GOLI VEERAVENKATA SATYA SAI RAMPRASAD believes that the period from the 1960s to the 1980s was the golden age of Telugu melody. “During the 1960s and ’70s, it was Ghantasala, and during the 1970s and ’80s, it was SP Balasubrahmanyam,” he said. “Singers—from Madhavapeddi Janaki, Susheela, Pitapuram Nageswara Rao and PB Srinivas to Bhanumathi, Leela, LR Eswari and Yesudas—stirred people’s hearts.”
It’s a legacy that Saibabu (as he’s referred to) wants to preserve. Up a flight of grubby steps in a beaten-down building in Devi Chowk in Rajahmundry, a city in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district, is a 12 by 20-foot room with 2,000 gramophone records, 2,000 cassette tapes and about 800 CDs stacked in glass-case shelves and corner shelving, or stashed away in stacks of boxes. This is Saibabu’s music library and shop, Janaranjani, by unofficial estimates the largest private collection of Telugu film songs.
“Low-budget movies and unsuccessful movies that ran for one or two days get short shrift. Hence this collection,” Saibabu explained as he shuffled songs on the digitised collection on his computer. “Between 2006 and 2012, at least 700 movies would have been released,” he added, referring to the need for a preservation project like his.
Songs from 1950s films like Chitarukommana Mitayipotlam (on vinyl), Chiranjeevulu (composed and sung by Ghantasala) and Bhaleramudu (music by S Rajeswara Rao) sit side by side on the crowded shelves behind his desk with those from new releases like Julai (2012). From inside these glass shelves, where items are indexed by the name of actors, yesteryear heroes such as Shobhan Babu and Krishna look on from the fading covers of audiocassettes. The shop may seem to be in disarray but Saibabu knows his way around it. “For example, Nageswara Rao’s films are in one place. I can easily ferret it out by the number and title,” he said.
Forty five-year-old Saibabu is a genial man with spectacles, a bulbous nose, wide ears and a slightly receding hairline with streaks of grey. “On gramophone records you get pure quality of voice,” he said as he ambled across the room to pick up a record of the movie Gunadamma Katha (1962). “The voice is clear, music is clear. Now they are not available.” A connoisseur of Telugu classics, he doesn’t have quite the same degree of passion for newer songs. “It almost feels like ghosts are dancing before you when you listen to it,” he said of last year’s viral hit ‘Kolaveri Di’. “I listened to it two times. Nowadays, the beat and drums, the orchestra dominates the song. Slowly we are losing the melody, the beauty of words.”
Saibabu, who was born into a landowning family in Vadlamuru village, inherited his love for music from his father, who would often send him to record old songs onto cassettes at a small music store in the nearby town of Samalkot. After obtaining a BCom degree in a local college in Rajahmundry in 1997, he worked as a clearing and forwarding agent in the shipyard in Visakhapatnam. But his heart wasn’t in it, and he quit after three years to build his music collection, an initiative that took him to several corners of Andhra Pradesh. He would go to each music shop in every town or city he visited, and buy everything he found valuable. “Whenever I wanted a specific music, I got it,” he said.
In May this year, he decided to share his music with the public and opened Janaranjani. “I wanted to have my collection in one place, easily accessible and available to whoever wants the songs,” he said. “This is our treasure. I want to preserve it, disseminate it, and keep it for posterity.”
In the months since it opened, Janaranjani has turned into a familiar halt for song seekers. People, most of them above 60, come to Saibabu with a snatch of a song playing in their minds, hoping that he can conjure up the original from his stacks. Saibabu loads the requested song onto a memory stick for one rupee. At other times, he shares them for free, as he recently did with participants on the popular talent show Paaduta Tiyaga (Singing Sweetly). And he’s particularly willing to accommodate requests for sad music. “Only tragic songs have great melody,” he said.