For many years, I worked in South Mumbai, close to Churchgate.
Sometimes too much typing on the computer got to me and I would step out of the newspaper office for diversion.
If I cut across the nearby Oval Maidan and its myriad cricket matches, then fifteen minutes walk away, was Rhythm House. It was a shop in an old building at Kala Ghoda, now the city’s art district thanks to the adjacent Jehangir Art Gallery, the pavement artists, the surrounding heritage architecture and an annual festival in the area with roads closed to traffic and open to arts and crafts. Compared to other shops selling music that arrived and closed during its time, Rhythm House was small. But it was packed with music and movie titles in the physical format. What you couldn’t find on the shelves, you ordered at the desk. I would spend some time here browsing through the collection, clear my head and return to work.
One day, I wrote about Rhythm House. The new century had arrived. Businesses overseas had witnessed massive change through Internet and digitization. The world of book shops for instance, was besieged by question marks. As book shops struggled, I wondered what was happening at Rhythm House. Hence that old story written and published in the newspaper I worked for. It failed to capture well the shop and its predicament. Maybe I hadn’t known Rhythm House long enough to tell a story. I acted in haste. But I remember the owners being concerned of what lay ahead in the fast changing market. Still, if there was anything challenging Rhythm House, it wasn’t visibly alarming for the shop was well stocked and it had customers. During festive season, the traffic built up. Besides, sales or no sales, everyone knew Rhythm House. It was a Mumbai institution.
At Rhythm House you met connoisseurs of music. Once in a while as I hung around the racks hosting music relevant to me, I would hear a customer or two ask the salesmen about specific albums or concert recordings. The salesmen would in turn indulge them in talk about the elusive recently sourced or, which can be sourced. The minor details bringing joy to collectors of music are fascinating. It is portrait by passion. You don’t sense these folks as palpably in cyberspace even though the digital side of everything is marketed as bigger meeting place. In the real world and its shops, you meet people in full and a person in full is person believable. I wrote that article on Rhythm House well over ten years ago. I subsequently became freelance journalist and in my less moneyed avatar, continued to visit Rhythm House but rarely purchased. I found relief just being there amid the music and films although I must admit, not being able to afford was progressively becoming a dampener.
January 1, 2016. Having decided that a multiplex ticket costing Rs 400-500 to see the latest Star Wars movie wasn’t worth the strain on one’s purse, my friend Latha and I decided to go for a walk instead. Decades ago, I had watched the first Star Wars movie at a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram and returned home a fan of Han Solo. I watched the first trilogy. Then I watched Harrison Ford in all those Indiana Jones movies. Those days you could afford visiting the theatre. Now the question isn’t whether you are interested in cinema but whether you can afford multiplexes. I was a fan of Star Wars quitting at a choke point in the system called costly multiplexes. Our evening walk brought us to Kala Ghoda and the Jehangir Art Gallery, which we wished to visit. I think when you age you realize you are a traveller in the universe and therefore entitled to perspective. You find it in art, that’s why the occasional visit to the art gallery engages. As we left the art gallery, we noticed Rhythm House, distinctly less celebratory in appearance despite the festive season. When we drew closer, we saw the red board on its door: Goodbye Sale. I was shocked. Powered by discounts, the innards of the shop had been cleared out in parts. Latha picked up a rare recording of a Hindustani classical vocalist. Bill paid we got out but couldn’t leave. An institution was shutting down. We had no proper camera. So in the dim light, Latha took a photograph of the shop on her cell phone.
Unknown to me, Rhythm House’s closure had been in the media since November 2015. The articles featured musicians, music lovers, music critics, authors and other residents of the city who shared their memories of the iconic establishment. A visit to the shop’s website showed a message. Excerpts: We are the last of our city’s large format music & video stores to yield to the challenges posed by new technologies and piracy. We are set to close for business end of February 2016. We have been in the music business since 1948 and in the video business over the past 30 years or so and closing down is therefore going to be an emotional wrench for us. Many of you have echoed similar sentiments and we thank you for being with us at this difficult time.
I returned the next day to click the photos accompanying this story.
Mumbai’s art district and its music scene won’t be the same without Rhythm House.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)