I travelled through time when Srinivasa Murthy cranked up his vintage HMV suitcase gramophone one balmy Friday afternoon. As P. Kalinga Rao (accompanied by Mohankumari) began to sing `Baraiyya Beledingale’, the dusty room spun at 78rpm and came to rest in another century. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru began a fervent speech and I was in 1962. A young Mohammad Rafi sang “Bapu ki amar kahani” and we slipped into 1963. The playlist at the Seethaphone Company was as effective as HG Wells’ time machine or EP Mitchell’s clock that went backwards.
Stacked in a box were other luminaries; Senior Hirannaiah who set up the Mitra Mandali Dance Company, Mysuru Kottorappa, K Ashwathamma, BS Raja Iyengar and Bidaram Krishnappa whose disciples included the renowned T. Chowdiah and vocalist Bangalore Nagarathnammal. Much to my delight, the mid- 19th century recordings were crystal clear.
Those were truly exciting days. Music technology quickly transitioned from Edison’s phonograph into Emile Berliner’s gramophone and announced its arrival in India with a “Phonograph Concert” at the Dalhousie Institute in Calcutta (1899). In 1908, the Gramophone Typewriter Company (GTL) began to press discs at Sealdah in West Bengal. By 1910, over 75 record companies catered to a fascinated audience who found they could now listen to their favourites over and over again, whenever they liked. By the mid-1920’s, recording companies began to hit the high notes in South India. They recorded Carnatic classical music and live performance from both folk and classical music and theatre. Musical instrument dealers quickly moved into retailing and distributing records. They became pioneers who introduced India to another world.
In 1920, the enterprising DN Seetharama Setty set up the Hindustan Musical Mart on the ground floor of a narrow building that had once housed the car (chariot) from the Balaji Temple. It was where the family had lived since Donti Nanappa Setty, his Telugu speaking father had migrated here from Sidlaghatta decades earlier. The Seethaphone Company came into being around 1924. They marketed the `Victrophone’ model and assembled/ manufactured the `Seethaphone’ gramophones using imported parts. DN Seetharama Setty promoted his gramophones at village jatre’s and even took orders by post. They were also distributors for both Parlophon and Odeon and tied up with Carl Lindstrom AG. By 1927, it had its own label. Voices were recorded in a rented hall on Avenue Road. Dinkson & Co, the sole agency for Columbia, was set up by his brother, DN Krishnaiah Setty in 1929. Around 1932, Seethaphone began to distribute a new label `Tas-o-phone’ and went on to become special agent for the Young India record label from Bombay. Srinivasa Murthy took over the store after his father’s death in 1963.
The young Srinivas Murthy was born on November 27th, 1940 and attended the Bharatiya Vidyasagar School on Diwankhana Road behind the Seethaphone building. He says the school is now gone but his memories of its remarkable principal, G Srinivasa Rao are very much alive. The children played on a quiet Avenue Road and he helped his father out at the shop after school. He remembers seeing Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail ride past on a horse. “My father stopped him one day to complain about the garbage thrown outside our shop. He said “what do you suggest we do about it?” My father said it could be thrown in an empty plot behind the building. It was cleared and deposited there the verynext day.”
Gramophone prices were low (Rs.50-450) and so both upper and middle class homes possessed one. “The gramophone was to us then, what TV is today” says 74 year old Srinivasa Murthy. It was used for entertainment, at weddings and for government propaganda. He says Sir CV Raman once ran in to buy two French wooden horn trumpets. They were for an experiment!
The 78rpm shellac ruled till the EP and LP arrived around 1970 along with three speed record play. He shows me a rare 16rpm record with a car tyre size diameter. It was used primarily for official speeches. I spot a blue Broadcast Four Tune label with `two full length dance hits on either side’ and imagine skirts twirling to Jay Wilbur and his Band in the Cantonment of the 40’s.
He cranks up the gramophone again to get the motor running. Pankaj Mullick fills the room with heartbreak and longing (along with the pioneering brothers Nitin and Mukul Bose, he also introduced playback singing to Indian cinema). I begin to wallow in romantic nostalgia; an era of slow, old fashioned romance, poetry, black&white movies and moonlight where love notes were written on paper but conveyed through the eyes. Love was serious business and heartaches often lasted a lifetime. The song ends and I am back with a thud.
The shop today sells brass statues, other devotional artefacts in metal and the occasional vintage pocket watch. The gramophones are mostly replicas and the rare ones are in his personal collection. “There is no demand, only curiosity.” But the vintage records remain popular with collectors. He shows me the `Bharat Ghadi’ a rare pocket watch with twelve tiny images of Indian National Congress leaders etched on the dial as busy commuters rush past on Avenue Road outside. They do not know that the Seethaphone Company was part of a young India in the making.
Find it at: #519, Avenue Road, Opposite the Balaji Temple. Bangalore 560002. Timings: 11:30-8 pm. Closed on Sundays.
Originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, May 26th 2014.You can read it here.