The mysterious power of old Bollywood LPs

By Anu Anand
BBC, Delhi

  • Published
Anu looking at records

There are few things that put me in such a nostalgic mood than a vinyl record of Bollywood songs from my childhood. I recently discovered it is the same for my elderly aunt, for whom records from the 1950s bring back a mixture of precious and painful memories.

My family has few historic mementos.

We have no furniture or jewellery passed down generation after generation. Both my mother's and father's families lost what few belongings they had in the terrifying rush to escape the violence of Partition in 1947.

So when I need a reminder of my origins and history, there's only one experience I can readily turn to for familiarity and comfort. On a shelf in my flat is a collection of roughly 50 LPs, or records, etched with several generations' favourite Hindi songs from classic Bollywood films.

Some came from my parents, who bought them in New York City's Indian district after they emigrated in 1974. Others I've bought in charity shops around London. I even found an Indian LP in a dusty antique shop in Casablanca.

I love the shape of records - the smooth, round thinness of them.

Image source, iStock

There's the hiss and crackle as the needle meets the disc and navigates what's known as the "lead-in groove".

Watching a black vinyl record spin is hypnotic. It takes me back to being four years old, when everyone still had rotary dial telephones and occasionally received telegrams. Listening to an LP still feels like an immersion. It forces me to listen to the exclusion of everything else.

In the heart of old Delhi, where the chaotic lanes packed with spice and jewellery shops have changed little in centuries, there are still some LP treasure troves to be found.

I followed the directions I'd been given, but reaching the spot, all I could see was a grotty hole in the wall. I stood scratching my head before asking for directions: New Gramophone House?

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I was shown a wonky concrete staircase at the back. I climbed up - gingerly minding my head - into an Aladdin's cave. The tiny shop was packed floor to ceiling with more than 200,000 vintage Bollywood LPs.

Owner Anuj Rajpal's family has been selling records since the 1930s. Originally based in Lahore, they too fled violence at Partition, but were able to evacuate one lorry-load of records when they came to this spot in 1947.

Today his customers are mostly middle-aged, like me - people who grew up with records and are overcome by nostalgia at the sight of them.

Anuj says his shop is having a major revival after nearly being wiped out by CDs in the 1990s.

"It's the sound quality," he says. "People come back to LPs specifically for that."

I bought two immaculate albums, wrapped carefully in plastic sleeves.

A few days ago, my elderly aunt who hates to travel even short distances, paid us a long-overdue visit. Bundled under a shawl and blanket to ward off Delhi's winter chill, she sat in bed.

I brought her a cup of tea and unpacked the records.

One called Shabab, or Youth, dates back to 1958 when she was just a girl.

As I set it on the turntable, and we listened to the love-sick, mournful lyrics, I saw my aunt's eyes glisten, alive with memories.

"I haven't heard these songs in years," she said. For the next few hours, I played DJ while she told me stories from her childhood.

The LP covers from those times show chaste black and white images of lovers in great pain, gazing wistfully at each other.

The songs are slow and tend to be about loss, and they evoked in her the horrors of re-establishing life as Partition refugees.

By 1971, when my parents married, the most popular films were about the complexity of young love. But my favourite records date from later in that decade when my parents and I, now living in New York City, would visit an Indian cinema in Manhattan to catch all the latest movies.

Record covers from this decade are flashy, flamboyant and garish.

One shows a man in a wide-collared pink silk shirt, buttons open, hairy chest, a drunken women draped over him. Another features women screaming, as a cheap B-movie werewolf hauls them away to their doom.

Indeed even the discs of that time were manufactured in psychedelic oranges, pinks and greens.

My aunt was less keen on the disco era, so I switched back to songs from Bollywood's golden 1960s.

And as we sat for nearly three hours, the needle making a slow, melodic journey to the centre of each disc - sometimes skipping, sometimes repeating - we were linked across continents and generations, our memories set to the soundtrack of love, loss and the passing of time.

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