India’s only gramophone museum

India’s only gramophone museum

Sunny Mathew’s unique gramophone and record collection has a Bengaluru connection

Sunny’s museum near Kottayam has a collection of gramophone records dating back to 1898-99 and vinyl records from the 1940s to 1985. It also displays gramophone and record players collected from across the country

The slender non-assuming person speaks in a soft voice, his unhurried manner injecting a sense of calm into your being. However, this modesty belies the fact that Sunny Mathew is one of the custodians and chroniclers of India’s aural history.

Sunny is the owner of ‘Discs & Machines — Sunny’s Gramophone Museum and Records Archive’, a collection of vintage records housed in a double-storeyed, air-conditioned building with an atrium. It is a treasure trove of around 1,10,000 records and more than 260 gramophones.

He was in the city recently for the RMIM meet, a get-together of vintage music enthusiasts from all over the world. 
Sunny has an old connection with Bengaluru. As part of a study for a German company, he researched about SeethaPhone Company. The 1924 shop stocks old LPs and records. “As part of the project, I wrote about 3-4 pages on them. When I gave a copy to them, the founder’s son DS Sreenivasa Murthy cried out of pure joy for some time,” says Sunny.

It was beginning of a long relationship. Sunny bought many records from the shop and Sreenivasa and family came for the museum’s inauguration. 

History of the museum

“I have been collecting records and recording mediums for the last 32 years,” says Sunny, a retired divisional manager at Kerala Forest Dev Corporation. He lives in Pala (Kottayam), Kerala and is the owner-manager of the Gramophone museum.

Purely driven by a love for music and a desire to preserve these cultural relics, Sunny slowly filled his house with gramophones and records. He extended his house to accommodate his growing collection but when he and his family members ran out of space to live, Sunny decided to open an exclusive museum.

“The year was 2012. I had retired and toying with this idea. The final push came when my friend Mohamed Shafi and I organised a two-day exhibition-cum-seminar on gramophones and allied subjects at the Police Club, Kozhikode. We did not receive sponsorship but decided to conduct the event with our own money. The event was a grand success, so much so that for two days we didn’t even have time to eat,” he reminisces.

When Sunny realised that almost 99 per cent of the visitors at the event had not seen a gramophone in their lives, he went ahead with his plan. The museum was thrown open to the public on January 25, 2015.

What does it stock?

Apart from 78 rpm shellac records, cylinder records and wire records and vinyl records, all sourced from different parts of India, there is every type of sound recording or reproducing equipment like phonograph, gramophone (from cabinet sized ones to table and pocket versions), electrical record player, magnetic recorders (wire recorders, tape recorders, cassette tape recorders), optical (film) and laser (LD, VCD, floppy discs of various sizes) recorders.

Sunny has also documented the history of capturing and preserving sound and its many milestones in India on flex boards that are hung on racks, all of them designed by Sunny himself.

How did Sunny get these? 

He travelled to places like Bengaluru, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai to source these. He would rummage through old houses or flea markets, mostly in Chennai and Bengaluru. “In the north, I had my agent-turned-friend Mohammed Shafi who helped me source and 
transport many of these antiques. Shafi and I worked together in Calcutta and we have been friends for almost 15 years now. I have travelled with him many times and we still meet up once in a while,” Sunny says with a smile.

How rare is his collection?

“I have records dating back to 1598. I have two records from that year which are very rare, very expensive and nowhere to be found. They should cost anywhere between $300-500 now,” he estimates.

He has a copy of the first song to be recorded in India. “I got it by chance when Shafi and I were looking through a heap of records on sale in an antique shop in a Calcutta flea market. Most of them were broken but this one was in good condition. It was only when I cleaned it and saw the name that I realised how important it was.”

He recounts the story behind it: In the November of 1902, a German recording engineer came to India to create a record. However, none of the reputed singers agreed to sing since they felt it was beneath their dignity. So the engineer and his team finally got a 14-year-old ‘dancing’ girl to sing. She was the first one to get her voice immortalised on record, and it was her recording that got other musicians to change their mind, after which Gauhar Jaan consented to sing.

Around 200 copies of the girl’s song were made. “I don’t think any of the other copies are surviving. Maybe people are unaware they have that particular record or maybe they just threw it away because the quality of her voice was quite bad. In fact, the recording engineer, in a diary entry made after 40 years, called it a ‘miserable voice’. But she was a small child and a dancing girl, she wasn’t a trained singer. I heard that the girl later became a famous actress.”  Sunny has a YouTube channel (sunny78rpmmusic) where he has uploaded close to 500 songs. “This song is also there, along with its history,” he says.

Who visits his museum?

“Age-wise, mostly old people come; the younger ones are casual visitors who stroll in to see what it’s all about,” he says, adding that locals are not very interested. “Mostly foreigners and people from outside the district visit. We conduct annual seminars and this time, from a total of 60 attendees, only 26 were from Kerala.”

What’s in store?

Sunny wants to save his collection so that future generations can understand their importance and learn from them. “They won’t be destroyed. I have made new covers for all of these that will protect them from moisture and dust and have arranged them carefully in shelves. If they can survive for 120 years in a state of neglect, then they won’t disappear anytime soon.”

What are his personal favourites?

"I don't like new songs much though I might listen to one or two once in a blue moon," Sunny says almost apologetically. "I usually don't listen to Malayalam songs that have come out after the 80s. The earlier songs were poetic and lyrical. After that, movies lost their stories and songs lost their poetry," he says.

Surprisingly, he prefers Hindi songs over Malayalam. "In the 40s-60s, when I was growing up, most Malayalam songs were parodies of the Hindi songs. So I have more nostalgia for Hindi. I love listening to singers like Shamshad Begum and Suraiyya."

When is the museum open?

In the first year, the museum was open for all seven days a year. Next year, it was two days a week. Now it's half a day per week. On all other days, people can come by appointment only.

When we ask him for directions, Sunny starts off by saying "It's 37 km from Kottayam railway station." Then he laughs and adds, "Just use Google Maps. No one asks for directions now, they follow online directions and land up at the door."

Sunny can be contacted on 93874 73424.