Reeling back to the ’80s

Reeling back to the ’80s
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Afra Fathima

Srinagar: In a melodious infusion of new life into old technology, Kashmiri folk and Sufi music has preserved a vintage business of audio cassettes in Batamaloo, the area itself named after a Sufi master, in Srinagar.
Mohammed Rafiq, 47, and Gulzar Ahmad, 44, owners of Gulzar Cassette House, have not just survived but prospered in their efforts to carry on selling audio cassettes. Their 30-year-old cassette business, which began from a footpath in Batamaloo, still attracts customers from every district of Kashmir. Their USP is Sufi music, for which the brothers developed an ear and deep feeling right from the childhood years.
“The sale of cassettes has considerably gone down after internet came into existence, and youth don’t prefer cassettes anyway, but it is the older generation from across the state who buys from us,” said Rafiq.
When asked about how they manage to acquire the cassettes, since most of the distribution units have been shut down, Rafiq said he has an enormous number of blank cassettes that he had stocked years back. “It is difficult to buy blank cassettes because their production has gone down and the distributors have closed shop. It is the stocks that we bought long ago that help us run the business smoothly.”
In 1988, Rafiq’s journey into this business began when he decided to sell cassettes on a footpath of Batamaloo. He was an enthusiastic young kid during the ’80s who carried a small tape recorder wherever he went. Coming from a family of Kashmiri Sufi lovers, he was always listening to Kashmiri music on tape. It was around that time that the business of audio cassettes began booming in Kashmir. Driven by his love for the music, Rafiq bought blank cassettes from distributors and recorded on them Kashmiri songs.
“All the recorded cassettes came from Delhi; there was no production in Kashmir. The idea of recording Kashmiri classics struck me, and soon I began recording and selling them,” he reminisced.
He started selling the cassettes alongside his studies. Post his matric, he got into the business completely, choosing not to study any more.
It was about two years after Rafiq started the footpath stall that Gulzar joined him. The brothers have been running the business ever since. Four years after the roadside stall was started, a proper shop was constructed. It remains there, still doing good business.
Sufi music is their exclusive product. Peer babas (Sufi saints) call them for recording, which starts at about 10pm in the night, and by 8 in the morning, six recordings are usually made – on audio tape. The brothers sell the cassettes to other outlets, mainly in villages and small towns.
Rafiq called it “fascinating” that Kashmiri music lovers from Ganderbal, Shaltang, Kupwara, Tral, Chodora, and many more places still favour cassettes.
The owners’ sons, Umar and Hilal, are into the same business. Umar, Rafiq’s son, is the director of the shop. “I’m a graduate in Bachelor’s of Science, but due to the prevalent unemployment in Kashmir, I found the family business a much better option,” Umar said. “The cassettes, which were once sold like hot cakes, are no more preferred except by the older people who are predominantly from the village side. So, we had to start video production as well to attract more customers. However, the cassettes are still sold in hundreds, which is not so bad when compared to other parts of the world.”