of the store so I would not be in the wrong.
My earliest memories of the shop were when there were empty cassettes stocked on the shelves — if you liked the album, you took it to the counter and they would bring you the ‘fresh piece’. The tape era was kind of fun — there were these amazing read-along Disney tapes we consumed like candy. They came with a book, and I pretty much mastered my Cinderella, Brer Rabbit and The Fox and the Hound thanks to them.
My sister and I didn’t need a dollhouse, because we had abandoned listening booths to play in. The listening booths once housed turntables and headphone sets. Booth 8 was the largest, and that’s where 5 to 6 people could cram themselves in and listen to an album. By the time my sister and I began growing up, they were not in use because the system had changed, and we had them to ourselves. At one point, there was even an arcade sized Pac Man machine that was rather randomly being housed in the shop. The shop was also a tad daunting. There was so much mystique to it, because even in the 1980s it was already old, having been set up before Independence. The Police had dropped by (my father had met Sting!), and so had Leonard Cohen. Even at age ten, I knew that these were highly evolved people.
When the VHS boom came, we had a new bunch of goodies to sell. All of a sudden, you could watch your favourite movie every single day if you felt like it, and just the parts that you liked. There was a lot of drama over piracy — some of the tapes that were being supplied were ‘camera prints’ of the very latest Hollywood releases. The cops were vigilant, we got warnings and became extremely cautious — all the movies sold now are the officially censored versions. Now that we have YouTube, of course, everyone has their own little Rhythm House to carry along with them. The time for controlled media has gone, but there are certain things that YouTube can’t replicate, as wonderful and convenient as it is.
CDs first came in at the high price of Rs 700, sometime in the early 1990s. The Batman movie soundtrack and Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard were some of the earliest, as was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, thanks to MTV. The MTV era also brought in a lot of CD signings and artist visits. I remember Apache India, Khaled and Peter Andre coming to the store. One of the highlights was when dad sent me and my friends to watch a private gig by Air Supply at a music company’s award show. It was really neat having that kind of access, as the rest of the world ‘felt right there’ alongside Bollywood. Rhythm House also had its own label, on which dad produced Indian classical music. He also produced a nursery rhyme album called ‘A Magical Journey to Nursery Land’, where a band played the songs to rearranged music. It was launched by Jackie Shroff, if you can believe it.
Then there was this section of ‘music for the educated’, like opera, classical, ghazals and jazz. If you listened to any of them, you were automatically a little bit older and smarter — when dial-up internet came in, our first MTNL handle for the store was ‘cantata’. When I was in my tweens, I would pretend that I worked there and took on the task of standing by the cashier and giving sweets to everyone who made a purchase. There was a great buzz to the place, and I saw all kinds of people coming and going — hippie tourists, artists from the Jehangir Gallery across the street and my dad’s friends from advertising. There was also that one time my uncle was bitten on the hand by a girl who was high and got caught shoplifting.
Music and movie lovers are fascinating, and in a music store you get to watch them and feel their love right up close. We have a customer who sends us mithai on Dev Anand’s birthday. Many have been coming to us their whole lives. Still more have spent special moments together in one of the listening booths. Countless numbers have sent me condolence messages at the announcement of the closing.The customers know that it is the shop’s staff that made the place what it was. I don’t know what will eventually become of the space, but nevertheless it feels wonderful to know that we meant so much to so many people.