Saturday, September 18, 2010

Acoustically Yours!

Jimmy! Courtesy -

My first fascination with music systems began with the Murphy valve radio. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I loved to watch the valves slowly heat up and glow orange. And for some strange reason, I also loved to pull out the knobs and throw it around. Yes, I had bizarre ways of amusing myself when I was a kid. There was no T.V those days, and even after the Dyanoras and Solidaires flooded the market, we bought our TV only when I was around 14 or 15. Till then, our only source of entertainment was Vividhbharthi and my eccentricities. On weekends, my day would usually start with ‘Nimma Mechchina Chitrageethegalu’ – that played between 8:30 AM and 9:30 AM and later on till 10:00 AM I think. I loved to listen to the requests more than anything. All those people from so many unheard of towns and villages – who took time off from a difficult, backbreaking schedule to write to this program, requesting them to play their favourite song... it somehow fascinated me. Similarly afternoons would be ‘Aap ki farmaish’ and the evenings would be ‘Jaimala’ – requests from our fauji brothers.

Amma, having observed that my ears were stuck to the radio whenever I had a chance, deduced that I loved music. She was right. And she was wrong. She had decided that I should learn to sing. Lord knows I love to sing. But the irony in life is that we can’t always do whatever we love to do. My voice is just about good enough to speak. I protested weakly. I wanted to learn karate instead. “No cultured girl will hoot and kick about her legs!” Amma settled the matter sternly. Before I knew it, I was ‘admitted’ to Carnatic classes near my place. ‘Jaimala’ was switched off. I had to practice my shrutis and swaras instead, and get the thaalas right. Suffice to say that I learnt under duress. Of course, now, I repent the lost opportunity. Anyway, I guess the only time Lord Ganesha fled to the netherworlds in all these yugas was when I shrieked Lambodhara Lakumikara. At the same time, I was scoring single-digit marks in Trignometry, so Amma had to make a tough decision – she had to cut off this extra-curricular activity. I was relieved. I suppose my teacher was relieved too – he was already seventy and whenever I sang, his eyes bulged like golf balls.

In any case, by then, I was completely spellbound by another program. On Sunday afternoons, for about twenty minutes, popular chartbusters of English pop would be aired by a lady. Invariably, it would be the same songs. Funky Town, Video Killed the Radio Star or Brown Girl in the Ring. And then came along Bappida...and I was proud to be the first one in the family to know he’s know which song right? Aouah aouah!

The Murphy was long gone. Appa bought a sleek ‘two-in-one’. Philips. Two stereos. Twin cassette decks with high-speed dubbing. I felt I was touching the latest technology in space travel. I don’t think I would have been so happy even if I were installed in the White House. I exclaimed for days on end on the clarity of the sound. “I can even hear the radio woman breathe!” I squealed. My sister, ever dignified, would purse her lips and roll her eyes. The following month, we went cassette shopping (the budget for that month was over). My parents bought Bombay Sisters and suchlike. I bought my first English cassette. Modern Talking. I had heard this group in my cousin’s place and I just could not get the tunes out of my head. The ‘local’ cassettes were thirty rupees. The English ones were fifty-five. It was a stretch, but Appa was such a sport. For the next one month, morning and night it was only ‘You’re my heart, You’re my soul’ and ‘Cherie Cherie Lady’. I drove everyone nuts. But that one trip to shop for cassettes had revealed a new pilgrimage centre for me.

In Malleswaram Sampige road, there was a popular library called Shankar’s. They had ‘expanded’ the business to include selling cassettes. By the time I had promised myself that I would marry George Michael come what may (Rajesh Khanna had receded to the background), Shankar’s had invested in a hi-fi recording equipment. Rumour had it that they would record from original CDs. I had never seen a CD. I did not even know what it stood for. But I had heard a cassette which was ‘CD recorded’ at my cousin’s place. I could hear the scratch of fingers moved against the strings as the chords changed. My soul trembled.

I started haunting Shankar’s. The recording equipment was covered in some kind of a lacy tablecloth. I would usually stop by while returning from school with my friend. Just to check out the new arrivals. They humoured us. We were just a bunch of giggling school kids who came to stare at George Michael’s poster. Yeh, it was those Wham days, and as far as we were concerned, gay only meant happy.

