We call them playlists now. And they are usually put together by a radio station, a TV channel, a video channel, an online music site or portal; or by one person, and they reside in phones or on pen drives. The playlist also briefly took up residence in that quick-to-go-obsolete little mp3 player with headphones that clipped itself to your shirt or belt.
Earlier, Binaca Geetmala was a pan-India playlist, hungrily awaited by Hindi film fans. This was followed by that device that freed us to create our own ‘mixed tape’ — a cassette tape, on which people could create their own playlist, painstakingly, from songs recorded off the radio, or by little ‘music shops’ that would put a list of songs you handed them on to a C90 cassette.
You could choose your theme — songs from a favourite era or singer or duo, or a classical musician, a band, a rockstar. But there was something utterly freeing and self-determining, to be able to put a cassette tape in one slot, and have your fingers poised over two rectangular buttons that you pressed down ‘ghachaak’ — to record a song that came on the transistor that was part of the same device. Every music-loving household had one, and every member of the family had their own favourite self-made collection. (Today, we would of course have to grandly call it, what else, ‘carefully curated’ music.)
Even earlier, there were the jukeboxes in places like Café Mondegar in Mumbai, where you got a stack of records in a physical queue — and they would drop obediently on to the turntable. This way, you were guaranteed uninterrupted music of your choice. Some people had this kind of device in their home record-players, with a small number of vinyl LPs or EPs lined up to play, one after the other.
Before this, people of my grandfathers’ ilk would arrange their lacquer 78s in that stout teak gramophone record box in the order they wanted to listen to them. They would have little pieces of paper sticking out — pasted or stapled to the covers — for easy recognition and recall, so that the playlist could be varied. One day you pulled out all of one raga or one musical play, one after the other. The next time, you could listen to just one singer all evening, record after record, careening merrily between morning, afternoon, evening ragas and natyasangeet by the same person within the span of perhaps just an hour.
Some of us enjoy listening to music as much as we like to get friends to listen. It’s like foodies who love to eat, cook, as well as feed. For the likes of us, there are things like the Desert Island series (by First Edition Arts). The first time that I was invited to share a playlist with an audience, I didn’t quite know what to include, or rather what not to include. I already had a long and ever-growing list in my head that I’d call ‘What to play at my funeral’. Now here was someone asking me to produce one, while I was alive and well! Lists of these kinds are by their very nature, esoteric, subjective, and a delightful meander through the musical exposure and experience of the presenter. Mine started with a Basant Mukhari by Malini Rajurkar and ended with a Sindhu-bhairavi by Maharajapuram Santhanam, via many instrumental pieces and less-heard singers. And all of these are available on that mother lode called YouTube.
Every walker with headphones that I pass by in the mornings is no doubt marching to his or her own drummer — a series of singers or players or speakers that will ensure you walk a few inches above the ground. No doubt, they or some benefactor, have enjoyed putting together the list as much as they enjoyed listening to it.