“There’s nothing here,” Asha Nadkarni had told me over the phone, “but you can come and see.”

So, here I was, on a gloomy weekday morning, in Mumbai’s central banking district, in a precinct dotted with Victorian-era buildings, to see another kind of heritage structure. I was here to see the remains of Western Outdoor, an iconic studio in Fort that, for almost three decades, had hosted the who’s who of the Indian music scene.

I didn’t quite know what to expect – the studio had closed down in 2002. As I got out of the lift on the fourth floor and turned, I was greeted by the Western Outdoor logo. It was as if I had emerged from a time machine and walked right into 1990.

Inside, in a spacious office, I was met by the genial Asha Nadkarni. She has completed 50 years in this organisation, and had worked very closely with the late Suresh Nanavati, the founder of Western Outdoor. The scion of a prominent South Mumbai business family and an Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, Nanavati, while managing the family’s traditional businesses, had diversified into outdoor advertising and CCTV cameras before setting up the studio in the early 1970s.

We were sitting in Nanavati’s office while Nadkarni reminisced about her former boss who, given how meticulously everything had been preserved in the room, might well have been expected walk in any moment and take his chair. “Before he died [in 2013], Nanavati made me promise I would take care of the office till I was able to,” Nadkarni explained.

As we spoke, an office boy informed her the studio was now open. We made our way towards what used to be the main studio. Nadkarni had been right. There was nothing here. Only odd pieces of furniture lying around, and yards and yards of vacant space.

I walked around in the soundproofed emptiness, taking pictures of what once used to be the musicians’ area, the recording engineer’s cabin and the singer’s booth, the pragmatic Mumbaikar in me gobsmacked by the fact that thousands of square meters of prime office space in an island city considered one of the costliest real estate markets in the world had not yet been repurposed. The romantic in me, meanwhile, fantasised I was an archaeologist at some recently excavated site.

Western Outdoor. Photo by Rudradeep Bhattacharjee.

Only days before, in a darkened studio in suburban Andheri, I had seen these empty rooms throbbing with activity in two short videos made during the ’90s. The first was a corporate film, showcasing Western Outdoor as the go-to destination for the post-production of feature films, advertising films and television shows. The second was a video of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the former prime minister, attending a recording where one of his poems was being rendered by singer Padmaja Joglekar.

The person showing me the videos was Avinash Oak, a sound engineer who had worked at Western Outdoor for almost its entire existence. Oak, who grew up in Nagpur, had arrived in Mumbai in 1973 after graduating with a gold medal in Sound Recording and Sound Engineering from the Film and Television Institute of India.

Oak began his career as an assistant to the legendary Mangesh Desai at V Shantaram’s Rajkamal Kalamandir. While he was “in awe of people like BN Sharma [Bombay Sound Services] and Robin Chatterjee [Film Centre] who used to record 80-100 live musicians”, Oak was intent on becoming a re-recording engineer like Desai. “In films, this is where you can really form the soundtrack,” he said.

Avinash Oak. Photo by Rudradeep Bhattacharjee.

But, in a decision he still regrets, he quit Rajkamal after only a week. Oak felt that the salary being offered was insufficient to sustain himself in the city. He was then unaware, he says, that the “OT”(overtime) counted more than the basic salary.

Oak’s next professional assignment was as an assistant sound engineer in Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (released in 1974). The job required him to be on location. But as all films were dubbed in those days, there was not much for Oak to do. And, unlike some other recordists, Oak was not particularly interested in hobnobbing with the stars. He desired to work in a studio.

It was during the shooting of Navketan’s Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974) that Oak went to the National Centre for the Performing Arts to meet his FTII senior DB Biswas who was looking for an assistant. Biswas, it turned out, had just hired someone else. But he was kind enough to inform Oak that Daman Sood, at the newly opened Western Outdoor, needed an assistant. When Oak landed up at the studio, Sood, also a gold medalist from FTII, hired him on the spot.