One evening, as I turned to leave, a dude with ear studs walked in. He had come in to collect a cassette. I was shocked as he took out a hundred rupee note. Did he get a cassette made of gold or what? He had given two cassettes for recording. I walked out, and slowed down. The initial guitar strains were so different. And then, “Hey You!” The voice was serious, sombre and it sent a shiver down my spine. “Out there in the cold, getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me?” I walked back to the shop and stood listening. After Mr. Ear Studs left, I asked the guy at the counter, “Which song was that?” He opened the lock to a glass cupboard and took out a cassette. ‘The Wall’ was sprawled across the cassette cover. “It’s a group called Pink Floyd,” he informed me. I turned over the cassette and checked out the title of the songs. The cassette was seventy-five rupees. Were there people rich enough to buy such expensive cassettes? I shook my head. If I had my way, I would be ready to pay seven hundred and fifty rupees to listen to that voice again.

Now, the Philips two-in-one seemed inadequate for me. When I had heard David Gilmour call out ‘Hey You!’ there was a depth. What do I need to do get that bass? Those were the days when the ‘internet’ did not exist; so there was no way I could find out. George Michael no longer interested me. By then, there was ‘some’ group who went about by the name Nirvana. They told the story about ‘The man who sold the world’. And instructed me to ‘Come as you are’. Kurt Cobain, to me, was the most powerful man in the world. Not the President of USA. Not the Pope. The biggest suffering for me was that there was no way I could listen to these songs on the radio, and I had to rely on my memory to relish them.

Years fled by, and before long, I landed my first job. I bought my first ‘deck’ – Sonodyne. Sonodyne is the only Indian brand of hi-fi music systems, which I found to be exceptionally good. They take pride in designing their systems, and the results are not at all disappointing. It cost me ten thousand rupees. Yes, I bought it on installment. The only problem was that it did not have an inbuilt CD player. Those systems were still awfully expensive. But now that I had started earning, I could spend more time at Shankar’s buying empty cassettes and having my favourite songs recorded. (Coming to think of it...was it even legal to rip off?!) And the cassettes had to be Meltrack. 90 minutes. But of course, my first album was The Wall. This was followed by many, many, many assorted collections. The world outside was a sea of cubicles and endless meetings and crowded BTS buses. The IT dream was in full swing – and I was out of the house for more than 14 hours. So I had to make do with a Sony Discman which came with an ‘extra bass’ button. Absolutely groovy baby! And so, the world inside my head was so beautiful!

The Scorpions wanted to take me on a Holiday. Led Zeppelin wanted to give me a Whole Lotta Love. Def Leppard said they got Hysteria when I was near, and that Love Bites. Radiohead whispered about being a Creep – and I felt so sympathetic. INXS laconically drawled there’s Not Enough Time and that they’ll Never Let (me) Go. Bon Jovi told me he’s Living On A Prayer and that he wants to lay me down on a Bed of Roses. Carlos Santana told me I’m a Black Magic Woman. U2 told me that (I) Move in Mysterious Ways. Reo Speedwagon promised to Keep On Loving (Me). Duran Duran asked me to Come Undone. Creedance Clearwater Revival admitted that they’ve Put A Spell on (Me). I sat with the Eagles to watch the Tequilla Sunrise. Guns n’ Roses lamented they don’t have anything Since (they) Don’t Have (Me). Lenny Kravitz asked me if I’m Gonna Go (His) Way...well because he was pissed off with the American Woman. Eric Clapton threw a different light on Cocaine. Oh Yes! The world inside my head rocked.

My presence at home was usually ‘felt’ because of the thumping bass and metal. It was funny in many ways. In the mornings, one could hear Sanskrit shlokas as Appa performed the daily puja...and then Roger Waters would moan “Veraaa! What has become of you?”

It was bloody difficult to get many of the albums. Guns N Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ cassette cost a whopping hundred and fifty bucks...too expensive for my pocket. The CD, it was rumored, was upwards of Rs.600! It was tormenting to watch November Rain on MTV...and not listen to it on my Sonodyne. It was books and music for me...much the same way it is cigarettes and alcohol for the dudes.

During a Deepavali festival, when we were shopping for a washing machine in V.G.P., I heard Chris De Burgh’s Lady in Red. While it is an all time favourite, I was impressed with the quality of the sound. Sony had released their latest hi-fi system. 3 way speakers, double cassette deck and a CD player. Amma said I could buy it only if I disposed the Sonodyne. The Sonodyne was like my baby - after all I spent the same amount of time cleaning the cassette heads, as one would take to change diapers. I could give the Sonodyne only to someone who can take care of it. After careful character assessment, I gave it to a neighbour and bought the Sony.

