Carvaan is a digital audio player recently launched by Saregama, which, according to the music company’s press release, “combines the best of digital technology with the convenience and ease of use of a physical form factor”. The device has inbuilt speakers, contains 5,000 pre-loaded (mostly) retro songs and flaunts a cool, suitably retro look. It is light and portable, though I’d think there’s not much chance of you carrying it on your morning jog.

The decision to have the Carvaan resemble an old-fashioned transistor radio is not merely a design contrivance. It is a statement of the entire philosophy of the product. For a start, there is no accompanying song booklet. You can of course download the songlist from the company website, but it runs to 122 pages.

Not that having the song booklet would prove to be of much assistance either. Because the song list is exactly that, a list of songs; it is not a tracklist. The tracks (apart from those in the Geetmala module) play in random order. If you want to locate and play a particular song, good luck to you Moreover, there is no remote, and no pause button; mercifully, it does have previous and next buttons.

So the Carvaan is essentially a digital radio. But without the ads and (mostly inane) RJ chatter, with a lot more options in terms of content, and a modicum of control. You switch it on and let it do its thing. You intervene only when you don’t like a particular track, in which case you can press the next button or change the channel, and generally get on with life till you come across another track you don’t particularly want to listen to.

This, of course, makes it a tad difficult for the product to appeal to a younger generation of listeners who are almost obsessive in their desire for control over any kind of content. But this probably is not the target audience anyway. In an interview with Hindu Businessline, the company’s CEO Vikram Mehra said as much: “Music is connected to nostalgia. Our research indicated that while young consumers have various options for finding music of their choice, older consumers are restricted either due to lack of technology or poor music discovery on various apps. Saregama Carvaan is for such consumers who love music but find it tedious to download music.”

This explains why the publicity stills show senior citizens and why the player is being marketed as a gift item.

Sampling versus listening

Personally, even for those of us who are not senior citizens yet, this ceding of control is probably not a bad idea at all. These days, most of us listen to music that is stored on our devices – our music folders often run into tens of gigabtyes and a lot of it will remain unheard in our lifetime – or available for free on the internet. Either way, we are spoilt for choice and are always looking for the next thing. Consequently, more often than not, we end up sampling music rather than really listening to it, forget experiencing it. Therefore, this (forced) constraint on maneuverability can be quite liberating.

However, one does wonder why it wasn’t possible to provide the added option of playing tracks in a certain pre-decided order. Also, one is put off by the fact that the display panel and the downloadable song booklet both skimp on track information. On a positive note, the sound quality is very good and those who want to play music stored on their own devices via the Carvaan’s speakers have the option of doing so either by using the USB port or via Bluetooth. There is also the added option of playing FM radio on the device, which can run for more than six hours on a single charge.

Almost all reviews I have read about the product have focused on the hardware. But what makes the Carvaan special is its software – the pre-loaded songs. The 5,000 songs (there is a lot of overlap and hence one does not know how many songs there really are, but we will take Saregama’s word for it) are available to us via 82 channels.

The first lot of 23 channels is artist-dedicated. Compiling such a list is always a thankless task. It is not possible to please everyone and some artist or the other is going to be left out. A quick look at the artist list indicates that most bases have been covered. However, there is one name that is conspicuous by its absence. While it is heartening to see that the contribution of some of the legendary lyricists has been recognized, it is indeed very surprising that Shailendra does not get a dedicated channel. Surely, one of our greatest songwriters deserved to be there (ahead of Anand Bakshi perhaps)? Shailendra is well represented in the collection, as is the composer Madan Mohan, whose name is the other notable one missing from the list.

A larger grouse is that there seems to be more focus on songs from the 1960s through to the ’80s. One would have hoped there would be adequate representation from the late forties and fifties (more Anil Biswas and C Ramchandra), especially given Carvaan’s target audience.

Correspondingly, the selection could have gone easy on the ’80s. What is a spectacularly mundane song like Hat Ja Bajoo Nahin Toh Uda Doonga (Khuddar, 1982) doing here anyway?

Like all FM stations and TV music channels that play vintage Hindi film music, Carvaan too largely caters to our sense of nostalgia for the familiar. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it also means that to keep discovering new old music, YouTube remains our best bet.

Some of the misgivings are offset by the presence of the popular Geetmala series where the period 1979-2000 is covered in five volumes (every volume has its own channel) but 45 volumes are devoted to the years 1952-1978. Initially, I had my reservations about the inclusion of the Geetmala volumes; it seemed the makers had taken the easy way out. But Geetmala fits in like a glove and Ameen Sayani is a perfect host as he takes us on an entertaining, informative and idiosyncratic journey through film history.

Mood blues

In addition to the artist and Geetmala channels, we have nine “Moods’ channels. Now, the mood a particular song evokes can be a pretty subjective thing, and these selections can be often arbitrary and contentious. There is also the issue of songs turning up in the wrong channels.

For example, on the ‘Sad’ channel, in a space of less than 30 minutes, I heard Roz Shaam Aati Hai, Yeh Aaankhen Dekh Kar and Yeh Shaam Mastani, all lovely songs but which are, and rightly so, listed under ‘Romance’. But as long as you aren’t fastidious about these things, they should not really come in the way of your listening pleasure.

Technically, there are only three ‘Moods’ channels: ‘Romance’, ‘Sad’, ‘Happy’. The other six are dedicated to various (mostly) non-film genres. So you have a channel each dedicated to ‘Ghazal’, ‘Shakti’ (bhajans), ‘Spiritual’ (chants etc) and ‘Sufi’. Expectedly, the ‘Ghazal’ channel features a lot of Jagjit Singh but it’s not all him. We also get a fair sprinkling of Bhupinder/Mitali, Talat Aziz, and even a little bit of Begum Akhtar. The ‘Sufi’ selection is easily the thinnest of the lot.

The most disappointing element of the package, however, is the ‘Hindustani Classical Instrumental’ channel. One is not even questioning the decision to not include Hindustani or Carnatic vocal, but Saregama does have a formidable and possibly unmatched archive of Indian classical instrumental music. So one had great expectations on this front. Instead, what we get are meagre offerings.

Moreover, out of the 170-odd tracks, more than 70% feature just three artistes – the late Bismillah Khan, Shivkumar Sharma and Amjad Ali Khan. There is only a token acknowledgement of Carnatic music in the form of a couple of tracks featuring violinist TN Krishnan, in jugaldbandi with Amjad Ali Khan.

The lack of variety is puzzling; it almost seems this channel was added as an afterthought.

Instrument of change

On the other hand, I was delighted to see a channel dedicated to ‘Film Instrumental’. Since the ’40s, instrumentalists have been recording cover versions of popular film songs. These were, and still are, often used as filler music by radio stations. Many of these artists worked in the anonymity of studio orchestras and these albums gave them the opportunity to make a name for themselves.

It’s terrific to see here recordings by the likes of master clarinet player Master Ebrahim. (“I had some of his recordings,” Ruskin Bond writes somewhere, “which transported me back to the streets and bazaars of small-town India. Light, lilting and tuneful, I preferred this sort of flute music to the warblings of the more popular songsters.”)

There are also the charismatic Van Shipley (nicknamed The Man with the Golden Guitar), the accordionist and arranger Enoch Daniels (unfortunately, there are no tracks from his excellent 1968 album Sitar Goes Latin), and harmonica legend Milon Gupta.

All said and done, Saregama’s gambit of a new digital music player represents a leap of imagination from a company that has been moribund for the better part of two decades. Carvaan is not perfect but this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At Rs 5,990, Carvaan is definitely worth the price and your consideration.