I run a finger down the rusty iron blade to the heavy silver hilt with the fierce lion Yali and flex my wrist. Centuries ago, other hands would have held it too. Perhaps even run it through someone. As I get lost in fanciful imagination, Mr. D.G Balaji says casually “It is a 17th century Mysore sword.” He points to his desk. “That is a carved Ayurvedic medicine grinding stone, probably Hoysala, 13th century. Will you have a cup of coffee?” All in the same breath.
The conversation seems surreal because I am sitting not in a museum, but in his shop on busy Avenue Road. Outside is the present. A mad melee with cycle bells, car horns, cursing pedestrians and raucous vendors. Inside is the past. Packed ceiling high on basic metal shelves is enough vintage memorabilia to send a magpie into a tizz -framed photographs, lithographs, vintage Tanjore art and posters, radios, books, watches, enamelware, tin boxes, etched surgical glass bottles, old vinyl records, railway lanterns, table fans, chairs, tables and in the glass cabinet, Edison Bell gramophone needles and a Japanese Mamiya folding camera. I am Alice lost in Wonderland. Or rather, in Balaji’s Antiques, one of Bangalore’s most well kept secrets.
But the gramophone is significant because that is where the story begins. “My ancestors migrated to Bangalore over 300 years ago from Sidlaghatta, in Kolar district. They were Telugu speaking, originally from the merchant community. Due to differences in the family, my grandfather, Mr. D.N Seetharama Setty moved out at an early age. He requested the Balaji Temple Trust for a place to stay. All they had to offer him was the 30 feet high shed dedicated to the temple chariot on Avenue Road! He took it and lived there, building floors and partitions over time. It became the family home.”
Mr. Balaji’s grandfather initially worked for a pawn broker who also sold gramophones. He soon developed a keen interest in them. In 1920, the enterprising Mr. Seetharama Setty set up the Hindustan Musical Mart on Avenue Road and in 1924, the Seethaphone Co. came into being. It was the first gramophone shop in the state and exists in the same chariot shed building even today. The shop was on the ground floor and the family lived upstairs. Mr. Balaji shows me purchase bills written by his grandfather in impeccable English.
The Seethaphone Co. went from strength to strength assembling, marketing and manufacturing gramophones. They were also distributors for both Odeon and Parlophon. By 1927, Seethaphone Co. was producing an inhouse label with the record pressing done in Britain. But more about Seethaphone Co. later.
“Seethaphone also produced three records praising Tipu Sultan and his bravery in the Marathi `Lavani’ style. We wanted to clarify the misunderstandings about him. He was not who the British said he was.” he says.“How do you know this?” I ask. “My ancestors set up the first mint here on Thankasale Naraina Setty Lane.We made coins for Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. We even had the porcelain plates that his sons ate on in the Vellore jail after the war. With markings and quota forms. The original coin making machine was given to Mr. D. Veerendra Hegde’s museum in Dharmasthala.”
The relationship with the collectibles and the museum in Dharmasthala is close. Over the years, Rare, the other name that Balaji’s Antiques is known by has supplied the museum with one of a kind exhibits that include a lock from Tipu’s Fort, Dakota planes, over 40 vintage cars, 2000 cameras, wildlife from zoos and even a railway engine! I hear the story. “My father, Mr. D.S Govindarajulu, bought an old train engine called Kaveri that used to run from Bangalore to Calcutta at an auction there in the 90’s. He slept in it that night to safeguard it so the parts would not get stolen. He then transported it back to Bangalore.” They also sold an Omega pocket watch to the Omega museum.
I look around, enchanted. The Rallis double sided fans sit quietly beside the leather steamer suitcases and metal boxes made for grenades and flares. There are rich stories hidden inside these objects of both ornamental and utilitarian value. The tin Olympic Company pen box now on my desk might also contain a memory. Was it a prized possession? A keeper of trinkets? A gift of love? All I know is that I am co-owner of the meaning it once had for someone. I have carried the memory home with me when I bought it. Through it, I am connected to a yesterday that is now long gone.
The Wonderland syndrome continues. As I go from room to room, each door opens out to reveal collectibles with price tags reasonable enough to evoke acquisitive feelings inside non-materialistic me. On the second floor which stocks furniture, a dusty para -dropping bicycle from WWII leans delicately against a teakwood chair. He says it is not for sale but shows me how it folds up to become portable. Elsewhere is a German WWI full body armour and helmet! I see a 19th century British litho-press in the corner and am not surprised when he pulls out an original 18th century lithograph done by artists Thomas and William Daniell from his drawer. History is alive here. To touch, hold and own.
The bicycle reminds me of a young Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz in David Lean’s iconic film `A Passage to India’. “He spent a lot of time here” admits Mr. Balaji when asked about the famous director. “He went through everything in great detail. Cameras, bicycles, gramophones… the art department wanted to hire everything, but we insisted that they buy. We took back only the books.”
Balaji’s Antiques has seen more than just antiques. During WWII, Mr. Seetharama Setty bought land in Nayandahalli on Mysore Road intending to move friends and family to safety in case the Avenue Road area was bombed. But it stayed relatively peaceful during Partition. “I was born in the Seethaphone building in the late 60’s and have spent my whole life here. I remember peeking through the cracks in the wooden floor at customers and famous artistes sitting on the shop sofas below. The two way traffic on Avenue Road would stop at 4 pm when the shops closed. We would run out to play and the elders would sit on the kattais (open to the street verandahs), playing cards and chatting. The Balaji Temple opposite had an astrologer. He had a bad temper, but my horoscope turned out to be quite accurate.” he laughs.
He shows me a record of Gandhiji’s speeches and tells me they have an extensive collection of shellac 78 rpms. I spot a collection of signed pencil sketches – Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Uday Shankar, Smt.Vijayalakshmi Pandit done by the wellknown portrait artist, S.N Swamy. An appreciative letter from the celebrated artist Rao Bahadur M.V Durandhar (1867-1944) accompanies one. “I am doing what I love” he says. “That is all that matters.” But what also matters is that in this corner of the universe, time has decided to stand still.
He then takes out another envelope from his collection. It contains a faded letter from the German Consulate in Bombay to S.N Swamy, dated 1939, ‘begging to return your sketch duly signed’ along with the original photo. I see the accompanying photograph and blink. I look again just to make sure. It is a stern faced man with an unmistakeable moustache. The signature in black ink says `Adolf Hitler’. Even Alice’s adventures can’t match this one.
Balaji’s Antiques is on the first floor of the building next to Lakshmi Sarees, opposite Bhagatram Sweets on Avenue Road. Exhibitions are held every few months at the Rain Tree store. Open from 11.30 am-7 pm. Sundays closed. Credit cards are accepted.
P: + 91 80 65956427 W: balajiantiques.com