They made their appearance in India in the mid-to-late seventies. The next step in the evolution of music players – the cassette decks. They ranged from the compact mono players and “two-in-ones” to the larger cassette decks that came with graphic equalizers and powerful speakers. They were middle and upper-class status symbols, usually occupying a prominent place in the house. When not in use, they were covered with a plastic cover or crocheted lace doilies. The accompanying cassette tapes were usually arranged in neat stacks in a showcase. I used to long for a tape recorder – to me, it represented the freedom to listen to songs of my choice whenever I felt like listening to them. The cassette tapes allowed music to be customizable. LPs were portable, they could be exchanged, but one could not create an LP of selected songs. The Reel to Reel tape or spool players allowed for recording but were not as common and not as easily portable. The universal appeal of the cassette player lay in its power to make and play mixtapes.
Around 1981, my dad’s friend lent us his tape recorder and collection of Hindi tapes for a few months. He had a lovely collection – the popular RK movies as well as Pyaasa and Kagaz-ke-Phool. The gems, though in my opinion, was the Pankaj Mullick collection and a Hemant Kumar “Geet” or private songs collection. Most Hindi music was associated with movies but now and then, a singer would cut an album comprising of non-Hindi movie songs and hence the label of “Private” songs. Many of these were composed by Madhukar Rajasthani. We enjoyed this collection for a few months until we returned the player and tapes to my dad’s friend. My aunt and family lived with us for a year in Bangalore and they had a tape recorder and a pretty nice collection of songs. Some of those that I still remember are the songs from Shabab and a collection of Geeta Dutt songs.
We got our first tape recorder in late 1984, a gift from my generous uncle Sathyumaam who lived in Sharjah. It was a National Panasonic mono recorder and it soon occupied a spot in front of our radio above our ‘Godrej almirah’. The first tape I purchased had the soundtracks from the RK movies “Aah” and “Barsaat”. Superb songs, all of them, and even today when I listen to these songs, they remind me of the excitement of owning a new cassette player. For a middle-class family in the eighties, milestones were measured by the purchase of a refrigerator, tape recorder and a television.
On my trip to Bombay in 1985, my aunt took me to a small shop in Chembur which specialized in recording songs. This was a professional operation – the store owner had a catalog with the titles of songs and index numbers. I pored over the catalog and selected songs to record on a 90-minute TDK tape. It cost Rs 30 to get songs recorded on the cassette, the quality of the recording was excellent after all it was recorded from pristine LPs. I was a song short but given the general theme of songs, the store owner recorded an appropriate song. This was my first mixtape. I carefully wrote the names of the songs on the space provided on the cover and that tape gave us endless hours of listening pleasure. My brother probably still has it lying somewhere at home.
Since our cassette player was not a “two-in-one”, recordings if any, were made by placing our cassette player in front of the radio and pressing the record button. Of course, external noises would also be recorded despite our best efforts to avoid them. When I recorded Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, I also recorded the sound of steel vessels being washed in the ktichen sink. “Baba, man ki aankhen khol” from the movie “Dhoop Chhaon” also has my grandfather’s voice recorded, saying “K.C. Dey”, announcing the name of the singer. Come to think of it, I hope we still have that tape at home since it would probably represent the only recording of my grandfather’s voice!
Blank cassette tapes became a prized commodity. TDK, Sony, Maxell and Memorex tapes were highly sought after. Denon and Philips tapes were less common but still prized. These were the pre-liberalisation days and these were either received gratefully as gifts from relatives visiting from abroad or bought from small bazaars with cheesy names such as “Bamboo Bazar” that specialized in selling smuggled goods. Of course, there were fakes too and one had to be careful while purchasing these tapes. There were Indian brands too – Meltrack was probably the best amongst the Indian brands. Rumours abounded that the stores that recorded songs would secretly unscrew the imported cassettes and replace the original tape with local tape.
The mixed tapes soon became our prized possessions. On a trip to Bombay, my brother recorded a few mixed tapes, the piece de resistance being a tape he put together by recording songs from old 78s from my uncle’s and cousin’s collection. In the fifties, my dad lived with his older and younger brother at Shivaji Park in Bombay. My uncle, who was a doctor, built up an extensive collection of 78s including songs from movies such as Yatrik and Anjangarh. These movies had songs sung by singers such as Pankaj Mullick, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Binata Chakraborty and Utpala Sen. They were probably all Pankaj Mullick compositions. I had heard my dad reminisce about these songs so much that they had acquired a sanctified halo around them. These were played very rarely on radio and I finally got to hear them when my brother recorded them on cassettes with help from my cousin.
We played these cassettes so often that I memorized the order of the songs on all the tapes. This skill came to the fore when my dad and his siblings got together around 1991 when my grandfather passed away. One night, at around 9 pm, my dad and uncles sat down and started reminiscing about their youth. The topic turned to songs and as they started talking about the movies of the forties and fifties – Yatrik, Badal, Aram, Tarana, Andaaz and their songs, I played a mix tape containing these songs. The conversation stopped, a distant look came into their eyes. My dad requested me to turn off the lights, apparently, they used to listen to the radio in the dark, I guess that heightened their focus and appreciation of the music. As each song played, a memory would surface and they would be transported back in time. The requests then started coming in thick and quick. Can you play “Man mein kisi preet basale” from Aram? How about “Tu Dhundtha hai jisko” from Yatrik? “Lo pyar ki ho gayi jeet” from Jadoo? I lined up the tapes, and forwarded and rewound them to get to the songs. Sathyumaam had generously gifted us another cassette player – an Aiwa boombox this time and it had “AMS” – auto music search that allowed me to forward or rewind to the next song based on the gaps between the songs. This went on till about midnight and for a short period of time, I was able to be a part of my dad and uncles’ lives via their memories. These memories would not have been possible if not for those mixed tapes!
