Culture & Society

Who Has Stopped The Music?

Journalist Rohit Ghosh reflects on how the passage of time changed the way people listen to music and writes about the longing for the time when people blasted the music on speakers, so not just they but their neighbours also knew what they were listening to.

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Journalist Rohit Ghosh reflects on how the passage of times changed the way people listen to music.
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I spent the first 10 years of my life —1974-84— in a row house in JK Colony in Kanpur. It was a typical middle-class neighbourhood. Ninety-five per cent of the men worked in a public sector undertaking (PSU) and most women were housewives. The kids went to the same Christian missionary school. 

I, like other kids, became aware about music when I was seven or eight. By music, I mean Bollywood songs. For me, the half-an-hour long Chitrahaar every Thursday evening was the only source of music. We had a radio but it needed to be fixed most of the time. We were yet to buy a cassette player. The record player never came to our mind. It was meant for the rich. Still I never missed listening to music. On our right lived the Singhs and the Moyas were on our left. Both had cassette players and powerful speakers. They always played music in full volume.

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On holidays, I would play cricket with my brother in our yard from morning till we were famished in the afternoon. One morning, I would raise my hand to bowl to my brother when the guitar would suddenly start strumming in Moya’s house. The introductory guitar piece would last for 20 seconds or so and then Bappi Lahiri’s voice would boom — Yaad aa raha hai, tera pyaar. I would rub the ball on my vest and resume bowling.

There would be lull once the Moyas had played both sides of the cassette. Perhaps, they wanted to give rest to their ears. Cawing of crows and chirping of sparrows would once again become audible.

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We would resume playing cricket post-lunch. I would be about to face my brother’s first ball when Kishore Kumar would clear his throat in the house on the right. After humming a bit, he would state in a singsong way – Buzurgon ne, buzurgon ne…farmaya ki pairon pe apne khade hoke dikhlao. We would listen to all the songs of Namakhalal while playing.

At present, I live 500 metres away from my old house. I visit my old neighbourhood every day. I see my old house every day. The Singhs and the Moyas still live there.

There was a playground in front of my house that was developed into a park for walkers. For the past 10 years or so, I have been spending at least an hour there every day.

I at times feel people there have become indifferent to music. I spend an hour there every day but till date I have not heard a snatch of music in any house. I expect that I will be passing by a house and will suddenly hear Kishore Kumar singing, “Zindagi, ek safar hai suhana…yahan kal kya ho kisne jana”. But no, I am always dejected. It seems that even the Singhs and the Moyas have stopped playing songs.

I pondered for some time and concluded that people have not stopped listening to music. The way they listen to music has changed. Earphones have now replaced powerful speakers. Also, gone are the days of the players — whether cassette or record or CD.

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CD players became popular and common in the second half of the 1990s. The one I bought was from Philips and cost me Rs 18,000. The amount is not small even today. You can imagine the price 25 years ago but it was worth the money. It had four speakers and their combined capacity was 1,000 watts. There would be no jarring even if any CD was played in full volume.

I left Kanpur in 2000 and returned in 2008. The whole scenario changed in those eight years. Mobile phones made landline phones redundant. Mobile phones were upgraded with new features as years passed. A time came when a mobile phone was as good as a music system, perhaps more than a music system. Your choice was limited in case you had a player but a mobile phone gave you an unlimited choice.

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I was amazed by the choice that a mobile phone offers. Once I decided to check some American radio stations. There is a website that gave me access to thousands of radio stations on the planet. I found it fascinating that I live in Kanpur but I could listen to a radio station in a suburb of, say, Perth or Lima. But it had a drawback. Your neighbours do not get to know what song you are listening to. You select a song on your phone, plug in your earphones, click the play button, and close your eyes as the song begins.

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Things are different in the West when compared to India. Amit Mathews, one of my classmates, settled in Canada some 20 years ago. I consider him an encyclopaedia of English movies and songs. State a year randomly and not even a second will pass and he will name the songs that won the Grammy that year. Name a movie and he will say, “Oh! The movie was nominated in seven categories in 2001 but did not win any award. Very sad.”

He said that in India, the moment a new technology comes, people adopt it and forget the old one. Once there were record players. They became obsolete when cassette players became popular. People forgot the cassette players when CD players became common. CD players became useless when mobile phones were packed with music.

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He said it was not so in the West. According to him, people there were once again discovering the pleasures of listening to music on record players and powerful speakers. They are making a comeback with a bang. The albums that were produced in the era of CD players or smartphones are once again being introduced in gramophone records. He promised to send me pictures of a gramophone store in Toronto.

He sent me the pictures and said, “Had to wait for a long time in the store before I could click the pictures. I wanted to make sure nobody came in the frame of my camera. Here it’s considered rude. I waited till the crowd thinned. And I clicked the photos on a weekday evening, not on a weekend evening. You can understand what I mean.”  
I dearly wish record players would once again become popular in India. I can once again listen to what my neighbour is playing.

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How do I listen to music? I have a Bose speaker. I live in a house that overlooks a busy street. I want people to think of me as a crazy guy who still plays songs on the highest volume and not on earphones.

(Rohit Ghosh lives in Kanpur and has been a journalist for the past 25 years.)

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