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A master of aural stocks

A master of aural stocks
New Delhi is all set to host 43rd annual conference of International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives [IASA] in October, 2012. IASA, established in 1969, having members from 70 odd countries, serve as a forum for international co-operation between archives, libraries, and individuals interested in the preservation of recorded sound and audiovisual documents. The programme has special sessions on preserving 78 rpm records, role of private and individual collectors of records and other important issues of aural tradition.

Sound recording in India is almost contemporary to its origin in other parts of world. An interesting book, Bajaanama, was published this year in India focusing on early decades of vinyl records in India. Now, IASA conference being organised in India, shifts it’s focus to Indian archives of aural sources which are more of individual and private in nature. Out of curiosity, I rang up some people in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai, who are the main sources of cylinder records, vinyl records, spools and other formats of recorded sounds. These people are often called
kabadiwalas
[waste collectors], but my personal interactions of about two decades with them force me to call them the ‘real’ collectors of aural archives.

When I called up Md Ilyas in Kolkata and asked whether he was aware of this conference and coming to participate, he laughed and said, ‘Sir,
humko kahan maloom, humko to log kabadi bolta hai.’
[How will I come to know about such conferences... people only know us as waste collectors]. I have seen people sitting with him for hours taking notes on various labels, artists, gharanas etc. Researchers, journalists, authors ask questions from Ilyas in Hindi or Bangla and then write articles in English for journals, magazines and newspapers without giving him any credit. I could gauge the depth of frustration and anguish in the reply of Md Ilyas.

Ilyas owns a shop of vinyl records and gramophone players in Lenin Sarani in Kolkata. He has a few thousands of records on display at his shop, but in his stores and godowns in various parts of Kolkata, he stores plentiful of records. He says he must have sold about a million records to collectors from various parts of India and abroad in more than three decades of his being in this profession. ‘Many English recordings were pressed on vinyl in India during the British rule. Enthusiasts keep coming to Kolkata tracing those records and hardly have they gone unsatisfied,’ Ilyas says with pride.

Ilyas very well understands the tastes of his clients. He always has a customised list of records for his regular clients. He has developed a good sense of aural history by not only buying and selling records for more than three decades now, but also by listening to various genres of music.

The way, people like Ilyas, collects such records are also interesting. He says during  festivals like Durga Puja and Deepawali, people want to get rid of undesired goods, and vinyl records very often fall in that category. Cities of Bengal present such avenues more than any other state. Most of the times when he buys such records, he is not allowed to see the labels and the recordings made therein. He has to take risk. There are some occasions when Ilyas has to buy furniture, books, utensils and other household items to be able to acquire aural wealth, who are disposing off their things to settle abroad. Some people who know the value of rare vinyl records and want to sell their collection to meet their need, ask for hefty compensation. He also has sources in Bangladesh and Pakistan to fetch him rare gems of vinyl records.

Apart from his rich vinyl records collection, he also possesses variety of players... from Edison Cylider Phonographs to all labels of Gramophone players that go into hundreds. He personally loves his good collection of Camera size high end ‘music boxes’ of Thorens, a Switzerland company. This was very popular 78 rpm records player among European army officers.

People borrow gramophone players and rare labels of vinyl records for exhibition in various parts of country. He lends all his valuable collections to people without charging them anything. Reason is simple. He wants people to know of such archives and heritage. After so many years of his being into this profession, not business, he is planning to curate a series of exhibition of rare records and record players in his own name to tell the world his tryst with the aural heritage.

He is also thrilled by an offer that he got recently from a filmmaker Rakesh Manjul. He is planning a make a documentary series on aural heritage of India where Ilyas will be playing the role of Sutradhar [director]. I hope IASA is listening. This time this conference might have missed him but next time when they include him, he will definitely create a big buzz.

Akhilesh Jha is a civil servant. The views expressed are personal.

Akhilesh Jha

Akhilesh Jha

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