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Corporate Jun 13, 2013

Goodbye Music World: A confession of embarrassed nostalgia

By Roy

It's an odd thing - this nostalgia business.

On the same day that we heard the death of the telegram was imminent, we learned that Music World was downing the shutters of its last store. One had been around for 163 years. The other had been around for 13.

The twangs of wistfulness that accompanied both news items say something about the breathless times we live in - where the time frame for obsolescence is getting ever shorter. It was not so long ago that many of us had made the grudging transition from old bulky gramophones to tape recorders. CDs were the next big thing. For the longest time, my mother stubbornly called CDs "tapes" as if having made the quantum leap from LPs to tapes she was not about to entertain any more new fangled ideas for awhile. Now just as she's gotten accustomed to CDs they too are on their way out. "The onset of digitization of music and shift in consumer preferences towards music and video downloads has rendered the business model unviable," said Sanjay Gupta, corporate head of marketing, for the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group which owns the Music World stores.

The Music World store in Kolkata. Image courtesy: Facebook.

The Music World store in Kolkata. Image courtesy: Facebook.

Nostalgia was once a marker of childhood, something taken for granted, which had almost unnoticed by us, become increasingly rare. The man who would come to water the streets every evening. Farinni icecreams. The ritual of filling fountain pens before an examination - Shalimar Royal Blue ink. My mother remembers the man who went around on summer evenings with baskets full of fresh mango fish shouting "Topse, topse." But she doesn't remember when the topse man vanished. I have nostalgia for things that haven't quite vanished but have disappeared from my life - flimsy blue aerogrammes, chicken stew by the quarter plate, the coldness of metal keys tied to the end of a sari's aanchal.

Nostalgia today is no longer reserved for the disappearance of things we feel had been around forever. Or perhaps it's our notion of forever that has shrunk - from 163 years to 13 to 5.

It catches me by surprise that I feel a certain nostalgia for the Music World store. Until the announcement of its end, I thought nostalgia was reserved for things like the telegram. Or the Elphinstone Picture Palace from 1907 (later known as the Chaplin) that was just torn down in Kolkata to make way for a multi-storied office building.

Music World was a shiny retail chain store, coloured purple like Barney the dinosaur, the kind of brightly-lit, gleaming store that heralded the new India of malls and multiplexes. It was owned by the Goenka group which owns the Spencers supermarkets and the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation. Nostalgia was supposed to be for the stores it threatened to replace. That it could itself be the object of nostalgia in a little over a decade seemed unimaginable.

"The closing down of Music World for me is a failure of all of us as a society," says music director Shantanu Moitra in an epitaph for the store. "A healthy society is one where the new and the old co-exist."

Who could have imagined that the "old" Moitra would be nostalgic for would be Music World?

To me, Melody around the corner from our house was the "old". It was a cramped store where the owner was a repository of arcane musical trivia, where famous singers and musicians came to shoot the breeze and drink endless cups of tea, where a shop attendant brought out three CDs for you to choose from and then if you dared reject all three, grudgingly brought out a couple more.

Music World was all about the customer. An expansive 3,800 sq ft of retail space. CDs neatly displayed for browsing. There were listening stations. Obsequious attendants in uniforms hovered around offering shopping baskets and suggestions until you told them to leave you alone. Best of all, it had air conditioning which alone probably accounted for half its foot traffic in a city as muggy as Kolkata. It was an excellent rendezvous point.

Every time I came home from America on a visit, I would stop by Music World to see what was new. Each and every time, I felt I was cheating on Melody. Melody was personal but Music World was just too convenient.

The Music Worlds were supposed to gobble up the Melodys out of sheer scale. Scale, ironically, also did it in. "Retail is all about scale, which was missing here since we have just one store now," said Gupta. It had 39 stores in 2011. But 38 of those had shut down in the last two years. The flagship store did good business but not enough to save it. The Economic Times reports revenues dipped to Rs 35-40 lakh a month in 2013 from Rs 70 lakh a month in 2012. Meanwhile Melody is still trudging along, at least for now, perhaps because its ambitions of scale were different to begin with. How long it will survive is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile I am left with the disconcerting feeling of having my own romantic notions of nostalgia rudely upended. In a city like Kolkata, nostalgia is serious business, perhaps the only business. Amit Chaudhuri's book Calcutta: Two Years in the City begins with him stumbling upon a French window on the street, a castaway from a South Kolkata house being demolished or as they say "promoted" into an apartment building. Once these slatted windows, always green, were ubiquitous. Chaudhuri writes "the street would flood in through the crack, without any part of you seeping out." In an impulsive moment, he rescues the French window though he has no real place for it in his modern flat. The window that opened onto the street now opens into the book. There is a romance in that reflection, a melancholy gravitas in the orphaned green window, something quintessentially Calcuttan, now merely decorative. But what does it mean, I wonder, this new nostalgia I am discovering somewhat embarrassedly, for what was essentially a box store and the purple plastic bags its CDs came in?

by Roy

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