Manan Kapoor on the only record label that is reviving Vinyl production in India
In 1983, the Mumbai based HMV record label shut down and with it, the production of vinyl stopped in India. After almost three decades, hidden in a shopping complex next to Huda City Centre metro station in Gurugram, is a studio from where an independent record label, Amarrass Records, is trying to rekindle the magic of vinyl. When it started in 2010, Amarass was just another record label that was born out of “sheer frustration” because “there was no good music available in the country.” But after training to use and assemble the machinery required for cutting vinyl in a remote German village, the label’s co-founders, Ankur Malhotra and Ashutosh Sharma, are now focused to bring vinyl back into production.
For the past twenty years, Sharma has been running a travel agency in New Delhi and Malhotra lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he works at a consultancy and runs the Madison Music Review. It was their day jobs that rolled the dice for their dreams, “It is something that we had always wanted to do. The itch was always there,” says Sharma. When it launched in 2010, Amarrass Records focused on folk music from Rajasthan no one knew of. While in Rajasthan, they noticed some “generically great musicians but no one knew their name or face. They were known only by the region they belonged to, in this case–Rajasthani.”
For their first album they picked The Manganiyars, who perform at marriages, deaths and births. Some 400 years ago, they converted to Islam and it only enriched the folk tradition of Rajasthan and Sindh by entrenching in them the imported words, tunes and instruments from as far away as Azerbaijan. When Amarass released its first album, The Manganiyar Seduction (2010), they did it with a concert at Purana Qila (Old Fort, New Delhi) and over 3,500 people attended the show.
Yet the folk song-books were dying. People only knew about Nimbura or Kesariya Balam, basically Rajasthani folk that has been popularised by Bollywood. Amarrass started by archiving, exposing and preserving indigenous folk music. Since a lot of their artists are unknown, Amarrass organises gigs for them around Delhi. The eventual plan is to do their own festival that showcases their musicians.
They brought together a group of musicians from Barmer in Rajasthan and now they are known as Barmer Boys. On 28th April, 2017, they released their album Kesariya Balm. “We got sick of the requests for Kesariya. So this (Kesariya Balm) was a painkiller for all those with Rajasthani pain,” Sharma laughs. Barmer Boys went on to play at Coke Studio and at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. At the festival, their slot was between Outkast and The Rolling Stones. “It has worked out and music has been appreciated. What’s important is that the younger audience is connecting with it,” he says. The artwork plays an important role in vinyl, for Kesariya Balm. They conceived a design and got a signboard painter to do the work in order to preserve the authenticity.
Vinyl is now easily available online, so it is no longer such a niche and for collectors only. “It’s a matter of people getting back to it. Once you listen to music on vinyl, you understand the quality of sound.” Sharma stresses that if one listens to the same album on a CD and a vinyl, they can hear the difference in quality and the warmth of the sound.
When you make vinyl, you focus on two aspects of the record. The physical and the sound. The 12×12 artwork, just by its sheer size makes for the physical aspect and is the lead element that completes the physical idea. The physicality of the vinyl leads the people to make a conscious decision to decide what they want to listen to. One can’t just simply press play and be done with it. It demands attention. The vinyl doesn’t only require involvement in buying the music, but also discarding it because one has spent money on it. It isn’t an MP3 that can be deleted in a second. It is a physical object.
Amarrass’ vinyl is priced at Rs. 1983, for the year in which all the vinyl production in India shut down.
The second aspect that makes a vinyl special is its sound. When music is produced, it is compressed by 30-40 per cent for CDs and further, 30 per cent for MP3. Therefore, there are many sounds that one wont here on MP3 or CD.
Sharma takes out a few records and starts playing them–Confusion by Fela Kuti, Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells and Kesariya Balm by Barmer Boys.“There are two ways of making vinyl,” says Sharma, “One is cutting and the other is stamping. In stamping, you make a dye and then you press it.” But pressing is used for mass production while cutting, the oldest form of record-making, uses a needle to cut the music through a vinyl disc. Amarrass Records uses the cutting technique, which means that everything at Amarrass is hand-made. “Everything is done in one go. It is in real time-whatever time. If one side is 25 mins, it’ll take 25 mins,” he says.
The cutting technique is better suited to small-batch orders. Sharma acknowledges that although its popularity is rising, vinyl has a limited audience in India. The initial investments are huge and involve a 6 to 9 month period for production. “Now there’s a lot of repressing,” he says, “But people will buy a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon rather than Lakha Khan. There isn’t a huge response in India, but there’s a good reaction to it and there is interest.”
Sharma and Malhotra have also started the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts (ASPA) where they are working to create sustaining avenues for the livelihood and well-being of musicians and artisans in rural communities. They travel into the remote regions of the country to carry out research, scout for new talent, archive and record folk/regional music and poetry. They also try and establish contact with folk/traditional instrument makers. Their goal is to develop a database of musicians, instrument makers and other indigenous crafts people and organise them into a fair trade model to archive, promote, and create market/trade opportunities. They have already worked with two instrument makers, Shankara Ram Suthar and Mohan Lal Lohar. Suthar, who specialises in crafting the Kamancha has already received a few orders through the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts.
On their roster, they have Barmer Boys, Lakha Khan and Painted Caves, a Palestinian-American band based out of Milwaukee that plays Californian surf rock with Arabic influences.
There is no age group for good music says Sharma as he sips black coffee and smokes a cigarette. To elucidate, he goes inside the studio and plays Charanjit Singh. Singh composed Dum Maro Dum and worked with R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar. When he got tired of Bollywood, he went on to compose an acid house album, Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, even before acid house was a real thing.
I hold the Miles Davis vinyl lying on the table in my hand, and that is when I realise that the visceral experience of touching something and participating in the ritual of playing a record is perhaps why vinyl are resuscitating.