Why I’m sad but not surprised Mumbai’s iconic Rhythm House is shutting down

Why I'm sad but not surprised Mumbai's iconic Rhythm House is shutting down
Photo Credit: Sumiit Lakhutia
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Even though they officially close only at the end of February, they’ve already started clearing the shelves at Mumbai’s 67-year-old Rhythm House. So if you’re keen on browsing through the racks for one last time, it’s best you go soon. When in November, newspapers reported that the iconic music store in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood would be shuttered, I felt a tinge of sadness and then cringed because I knew immediately that the news would be followed by countless Facebook posts and tribute pieces bemoaning the loss of yet another city institution. It would lead to a virtual flood of what writer Altaf Tyrewala has deemed Bombayana.

Like most music fans, I’ve been visiting Rhythm House for decades. And like many of them, I struggle to remember the last album I bought there. It’s relatively easier to recall the last thing I bought there. I’d like to say it was a set of Beatles playing cards, which I stumbled across at the cash counter some years ago, but it’s more likely to be a notebook, a new pair of earphones or a magazine. It could very well have been a copy of the Rock Street Journal, another hallowed piece of Indian music nostalgia, which no longer exists in its original print form.

But I was not as surprised by the news of the closure of Rhythm House as many people on my social media timelines were. It was, for some time last year, the last music store standing after the shuttering of Hiro Music House, which had outposts in Fort and Bandra, and the conversion of the Planet M chain into a network of kiosks that also sells movies and mobiles. The Andheri outpost of bookstore chain Landmark, which stocked a substantial music selection, also closed down in 2015 but relatively few people noticed. And after a recent layout change, the CD section at the Kemps Corner flagship of Crossword looks like an obligation, placed there only to appease a few loyal customers. None of those places evoke the kind of memories associated with Rhythm House, which has been around since 1948.

Excellent staff

The best thing about the store to me at least was that it was among the few shops, music or otherwise, where the sales people knew their stuff. Even if they didn’t listen to a particular type of music, the attendants, clad in red lab coat-like jackets, were aware of its existence. They could tell you almost instantly whether they had the album you wanted. In recent years however, too often Rhythm House could not compete with the kind of range available online. And I say this as someone who did not download music extensively until the launch of iTunes here in 2012. Of course with the launch of digital music stores, including Fipkart’s short-lived Flyte, I too stopped buying CDs. Why would you when you got four digital albums for the price of one CD?

I am admittedly an exception. Music fans around my age swiftly switched to illegally downloading albums in the early noughties. Before the transition, Rhythm House was where they acquired music. It was here they picked up their first CDs in the 1980s and ’90s. For people of my parents’ generation, it’s where they bought their first LPs. Most of my childhood was spent in Dubai so my memories of starting a cassette collection, ironically for somebody who doesn’t download illegally, are tied to the Thomsun “Original” tapes that were available for the pocket money-friendly price of 5 dirhams back in the mid-1980s. I didn’t realise they weren’t quite original until a crackdown on piracy in the UAE during the early 1990s.

Of all the paeans I’ve read for Rhythm House over the last month, it’s clear that most have been written by folks who haven’t visited it in months. The couple of people who seem like they continue to patronise it shop there for its extensive Hindi film DVD collection. Over the last decade and a half, Rhythm House, like Crossword and Landmark, attempted to combat the fall in sales that followed online competition by stocking a range of accessories unrelated to their core product, like pen drives and notebooks (in the case of Landmark, everything from costume jewellery to soft toys). While this strategy may have worked initially, what they each omitted to do was find new ways to distinguish themselves.

All in one place

We’re now in the era of the super-specialist. Soon the only large format music store in Mumbai will be The Revolver Club, a vinyl record store. Sure, they also sell Sriracha, but the idea is to appeal to a very specific audience: hipsters with a high disposal income (who might even buy some of their high-end audio equipment). The city, incredibly enough, recently got a new bookstore where they stock authors and titles you’d rarely find at a Crossword. If only Rhythm House had decided that instead of trying to be everything to everyone (much like a multi-cuisine restaurant), it was going to be a one-stop shop for a few.

If the number of concerts organised are anything to go by, the city retains a strong audience for Indian classical music. Indeed Rhythm House is a popular spot from which to purchase physical tickets for some of these concerts and it enjoys enough patronage to serve as the sole distributor of a hyper-niche record label for the genre. It’s at Rhythm House you could buy the handful of music books about Indian classical music available in Mumbai. Could it have had a second life as the one place to get everything related to the genre, from tickets to tanpuras?

But it’s a touch arrogant to make such suggestions because the decision to shut shop would have come after much deliberation. When we visited a couple of weeks ago – to look for a recently-released Bollywood DVD, we feel the need to disclose – the salesman we spoke to seemed more stoic than despondent. He’d been working there for 18 years and knew no other trade he said. There aren’t any music stores at which he can find another job, but life goes on. It will be weird looking at that round store front and seeing something other than posters of musicians or their new releases. Did the news of Rhythm House shutting surprise people because as patrons, we took it for granted? Because a place that everybody knows is not always a place that everybody goes to? Or did it stop giving us good enough reasons to swing by? The one thing we can say for sure is that Kala Ghoda will never be the same again.