Cassette tapes also broadened my horizons when it came to English music. All India Radio and Radio Ceylon hardly played English music, so most of my knowledge of Western music came via songs learned in my music class in school, listening to songs sung by my mother while she was cooking or via tapes/LPs that I listened to when I visited my uncle in Bombay or my friends’ houses. With a cassette player, I could now borrow tapes and listen to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Eagles, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and so on. When it came to lending tapes, I found that my friends fell into two categories. There were the ones who were very possessive and lent them with strict instructions. In fact, one of my friends insisted that I cleaned my tape heads before I borrowed his cassettes. Others had a more laissez-faire attitude. Their tapes circulated in the classroom for months before they eventually made their way home. I remember one of my friends had lent me a set of old records – his father’s collection so that I could record them at my neighbor’s house. In a moment of generosity, he also gave me a Maxell cassette that already had songs recorded on it. He said that he had been given the tape by another friend and he did not particularly care for the songs and I could have it. I recorded some of Jyothika Roy’s songs and then out of curiosity decided to listen to the some of the original songs on the cassette. I was hooked when I heard the songs – “Promises”, “Lay down Sally”, “Look Wonderful Tonight”. This was my introduction to Eric Clapton. Needless to say, I stopped recording on that tape.
There were rituals to be followed with the cassette players. We cleaned the heads periodically. Usually, this involved taking some soft cloth or cotton swab, dipping it in alcohol, depressing the play button and then cleaning the heads with the cloth. The cleaning medium soon turned dark as the oxide was transferred to it. One could not forget the pinch rollers either, they needed to be cleaned too. You could also buy self-cleaning cassette tapes. There was a good chance that at some point in time your tape would get entangled within the internals of your cassette player. This called for some delicate surgery. The tape had to be carefully extricated and in some cases depending on how mangled it was, the tape had to be cut. The oxide would then be gently scraped off from the opposing edges and the two ends would then be stuck to each other, either with glue or with a carefully cut strip of cellophane tape. Sometimes the cassette could be used for a few more years without any problems. Of course, one of the songs would end abruptly and another one would start midway! If the tape was an important one, now was the time to record a backup!
Regarding English songs, there were a series of cassettes that had titles such as “Sentimental Hits”, “Golden Oldies” or “Everlasting Love Songs”. These were compilations of songs from the fifties, sixties and seventies and were very popular. When my brother got engaged in 1991, I recorded a mixed tape as a gift for him that had songs such as “Strangers in the Night”, “Papa, he loves Mama”, “Ginny come lately” and so on. My brother and sister-in-law loved it and it was played pretty frequently at home.
When I left home for the US, I made copies of my favorite cassettes. I wanted to have some familiar music in an unfamiliar land. The day before I flew out, I stopped at a store in Kings Circle in Bombay and picked up a few tapes – C. Ramachandra, Hemant Kumar’s non-film songs, Husnalal Bhagatram and a couple of “Sentimental Hits” cassettes. I bought a walkman a couple of months after I had joined University here and would listen to my songs all the time. Even to this day, when I listen to some of C. Ramchandra’s songs, I am transported back to chilly March mornings as I walked to school on College Avenue. Different locale, familiar songs!
Now I had the opportunity to borrow tapes from friends from all over India and listen to them. My collection continued to grow and friends borrowed my cassettes. The unlikeliest person to borrow a cassette from me was a Russian girl who borrowed Raj Kapoor’s “Awaara” and “Shree 420”. It should not have surprised me though. Raj Kapoor’s films and songs were popular in Russia. Awaara had been dubbed and released as “Brodgaya” in Russian and “Awaara Hoon” had become very popular. Years later, a high school classmate of mine who was designing a steel plant in a remote city of China was requested to sing “Awaara Hoon” at a party. Talk of soft power and the influence of Bollywood movies!
TDK cassettes were still prized and during my initial trips home, a couple of mint cassettes found their way into the standard Ziploc goody bags along with shaving gels, candy, safety razors, lipsticks and other such items. There were always favorite mixtapes that held a collection of songs that were generally well liked by a group of friends. These would often be played at parties. The collection varied – there were the fast numbers at the beginning when the alcohol was flowing and energy levels were high. The sentimental hits would follow later at night and would be accompanied with soulful singing. Music serves as a great salve to soothe the wounds that homesickness exposes. As we bought cars after graduating from school, our tapes found another home. I remember driving from North Carolina to South Florida alone with my cassettes keeping me company on the long drive. I eventually ended up buying a JVC dual tape deck in the mid-nineties and I still have it to this day.
The advent of CDs had already sounded the death knell for cassette tapes. I was a Luddite to a certain extent and persisted with cassettes until I finally gave in and started buying CDs. Tapes were used less frequently and finally, when I moved from South Florida to New England, I threw away close to 300 cassettes. I held onto a few, mainly the ones that I had brought from India. The old order changeth, yielding place to new and it is now all about digital music and streaming services. However, I still have a few cassettes stored away. These tapes hold some dear memories and in a way, they provide a tangible connection to the different phases of my life. Perhaps, one of the mixed tapes will see the light of day when I get together with my old friends someday. There is a good probability that one of the songs in that cassette will be a perennial favorite from the “Oldies” series of cassettes and I will leave you with that song!