Srinagar: In the times of virtual music stores and apps, many old schools in Kashmir still love playing cassettes in their tape-recorders. Their passion speaks of a gritty constancy in changing musical times.
Amid hustle and bustle in Srinagar’s Hari Singh High Street, one often hears Sufi music coming from a narrow lane toward Jehangir Chowk. A little curious peeping will lead one to big black speakers connected to a tape-recorder. Near the spot, many elderly men are smiling, discussing the records and lyrics of Kashmiri folk songs being played by one Mushtaq Ahmad, owner of the ‘Raja Cassettes’ — an address where Aashiqs (aficionados) regularly get their choicest piece of music in the form of cassettes.
Just like the air that flows out of a pricked balloon, a question as to why these men still rely on the cassettes and tape recorders pushes them to talk to you. Their white beards, expressive eyes and responsive ears start telling their tale before they even open their toothless mouths.
The shop that Mushtaq has been running for about 25 years is their usual hub where they share their love for the music that mostly includes Kashmiri Sufi songs and Naats.
To maintain the rush, Mushtaq records the voices of Kashmiri folk singers including Rashid Hafiz, Manzoor Ahmad and many others who invite him to attend their Mehfils in the Habba Kadal area mostly. He carries his tape recorder with him and also gifts around Rs 1000 to the singer as a token of gratitude. That acts as an investment for him. Mushtaq then records the singing sessions and then sell it in the form of cassettes.
Most of his customers have their own musical tales to tell. Upholding old passions in new times don’t come sans sacrifice. And this musical tribe is all for it.
One of Mushtaq’s regular cassette customers is 67-year-old Gulam Mohammad. This urbanite begins saying how his dream to buy a tape-recorder, once a luxury, came true when he convinced his friend to sell it.
That ‘Made in Japan’ tape-recorder was about 20 inches in length and 10 inches in height. It was bought by his friend’s father in Mecca when he was coming back after his Hajj (pilgrimage).
One fine day when he went to greet his friend’s father, he said that his eyes were stuck on the recorder.
“What a beauty!” GM exclaimed. “The stereo speaker and so many features! It stole my heart.”
He then convinced his friend to ready his father to sell it. With all the money he had, GM wanted to make his long-lost dream come true.
Happier than ever, GM carried about 4kg heavy recorder in his hands with two cassettes that were gifted to him by his friend’s father in his pocket. After spending what was then a hefty amount of Rs 5000 on it, the newly married GM went straight to his sister’s home instead of his own. He locked the recorder in a cupboard and went home as if nothing had happened.
GM said that he kept managing. He would go to his sister’s place and listen to music, until one fine day when his wife got to know about it.
“I still think it was a waste of money. That’s why I was angry. We had so much on our hands and this mister wanted to listen to music,” says GM’s wife.
But it was a blessing in disguise for GM. His wife was angry but now he could bring the friend of his loneliness along. He would come back from his work and listen to music. From two cassettes, he moved to hundreds of them.
“I would not tell her that I am buying the cassettes. It was mostly Sufi music. Its tone was same to her. That worked for me until she started counting,” says GM looking at his wife, who laughs at the situation.
GM’s love for the tape recorder still exists. He wakes up in the morning and after finishing his prayers, he listens to the news on the new tape- recorder. He occasionally uses the old one that still works perfectly and keeps it in a small cupboard with a cover specially stitched for it.
After the news, Sufi music, Naats and old Bollywood songs run on his recorder on almost full volume. His children and wife always ask him to switch it off but he never does. They have even introduced him to memory cards, laptops and phones. However, the new gadgets are secondary to him. He truly enjoys the music when he feels the film of the cassettes turning round and round.
His love for the tape-recorder and cassettes is shared by a class of people including some of his elderly neighbours. Seconding the GM’s taste for loud music on a tape recorder, one among them says, “It has to be loud. Because then, it touches a part of you that no memory card/phone can. It’s what a true Aashiq can feel.”
But at a time when other music devices have gripped the masses, a good number of people in Kashmir like GN still find cassettes more appealing and expedient, probably also because of their memories associated with it. In fact, many such memories collectively make Kashmir’s musical journey quite riveting.
At the height of spring in Sheher-e-Khas’s Badamwari during 1950s, a man was detained by police. Like others, he was enjoying the sun that had come out after harsh winters. He had hung his transistor on a tree in the garden. Alien to the concept of the transistor that played voices of Englishmen, people gathered around the tree. While some were astonished to see it, some took it as a threat and went ahead to inform the police.
“After this man switched on his transistor,” recalls Zareef A Zareef, a poet-historian, who as a 12-year-old witnessed the incident, “people gathered around the tree and called him a Neem Pagal (dimwit). Others went to inform SP Qadir Ganderbali.” Shortly, the Badamwari was cordoned off by a posse of police. After a while, the cops dragged the man along with his transistor from the garden and detained him in a police station for interrogation, Zareef says. “Even police didn’t know much about it.”
But perhaps in Kashmir’s post-Dogra era, the event itself marked the eventful musical journey of the Valley.
Come 1960s, and tape-recorders were first introduced in the Valley. Being very costly, they represented a class of people. Traders would buy it in exchange for something. And the Valley’s well-heeled would get it from foreign countries. Like honey bees sit around a honeycomb, Zareef remembers, people would sit around the radios and tape recorders to listen to the Sufi and traditional Kashmiri music, Chaker.
“Soon tape-recorders became regulars in music Mehfils. The singer would sing and his voice would be recorded on the recorder,” Zareef says. “He would be so happy to hear his own voice that he would give a discount on his rates. Instead of Rs 100, he would take Rs 90.”
In the beginning, the recorders, cassettes and radios would be available for sale on the left side of the Amira Kadal Bridge. “During Bhakshi’s time, the shops were strategically located as people would visit Lal Chowk on Fridays for shopping, relaxing, watching movies, to sip Lipton tea, eating barbeques and kebabs. It would be a hub. The busses from Zainakadal, Safakadal, Nawakadal would ply to Amira Kadal and vice-versa. So, people would buy it conveniently,” Zareef says. Later, its market spread across the City.
Then during GM Sadiq’s tenure, Zareef says, a special yet huge recorder known as Nagra Tape would be used to record speeches of the leaders who mostly presented their speeches in shrines. After some time, cassettes were introduced. While the other means of old musical devices eventually became obsolete, cassettes continue to stay in circulation because of Aashiqs.
However, to attract all the age groups, Mushtaq also sells audio and video CDs, pen-drives and memory cards. But the market for cassettes, he believes, will continue to stay strong—as long as the ‘true admirers’ of music buy them.
“Cassettes are much better than these memory cards, pen-drives or CDs,” says Mushtaq, as oldies around his outlet shake heads in tune with the music. “One virus, one scratch and the data is gone. But when it comes to cassettes, even if the tape is broken, we can fix it and it’s good to go. Even the quality of music is better.”
While most in his trade and tribe have switched on to other means of living with time, Mushtaq continues to serve his loyal-vintage customer base. So long his Raja Cassettes dish out the music, Hari Singh High Street is likely to stay musical.