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The chimney that towers over the Saregama factory premises in Kolkata’s Dum Dum may have a freshly painted brick-red exterior but it is clearly past its heyday. In its prime, its smouldering mouth signalled the health of the music industry; the smoke resulting from a long process where the PVC material used to make records was melted to a viscous state in a boiler that needed both steam and cold water. The more the smoke, the more the music. These days, saplings sprout from its top as the redundant chimney stands, testimonially and figuratively, for the record.

Jhootha hi Sahi, the forthcoming Hindi film starring John Abraham, for which A.R. Rahman has scored the music, is the first long-playing (LP) record released by Saregama in 13 years. Yet nobody is under any illusion that LPs will occupy anything other than niche corners in music stores and listener perceptions, even though EMI India released 150-odd titles from its international music catalogue in 2009-2010 and sold around 1,500 records through the year.

Rhythm corner: (clockwise from top left) The tape archive at the factory; LPs of film albums in the library; a wall of vintage photos of musicians; an antique gramophone; a room with the machines used to make LPs; and the chimney at the factory. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

“We are looking at market demand and plan to release 50-100 titles in LP soon," says Atul Churamani, vice-president of Saregama, a company that inarguably possesses the largest collection of recorded music in India. “There seems to be a renewed interest in LPs, but I don’t expect them to ever again have majority share in music sales."

Evidence of the music business’ rich and profitable analogue age lies casually around the studio area of the Dum Dum factory, established in 1928. In the corridor leading to the tape archive and library, glass cabinets contain nuggets from music’s vinyl past. It’s a humidity and temperature-controlled room where tall iron racks hold a precious collection of around 30,000 master tapes of original Indian music recorded by the company since Gauhar Jaan sang raga Jogiya in Kolkata and became the first Indian voice to be recorded on shellac disc in 1902.

There is a sample of a 7 July 1930, 10-inch record, the first to be automatically pressed in India. Frames on the walls exhibit the cover art of records containing the speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, as well as the radio broadcasts of Subhas Chandra Bose between 1938 and 1944. Yet another panel displays the various processes raw gooey lacquer goes through before the delicate grooves etched on black vinyl discs deliver the notes and nuances of recorded music with every rotation.

Standing idle in the middle of a large hall is a record-pressing machine bearing the insignia of EMI Records, Middlesex, England—and going back to the time when Saregama was the Gramophone Company of India (better known as His Master’s Voice, or HMV) and was among the first overseas branches of the British record firm, Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). Surrounding the machine are flex panels summarizing the history of the company and its erstwhile logo—the Nipper Dog longingly facing a gramophone, which Francis Barraud painted around 1898 as a tribute to his dead dog, and which later, as the HMV logo, became one of the best-known trademarks of the 20th century.

Text and photographs of artistes from Hindustani and Carnatic classical, Hindi and south Indian playback, devotional and Bengali music, who have recorded with the company, are also exhibited along with a copy of the original agreement that Tagore signed with the company before cutting his first musical record at the Dum Dum studio in 1928. An earlier recording of Tagore in 1905-06, the panel says, could not be preserved. These are among the estimated 300,000 tracks recorded by the music company in at least 19 major Indian languages, a chunk of it belonging to the era of records

In one of the wooden cabinets, I spot a copy of Dil to Pagal Hai, the 1997 Hindi film which was also the last LP released by Saregama. From the cover, hero Shah Rukh Khan smiles into the camera, oblivious of the year that marked the end of the record for a music company that reportedly owns around 70% of old Hindi film music. While the Dil to Pagal Hai LP sold a mere few thousand copies, cassette sales were worth 15-20 lakh.

“Back in the 1980s, owning a record like Disco Deewane or the Sargam soundtrack was like a status symbol," says S.F. Karim, chief manager (content) at Saregama. Between the two LPs, around three million units got sold, and old-timers recall the flurry of activity at the Dum Dum factory when the chimney never stopped glowing. A vicious turn of technology—first with handy audio cassettes and later with downloadable music becoming the sound of the digital revolution—and a cancerous growth of music piracy ensured that records became an icon of collective nostalgia.

Muffled strains of music filter out from a room across the passage. Inside, senior recording engineer Pabitra Mukherjee is busy digitizing music from Saregama’s vast collection of analogue music, which includes approximately 10,000 LPs and 6,000 EPs (14-minute, extended-playing records) and SPs (7-minute, single-playing records). The digitized music is being preserved for future use, including for digital download. Antiquated Studer recording machines occupy one corner of the room.

As the music of the 1950 Telugu film Shavukaru plays back warmly through JBL studio monitor speakers, Mukherjee explains the intricacy of his work while working on the high-end computer. “While digitizing these songs and while reducing the noise I have to make sure that the depth of the voice and the tonal quality doesn’t suffer. Analogue technology allowed a lot of richness in voice and instrumentation, which is often not the case with digital technology," says Mukherjee, complimenting an earlier era of recording science.

A generation is growing up listening to music from hurriedly compressed MP3 files, rues Ashoke Mondal, manager of the Dum Dum studio. He says it without malice though—in 2006, market compulsions led Saregama to release its first MP3 compact disc, with Mondal heading the production.

His colleague and veteran sound engineer Sujan Chakraborty shows a Studer analogue mixer where each knob had to be manually controlled, and the engineer’s experience and study of music certified the right balance in sound—the human touch to music recording, he says.

“When compressed at 128 kbps, MP3 files leave out the delicate elements of the music and only retain the dominant factors, according to the laws of psycho-acoustics. The file size is reduced, but quality suffers," Mondal explains. “Listeners who have only heard MP3s will never know that a better sound exists."

On the way out, Mondal opens the lid of one of the five wind-up gramophones in the studio. He winds the instrument for a few seconds and lets the pin drop on the vinyl. Instantly, the nasal singing of Devika Rani, joined soon by Ashok Kumar, from the 1936 film Achhut Kanya serenades the hall. The sound carries background hiss and there are sound drops where the pin passes through a scratch. But the record’s sound is intimate, anachronistic and strangely fresh.

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