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Staying on with the sound of music - Symphony Esplanade

It is still a music shop, but prominent among the products on display are phone devices and kitchenware

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 19.09.22, 09:57 AM
Prem Kumar Gupta at Symphony in Dharmatala.

Prem Kumar Gupta at Symphony in Dharmatala.

Picture by Subhendu Chaki

As you enter Symphony, the landmark music store in Dharmatala, you are greeted in by a blast of Chand chhupa badal mein, the popular song from the 1999 film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Somehow you wonder whether the beats were there in the original, that is, if this is not the original. Then you wonder why you cannot tell an original from a cover sometimes.

Music has changed a lot in the last few decades. So have music stores. Symphony is still a music shop, but prominent among the products on display are phone devices and kitchenware. So it is very rewarding to meet Prem Kumar Gupta, the 72-year-old proprietor of the store, who is always found at his store and whose voice seems to prevail over the loud demo music for customers at the shop and its general bustle or the noise constantly spilling over from the hawkers’ stalls outside and the Metro station, speaking metaphorically. He has been at his post for four decades, watching his own store change beyond recognition. He himself has presided over this change, but with a deep sense of loss.

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The soul of Indian music, he feels, is melody. He misses it.

Gupta’s father, from Uttar Pradesh, had moved to Kolkata when Gupta was a few months old, and had set up first Symphony store in Howrah in 1962 and the second one in New Market in 1964 (another landmark, managed by Gupta’s brother, now also forced to accommodate kitchenware). This store opened in 1982 and has been managed by Gupta since.

The years he has been associated with the stores — he had been helping out at the New Market outlet from its earliest years — coincide with the years of major shifts in the music business, in its format, and the sound of music itself.

“In the 60s, the age of record players and 78rpm, HMV was the only major music company. Recording would be live. Music was spontaneous. The musician played with the singer. Nothing was added,” says Gupta, fluent in Hindi, Bengali and English.

In the 80s, sound mixing started. At the same time cassettes took over, bringing about the end of records. From 1982 to 2002 cassettes ruled. Then came CDs, followed by pen drives and hard discs. The more recorded music lost its physical formatting, the less it could be sold from stores.

But something more vital was lost.

“Indian music requires analogue effect,” says Gupta. “At least I feel that,” he adds humbly. “Digital is ok where you’re doing beat music or where the notes are straight. But Indian music generally uses meend.” This is a kind of bridge between two notes; it makes one note gently glide when it travels into another. It gives traditional Indian music one of its fundamental features. This can get lost in digital formats, where the sound can be too thin.

Digitisation has also changed the making of music. “The singer’s voice is reconditioned and auto-tuned. We get an artificial voice. Now everyone sounds alike,” says Gupta, even as an employee turns up the volume of a device for a customer. Gupta gently asks the employee to lower the volume. “Today you can’t even recognise Asha Bhonsle’s voice after digital correction,” he laughs.

“Whenever you add something, you lose something. This is true not only about music. This is nature’s principle.” But what was getting lost was not clear to people. “It’s still not clear to people. This generation has not heard a kind of sound. The resonance of music is not in their memory.”

Because you hear only beats. Something, he says, R.D. Burman introduced to Indian music. “He converted beats into melody, melody into beats.” Now beats are the sound of music.

This is part of an uncritical rejection of one’s own culture and history. “We have adopted a foreign culture. They are not speaking Bengali on Bengali FM channels. Bengali does not sound like Bengali any more.” 

Sound has become peculiarly “fusion”, too. “Earlier audio used to create the image. Now the image is creating the audio,” says Gupta.

Gupta’s father had settled down in the Janbazar area, adjacent to Dharmatala. Gupta grew up here and still lives in the area.

From childhood, he loved sports. But music consumed him. His musically inclined parents helped. “I remember my father dancing to the Bengali devotional song Hori din to gelo sandhya holo...” He is very grateful that he had such parents.

He would get lost in the music at the New Market store. He played every record.

“I would listen to all kinds of music all the time. Pop, jazz, violin, saxophone, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi,” Gupta laughs.

“Whatever I could get hold of, I listened to.”

“I was a very bad student,” he laughs again. “When I passed the Higher Secondary, my father distributed sweets.” Gupta went on to enrol in a law course, but did not complete it.

Symphony kept growing. At one time, from the New Market store, they would sell 200 stereo systems in a month. Business was good in the 80s, too, when Gupta started to run the Dharmatala store. In 1982, the year this store started, he started his own music label: Symphony Recordings India, which, too, made cassettes. The label has to its credit some unusual genres, such as Muslim religious music, as well as comedy, and legends such as Hemanta Mukhopadhyay.

“In1989 I stopped more work with this label, because the store needed all my attention.” In1992 he started a music label again, Raga Music, “as we already had a large catalogue.”The new label remains popular still. “We were the first ones to make Pooja dhaak recordings,” says Gupta. “We don’t have big artists, but we do good music,” he says with pride.

He cannot afford big names, he says, and seems to react again to the thumping music being played for a customer. But the store, too, is his dream. “I had another dream, to give employment to many people.” Though business at Symphony has diminished, the store has a large staff.

Maybe the sound of music is about to change again? Some signs are visible already, feels Gupta. “Otherwise why would ordinary local songs become so popular? A local vendor’s song goes viral. Why?”People are fed up with the one pounding sound of music.

And there is music all around him still, if as CDs at his store, and as he stresses, the record player is making a significant comeback. Stacks of old records at his store exude great warmth, their artwork soothing to the eyes. And all these years, in the most personal, private and quietest way, he has remained dedicated to practising the kind of music he loves.

On his desk rest a few long exercise books. Over the years, sitting here, in between hectic spells of business, he has been writing in them. He has been translating numerous Bengali songs, mostly Rabindrasangeet and Nazrulgeeti, into Hindi. His mentor, Moloy Ghosh, who visits the shop every day, sets them to new tunes mostly, the sound of which, they feel, should sound more familiar to a Hindi-speaking audience than the original tunes. Ghosh sings these songs and Gupta records them in his phone.

Some of these sound like songs you have forgotten from a 70s Hindi film, with fleeting visions of a young RajeshKhanna perhaps.

“I just do it for my own pleasure. Which is the reward.I don’t want anything more,”says Gupta.

Last updated on 19.09.22, 01:49 PM
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