Much before the demise of the 163-year-old telegram service in India, digital recordings had sent tape recorders packing. Pre-dating even these were gramophones which despite modern innovations continue to command quite a following among music lovers in the country.
Keeping the faith alive in Kerala’s Kozhikode is Karimadath Muhammad Shafi, 47, one of the most popular gramophone dealers, who has a stunning collection of 25 varieties of gramophones.
“I started collecting gramophones out of enthusiasm and gradually it became my passion and profession,” says Shafi. “I take time out to listen to old melodic songs on the gramophone. It is indeed a feeling of joy.”
The collection boasts of the tallest almirah gramophone, phonogramme, suitcase gramophone, parlophone, micky phone, garrad gramophone, horn gramophone, Decca gramophone, the smallest gypsy phone, among others.
A 19th century metal record playing ‘Symphonion’ and some of the earliest gramophones and record players such as Columbia, Victor, RCA, Decca to the popular HMV and Philips models, including those with magnetic cartridges and magnetic coil cartridges, are also part of this collection.
At an exhibition that he organised in Kozhikode last year, Shafi showcased the first edition record of Vande Mataram, speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, the last speech of Indira Gandhi at the Red Fort and the recorded voice of several national leaders.
“Though it was great exertion on Shafi’s part, it was an unforgettable experience for people like us,” says C J Varghese, a retired postmaster. “I was not aware of the numerous varieties of gramophones. As Shafi says no modern device can produce the unparalleled sound quality of the gramophone. Shafi sells the gramophones only to those customers who can assure him of good maintenance and protection.” There have been numerous instances when he refused to sell his gramophones, Shafi admits.
He never bargains with his customers for repairing antique pieces, Shafi explains; all he wants from them is an emotional attachment to these priceless historic pieces. His shop, Gramophone World at Kozhikode has become a hub for gramophone buffs to get their devices repaired.
It may be a labour of love but it is hard work indeed. “Collecting original spares and reconstructing broken parts takes from seven to 10 days,” he says. “I have even waited months to get the original spare parts to arrive from overseas.” Shafi also has around 20 varieties of record players as well. “The three great loves of his life are his antique collection, travelling and the shop,” admits his wife Shakeela.
His work frequently took him around the country to cities such as Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad in search of antique pieces. “I have formed lasting friendships with antique dealers,” he says. “My travels have also given me the opportunity to meet people of different cultures.”
Though a recent angioplasty has now imposed restrictions on his constant sojourns, Shafi finds joy in the solitude of his workshop on the first floor of his house. “In that serene ambience I can find the curious child in me who looks for the easiest and accurate way to repair the gadgets,” says Shafi.
Though his shop is frequented by gramophone buffs, Shafi worries that the younger lot knows precious little about these vintage instruments.
“These musical devices are a part of history,” he says. “They should be preserved.” For his part, he maintains a notebook to document the details on the history of the gramophone. The fact that he has no one to pass on his rare skill is another cause for anxiety.
“Collecting gramophones is a wonderful learning experience,” he says. “Having no descendants to pass on the skills of gramophone repairing is something that bothers me.”