But there is never an end to having a ‘good’ music system. I wanted to buy an extra subwoofer. I was told I could tie it to my head and walk around. So I had to put the idea on hold. My next burning desire was to setup a home theatre system.

When Bose opened their showroom in a relatively empty Forum, by some divine intervention I was installed in a Koramangala office. I felt like one of those blessed people who can go to Haridwar everyday. For the demo, they had some Nat Geo clip. One of those Big Cats stuff. (Later on, it was Matrix scenes). Their showroom was not ‘treated’; and yet, the performance was very impressive. They had some kind of an inaugural offer. They would setup the stuff including an LCD TV. I don’t remember the price they quoted, but they did say they will give a 5 year, 10 year, 12 year loan. So while others were investing in 30X40 sites, I seriously contemplated on buying a Bose setup. Thankfully, I had to travel out of the country, and the plan was put on hold.

When my husband and I eventually bought our own home in Bangalore – our first major project was to buy a good home theatre system. Buying a pre-designed apartment also means one has very little flexibility to alter certain stuff. Our living room, with its open plan area, surrounded by glass surfaces meant there would be considerable sound loss. Besides, I was not very sure of the wiring – I did not want ugly wires hanging all over the place. So I started researching on wireless HTS. Again, Sony is quite popular, but the model for which I had read phenomenal reviews was not available in India. We decided to take a look at the wired systems too. We went to numerous ‘showrooms’. Polk Audio, Onkyo, Boston Acoustics...the list was endless. That’s when we realized that most of these so called showrooms know squat about home theatres and acoustics. Well, perhaps the guy who owns the place is passionate, but the guy who sells on the shop floor thinks a good demo is just turning up the volume. One moron even spoke about pmpo and I was ready to pound him to pulp.

My research into wireless systems continued. The only expensive option was Nakamichi. There was a small showroom in Koramangala; in the apartment block which houses Kaya Skin Clinic. When we walked in, the person-in-charge was demoing a car audio system. Oh. My. God. The sound was astounding. It was the best I had heard so far. When we finally sat down for our demo, it was heaven. The demo room was perfectly treated, and more importantly, the person-in-charge spoke a lot of sense. At an entry level, the Nakamichi wired system comes with the regular 5 speakers (2F, 2R, 1C) and two subs. Bose gives the same configuration, but the two subs are elegantly housed in a single box. But Bose really paled when compared to Nakamichi. The wireless Nakamichi has a sexy diamond shaped media centre, and costs three lakh plus. Then, this person in-charge asked us to speak to his boss, and take a look at other systems before deciding.

There is a car audio cum repair place behind the Koramangala BDA complex. In the bowels of this garage is an astonishing room; impeccably treated for the best HTS experience. I felt like someone had said ‘Khul jaa sim sim!’ The owner of this place is Palani. Palani started this as a hobby, and later on, it became a business. He’s got an impressive array of brands, and can hook up any combination for you. He comes to your place to assess your HTS area, and advises you on the best setup.

Yet, we took three months of several trips to Palani’s garage. We finally narrowed down to Mordaunt Short. It is a relatively low-key UK brand – but has soul-stirring sound quality. Our 5.1 setup is Mordaunt Short. We went in for a Marantz receiver and a Denon DVD player. It is our single-most precious possession till date.

I am not sure if I would upgrade this system. I realized the need to invest in a good music system was driven more by the love of the songs. There was a story in every song; there was attitude, there was class, there was character. Besides, the making of every song had a story behind it. I guess it sounds clich├ęd, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a strong connect with any of today’s groups. Yeh...Coldplay is great...Nickelback too...but would they make me go and buy a B&O? I don’t think so.

© Sumana Khan - 2010


  1. Great writeup ! Needless to say I love your choice of topics. Its crystal clear in my mind the hours we spent in class mooning over "Ya ma heart, ya ma soul " :-) and "Last Christmas" Btw gay or not GM still stirs me :-)
    Keep going !

  2. @Just thinking - I agree...George Michael can never fade! Modern Talking - remember Bappi's Brother Louie rip off? ROFL!

  3. Wonderful writing, I can actually relate to it...the akashvani,the bands of the 80s and 90s, the meltrack 90 recordings for 60 bucks...:)

  4. Well well well... You had to someday write about the music eh?
    Did you forget Live Aid?!!!
    Great stuff. Was watching bits of Almost Famous the other day and remembering you guys.
    I suppose its the music gets you going afterall....

  5. hey Sumana,
    i remember the time during our +2days when you liked Samantha Fox. You would go on and on about her. none of us knew or cared about her.Reading your blog,i just remembered it.