Three objects of decade old affection. Part I: The gramophone

Sri Ram Puri's Gramophone

WORDS BY BELA KAPOOR
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY NAVDHA MALHOTRA & BELA KAPOOR
New Delhi, India

I have never known my nana, my maternal grandfather. My maternal grandparents are people of whom I only know of from the stories that my mother, Chander Kanta and my father would tell us. My father spoke very highly of him. And that speaks volumes about a man- that your son-in-law could be in awe of you!

My grandfather’s name was Sri Ram Puri and he worked as a State  Engineer with the royal families in Punjab and Rajasthan. He worked as a state engineer with Yadavindra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala. He also worked with the Maharaja of Nabha (Yadavindra Singh’s cousin brother) and the Maharaja of Kota. I am unsure of the names of the Maharajas and which year he was where. This gramophone belonged to him. I first saw it at my parent’s home in Chandigarh when I was a child.

In earlier times, you’d find a radiogram in a lot of homes, but having a gramophone was quite unique. It plays records but doesn’t catch a radio signal. It is made of ‘sheesham’ or Indian rosewood and has a simple mechanism. The needle goes on the record and picks up the vibrations and enlarges the same sound, which is what we hear. It has with a winding mechanism which creates the speed at which the record will rotate. There is also a speed adjuster. The beige cloth you see was replaced by my brother around nine years ago. It used to be a green coloured cloth before that. I am not sure what the original fabric and colour was. As you can see, some of the parts are broken now. I definitely need to spend some time fixing and restoring it. This was made by a Swiss manufacturing company called Thorens. Their trademark was an anchor, which is visible on the soundbox. Sonata was one of their soundbox models.

I have heard stories about how my nana was too shareef (noble). My mother says he left work with one Maharaja and worked for another because he never accepted bribes and that’s why he shifted his employment between so many families! He would resign whenever he heard instances of bribe and money coming up. He came from a pretty well off family as his father and brother were all engineers. His interaction with the Maharajas led to his interests that were not for commoners in those days. He used to go hunting and horse riding. He also invested heavily in the satta baazar, the stock market. One time he got a call on the phone that he has lost seventy thousand rupees in one day! My father who was sitting there when the call came, told us this story. He was in complete shock but nana said that it was ok, because he also makes that kind of money sometimes! This lifestyle of his also impacted my mother who was married off quite young at the age of 16! This was because the Maharajas had several wives and would eye young women and he didn’t want them to see his daughter.

I am not sure of his date of birth nor am I sure of when he must have bought this gramophone. He passed away in 1960 and he was quite old then. I am sure he had it for at least 20-40 years, so it is definitely from before the 1940’s. While I don’t have a particular memory of my nana attached to it, I remember we used to play music on it for anyone who visited our house, almost like giving a demonstration of the way it worked and what it did. There was a lot of excitement attached to it. Maybe because it wasn’t common to find a gramophone in houses at that time. It used to be in the drawing room but there was always a piece of cloth covering it to prevent it from gathering dust. We had a pretty big collection of records, so I think my grandfather was definitely interested in music. Sadly, these broke over time and we lost them. Now, I only have four records with me but they all work. The favourite one being ‘chaudhvin ka chaand’.

Sri Ram Puri with his wife, daughter and cousin brother
Sri Ram Puri with his wife, daughter and cousin brother

After his death, some of his belongings made their way to other cousins and some objects like this gramophone, which interested my father, came to our house. In my teens I realised that all my friends had a nani ka ghar (grandmother’s house) for summer holidays and I didn’t! Both my nana and nani passed away in the same year-1960. I was born in 1962. So these has been a complete vacuum from one side of my family. Also, my mother is the only child of her parents so there aren’t too many relatives. I started to feel this vacuum so much that anything that my mother said belonged to her parents, I would secretly desire to possess it! And that is where the quest began! Today, I feel I know so little about my roots from my mother’s side. I have heard stories and I know about them in bits and pieces, but it isn’t complete. Right now, when you asked me his name and it took me a second to connect it, I realised how little a part of me he has been, whereas, I know a lot more about my paternal ancestry. Perhaps, because we live in a patriarchal society and the paternal grandparents are there with you! Maybe I have preserved these objects because somewhere in my heart is this missing link with the other half of my ancestry!

This gramophone has now been with me for more than 25 years. We must have brought it by car to Delhi after 1989. Incidentally my husband too is fond of heirlooms and he urged me to bring some of these objects to our house! I do value it and it is hurting me right now that it is broken. But maybe I don’t value it enough since I haven’t spent time following through on getting it repaired. Hopefully, I’ll get to  restoring it now that we have had this conversation. However, the tradition of demonstrating it still remains…and we always play something for visitors. There is definitely a sense of pride in me that I have objects that connect me to my ancestors. Is pride the same as attachment? I don’t know. But I know that these objects connect me to my past, where I come from and where my family comes from. There is some sort of emotional comfort in it.

I hope that it stays in our family. Hopefully, my son understands that it his great-grandfather’s and preserves it for that reason. I hope he appreciates that it is a fourth-generation artefact that has been in our family for more than 70 years.

I think valuing family history comes at a later age in life, when you start getting older yourself. That’s when you seek your roots, and sometimes that attachment is simply to the objects that belonged to our past- because we know that things last longer than people!

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