It’s not everyday that someone in a faraway country discovers India through its music—Hindi film songs to be precise. But that’s what happened to Frenchman Victor Kiswell in the mid-80s. Growing up in Paris as a 10-year-old, Kiswell saw a programme on Bollywood movies on Canal+, the famous French broadcaster that had been born only two years before. The broadcast was called Movie Mahal, a melange of song and dance. “I discovered India through Bollywood songs,” recalls 41-year-old Kiswell, a music director, vinyl collector and DJ, who performed electronic world grooves, including two Indian numbers, at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur last weekend—his first show in India. “I fell in love with India while watching the broadcast taped by my mother over and over again.” Over the years, Kiswell kept Indian music close to his heart while he went on to become a well-known international artiste. When he was 21 years old, Kiswell even studied Hindi at a school in Paris to help strengthen his bonds with India.
Kiswell’s is a long love story with India, a tale filled with thousands of old Indian vinyl records collected from various cities, including Agra, Varanasi, Kolkata and Mumbai. “The first Indian record I bought was from a street in Agra,” says Kiswell. That was in 1998, his first visit to India. The Agra shop was recording vinyls on cassette tapes, but Kiswell succeeded in persuading its owner to part with some of them. The second trip came three years later, this time to Mumbai, which fetched many more vinyls of old Hindi songs. Kiswell’s collection of Indian vinyls grew in size at his Parisian home. Today, stories of his discovery of vinyls from around the world are part of the record collectors’ legend. “The vinyl is visibly big and its sleeve is beautiful,” he says. “You can see it turning and touch it. I like the sensuality of a record.”
In his first Indian vinyl collection was the soundtrack of the 1978 blockbuster Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. “The disco cover by (record producer) Babla Shah for the film was lifted from Argentinian Lalo Schifrin’s eponymous vinyl cover of the Hollywood hit Jaws. It was incredible and it made me collect more Indian vinyls,” says Kiswell, who has a collection of about 350 old Indian records today. “There is Ananda Shankar, Bappi Lahiri, piles of them,” beams the collector.
As his collection grew, Kiswell began to sell his records. Ten years ago, he sold two boxes full of vinyls of Bollywood songs to American music producer Madlib, who was looking for samples to make a remix. There were songs of Kalyanji-Anandji, Ananda Shankar, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and many more Indian musicians. Madlib later released an entire hip-hop album, called Beat Konducta in India, with Kiswell’s old Indian records. His price for an old Bollywood vinyl is “very high”, over 60 euros (approximately Rs 4,500). “Every time you find an LP, it’s a different smell and a distinct story,” he says.
The revival of vinyls, however, has thrown up many challenges, confusing even the biggest collectors like Kiswell. “The vinyls are back. Lots of records are reissued. New vinyl factories are opening everywhere. But the prices have gone up,” he says. There are also more vinyl collectors today, increasing the competition. Kiswell, however, isn’t worried. “I am in a niche market.” Last month, Indian music company Saregama released a new vinyl album of old Hindi songs for a global audience produced by Kiswell. The album, Charas Babu, featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha on the cover, has 21 songs, including an unreleased Bengali song track by Usha Uthup. Kiswell’s next plan for India is a new edition of his popular Vinyl Bazaar, a cultural report on cities that has so far featured Egypt, Lebanon and Columbia. The new Vinyl Bazaar will be on Mumbai and will come out next year.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer