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NCPA Mumbai Chairman Khushroo N Suntook tells Priyanka Sharma about his collection of rare vocal recordings — in shellac 78s, vinyl and LP records
On his many visits to Moscow over the decades, Khushroo N Suntook made it a point to stop by at Melodiya — the famous record label and store which houses an extensive collection of classical music records in different formats — and peruse the merchandise. “Russia witnessed a golden age of music in the 1990s,” remembers Suntook. The 77-year-old chairman of National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, has travelled across more than 60 Russian towns to scout for rare records of opera recitals and attended numerous opera festivals across the world. The result is his collection of vintage records — over 9,000 shellacs and 7,000 vinyl vocal recordings, stacked in neat rows at the NCPA library.
Opera stars, reminisces Suntook, were comparable to the greatest Hollywood and Bollywood stars of today, before the advent of cinema and “big pop culture”. Feted by royalty and the crème de la crème of society, particularly during the Victorian age and World War I, opera singers were paid handsomely in their prime, he says. It is these maestros that line the walls of his library, expertly organised according to time and venue of the recitals. Suntook points to his favourites including LPs of “memorable” opera recitals by Fernando De Lucia, Mattia Battistini, Pol Plançon, Boris Christoff, Luisa Tetrazzini, Dame Nellie Melba and Francesco Tamagno. While he bought most of these for around $2-$3 decades ago, today, most of these would sell for over a $100. A rare 78, he adds, can cost up to a $1,000.
In 2006, Suntook’s passion for classical music led him to found the Symphony Orchestra of India. Besides his personal collection housed at his home, the NCPA also has over 11,000 LPs of Western classical music, donated in 2009 by Suntook’s close friend Vivian Liff. “The collection is an invaluable source for research by musicologists and students as well as for general music lovers,” says Suntook. Also present are books on composers, opera houses worldwide, and recordings of different facets of vocal and instrumental music. “A number of musical scores also features in the collection, some of which are signed by their original owners such as Zelie de Lussan and other prima donnas of the past.”
Suntook inherited a significant part of his collection from his grandparents; he spent decades honing and widening it by picking up records from second-hand stores in Mumbai, and acquiring some from close friends John Freestone and Liff, who were avid record collectors. “Interactions with Larry Lustig, editor of The Record Collector, and other collectors were another source for records. Whenever we meet, we talk about singers and records, and disagree violently!” says Suntook.
Regular cleaning and maintenance of his prized records is crucial, stresses Suntook. “The reproduction of LPs and shellacs is vital and when well-executed, they are amazingly lifelike,” he says. However, they require specialised equipment — different turntables and cartridges for different types of records, and styli with different diameters for variable speeds. “One has to ensure that the stylus sits on the sides of the groove and doesn’t touch the bottom — bad reproduction results in scratches, pops, crackles, giving our hobby a bad name,” he says.
While vinyl records are easy to maintain and do not break easily, Shellac 78s are brittle, and must be handled with care. If a 78 breaks but the pieces remain loosely connected by the label, it may still be playable but the stylus could break. And so, Suntook regularly cleans his records with a nail brush, soap and water, and a record cleaning machine. For him, he adds, the records are not a mark of nostalgia, but evidence of the “incomparable quality of singing” of a musical era.