Rhythm House among Modi properties seized by government, to be auctioned off to pay back creditors
Nirav Modi fraud might be the revival of an iconic records shop
When Rhythm House shut its doors in 2016, it signalled the end of the most iconic music store in Mumbai. But as an unexpected side effect of India’s largest-ever bank fraud, a revival of Rhythm House may be in the offing.
Since 1948, when it opened, Rhythm House formed a key piece of Mumbai’s cultural mosaic. In its racks, Mumbaikars found vinyl records, cassettes and CDs that introduced them to new music from around the world - a blessing during a time before cable television and the Internet.
Like music stores around the world, however, Rhythm House struggled to keep up with the economics of the industry. Few people buy music in physical form any more, Mehmood Curmally, who owned Rhythm House when it shuttered, said at the time to reporters.
The shop, with its distinctive navy-blue façade and a delicate iron grill running around the first-floor balcony, was sold last year for 320 million rupees (Dhs18 million) to Nirav Modi, one of India’s most famous jewellery entrepreneurs. The location, in the heritage-rich Kala Ghoda neighbourhood in south Mumbai, was valuable, and Mr Modi planned to open a new showroom in the space.
After Mr Modi defaulted on more than $2 billion (Dhs7.3 billion) in loans from state-owned banks, however, the ground shifted. Last week, one of the Indian government’s financial investigative agencies seized 21 of Mr Modi’s properties around the country, with plans to auction them off to pay back his creditors.
Among the properties was Rhythm House, noticed Anand Mahindra, one of India’s wealthiest industrialists, whose company sponsors Asia’s largest blues festival in Mumbai every year.
If Rhythm House was eventually going to be auctioned, Mr Mahindra tweeted, “how about a bunch of us in Mumbai collectively acquiring it, restoring it & turning it into a performance venue for rising musicians & a hangout for music lovers? Happy to be part of such a band.”
The tweet ignited such a storm of support that Mr Mahindra began to put together a loose coalition of donors and volunteers to explore the idea more fully.
Much of the support was driven by the fond nostalgia that Mumbaikars still feel towards Rhythm House. “We went to its booths to listen to music before deciding to buy - or not,” Salil Tripathi, a writer who grew up in Mumbai, said.
“The Curmallys were fairly indulgent towards students like us, who had enough money to probably buy an EP or two (in the vinyl days) or audio cassettes, but who would listen to several records in the booths,” Mr Tripathi told The National. “I must have heard many Beatles songs that way, as well as Rolling Stones and later Abba. Browsing the tapes and records for hours was almost a religious experience.”
For the breadth of its selections and the love with which they were curated, Rhythm House became iconic. Salman Rushdie featured a version of it in his novel “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” calling Rhythm Centre “that rhinestone treasure chest full of…antiquated ditties.”
The shop even set up its own record label, releasing albums by “essential but not so prominent performers from the city,” Naresh Fernandes, the author of “Taj Mahal Foxtrot,” a book about Mumbai’s jazz culture, said.
If Rhythm House succumbed to the world of streaming music, Kala Ghoda - home to art galleries, bookstores, stately old buildings, and decades-old restaurants - suffered from the global malaise of gentrification, Mr Tripathi pointed out.
Several old favourites have disappeared: the Samovar café within the Jehangir Art Gallery; the Wayside Inn; Strand Book Stall a little further away. Esplanade Mansion, which once housed a hotel where the Lumiere Brothers showed the first movies in 1896, has been abandoned because of structural infirmity.
But citizen groups have been trying hard, with some success, to keep Kala Ghoda’s soul alive. Three years ago, when the state announced a plan to turn the area into Mumbai’s Times Square, complete with electronic billboards and high-end retail, a chorus of protest convinced the government to drop the plan.
The Kala Ghoda Festival, now in its 20th year, preserves the neighbourhood’s focus on art, architecture and literature. The festival’s organiser, a non-profit called the Kala Ghoda Association, “has made an in-principle decision to contribute up to 25 lakhs [2.5 million] rupees towards Anand Mahindra’s initiative to create a performance space at Rhythm House, as long as it is not-for-profit in its composition,” the association’s chairman, Maneck Davar, told The National.
Others who signed up to Mr Mahindra’s proposal include the politician Milind Deora; Jay Kotak, the son of a prominent Mumbai banker; the musician Vishal Dadlani; and the comedian Atul Khatri.
Mr Mahindra has suggested crowdsourcing funds rather than putting Rhythm House into the hands of a few wealthy patrons. “This should not be a project for only the rich,” he said on Twitter. “If we crowdsource, you ought to be able to participate at any level you can.”