Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Treasure Trove Of Classical Music

There are more than one lakh records as well as 250 gramophones at the ‘Discs and Machines’ Sunny's Gramophone Museum and Records Archive at Plassanal, Kerala

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the ‘Discs and Machines Sunny's Gramophone Museum and Records Archive' at Plassanal (74 kms from Kochi), the owner Sunny Mathew takes out a record from a sleeve. Then he takes a small piece of cotton, dips it in liquid paraffin, and rubs the grooves. Following that, he cranks up the spring of the gramophone and selects a steel needle. Thereafter he plays the record.

The English song, 'Holy City', sung by Leo Stormont can be heard:

'Last night I lay sleeping,
There came a dream so fair;
I stood in old Jerusalem,
Beside the Temple there'

In 1898, this song, by composer Stephen Adams, became one of the most popular religious songs in England. “This is the earliest record in my collection,” says Sunny.

At his air-conditioned museum, which had recently celebrated its second anniversary, there are more than one lakh records in many international and Indian languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Bhojpuri, and Malayalam.

In Malayalam, the earliest song which I have, was recorded in 1911, and sung by a woman called TC Narayani Ammal,” says Sunny. There are also recordings by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose.

Apart from this, he has a total of 250 gramophones, of all shapes and designs. For example, a suitcase model has a handle and can be carried from place to place. Picnic gramophones are small and designed to fold up into a compact box. Cabinet models are freestanding, like a piece of furniture.

This fascination for gramophones and records began in his childhood. At his home, his father had a HMV gramophone. “The sound of the songs was a wonder to me,” he says. “In fact, the Hindi songs that I heard at that time, by singers like KL Saigal, Shamshad Begum, Noor Jehan, Pankaj Mallik and C Ramchandra remain my favourites,” he says.

Asked how he began his collection, Sunny says, “By accident. One day, in the 1980s, while travelling in Madurai, I came across a 1930s Floral horn type gramophone, along with some records.” Once he began listening to music on this machine, Sunny got hooked. “Thereafter, there was no looking back,” says Sunny, who retired as Divisional Manager, Kerala Forest Development Corporation in 2012.

But he has paid a steep price for this passion. The museum has been built at a cost of Rs 50 lakh. To meet the expenses, Sunny had to dip into his savings, gratuity, as well as his provident fund. Unfortunately, the returns are not that much. “But that's because the entry is free,” says Sunny. Apart from Indians, the museum gets visitors from Europe, Australia, Singapore, and the USA.

Sometime ago, writer Roberts Millis from Seattle came to the museum and spent a few days. Later he wrote about Sunny in his book called the 'Indian Talking Machine'. “It is a study of the 78rpm record and gramophone collecting in the subcontinent,” says Sunny.

When asked to compare gramophone and digital music, Sunny says, “It's like comparing an elaborate meal, with two-minute noodles. In digital, you are not mentally prepared to listen to the music.”

When Sunny wants to hear a record, he will walk around, before selecting, cleaning, and playing the song. “To listen to a three-minute song, I have to prepare for three minutes,” he says. “When you do this, you will enjoy the music far more.”

Meanwhile, at his sprawling home, surrounded by willowy rubber trees, and with the constant support of his wife, Josia, Sunny is busy doing a project, called the 'Endangered Archives Programme', for the British Library in London. “I am digitising all the records available till 1927,” he says. “It will be uploaded on their web site. This is a valuable way to preserve the music and a nice way to spend my retirement.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)