Although forced to cast aside his dreams of becoming a re-recording engineer, Oak had landed himself a job at a studio that was fast attracting a lot of attention. While established studios such as Famous, Film Centre, Mehboob and Bombay Sound Services were catering to the film crowd, the smaller, younger Western Outdoor quickly carved a niche for itself as the recording studio of choice for radio, advertising and private album producers.

Both Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle recorded their private albums at Western Outdoor. Leading classical vocalists such as Kishori Amonkar, Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Ulhas Kashalkar and Shubha Mudgal recorded here. As did Sufi singer Abida Parveen and Indipop pioneers Indian Ocean.

The legendary sports broadcaster Bobby Talyarkhan often came here during the studio’s early days, while jingle specialists like Vanraj Bhatia and Louiz Banks made this their home. And, of course, there was Jagjit Singh, an almost permanent presence in the studio.

Avinash Oak with Lata and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. Courtesy Avinash Oak.

Hindi film producers, however, were reluctant to use Western Outdoor’s facilities. “Film people used to think that if you are not recording on film, then while playing back the song would be out of sync,” Oak explained. This was a genuine concern in the days of analogue. “But, slowly, we understood how to have a song in sync.”

Oak describes the process as their “jugaad”: the song was recorded at Western Outdoor on half-inch, “non-sprocketed tape”. The tape was then taken to the Rajshri Productions office in Prabhadevi. There, in a transfer room manned by “a very old Parsi technician”, the song was transferred from the half-inch tape to a 35mm magnetic tape. This 35mm tape, now the master, could then be transferred onto a Nagra machine for playback during the shoot. Meanwhile, the half-inch tape was handed over to the music company for making LPs or cassettes.

The process was cumbersome. Oak or Sood would carry the tape and the heavy machine to the Rajshri office and had to be present during the transfer process. But it worked, and got them assignments from Marathi and Gujarati film producers. Later, they even managed to outsource the transfer process to another “dependable Parsi technician”.

The first big Hindi film song that was recorded at Western Outdoor was the chartbusting Laila Main Laila (Qurbani, 1980). Music directors Kalyanji-Anandji approached Oak as they wanted the song in stereo. Later, Lata Mangeshkar offered them her home production Lekin (1991).

In between, Oak worked on Amol Palekar’s Ankahee (1985) – which fetched composer Jaidev a National Award – and Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen (1990), where the music director was Oak’s former FTII instructor, Bhaskar Chandavarkar.

Pl Deshpande (right) at Western Outdoor. Courtesy Avinash Oak.

The real Bollywood break, however, came when Yash Chopra recorded a song from his multi-starrer Parampara (1993) here. Subsequently, the songs of Chopra’s home productions Aaina (1993), Darr (1993) and Yeh Dillagi (1994) were recorded at Western Outdoor, followed by the big one, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).

That was the turning point, Oak said. Jatin-Lalit, the young music directors of DDLJ, were initially reluctant to record at Western Outdoor. (They wanted to stick to Film Centre, the studio famous for its association with RD Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji.) But a visit to Western Outdoor and a meeting with Sood and Oak eased their concerns.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge marked a high point both for Jatin-Lalit and Western Outdoor. Over the next decade or so, Western Outdoor became associated with hugely successful films such as Maachis (1996), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Yes Boss (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Sarfarosh (1999), Gadar (2001), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Devdas (2002).

Western Outdoor’s ascendancy had prompted Suresh Nanavati to open a plush, new branch of the studio in south Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi area. In hindsight, Oak feels the move was ill-timed as the industry was gravitating towards the suburbs. The company began to lose money on its new investment. Towards the end of 2002, Western Outdoor merged with UTV, and the studios were shut down. (Incidentally, UTV, owned by Ronnie Screwvala, Nanavati’s then son-in-law, had once operated out of the Western Outdoor office.)

Daman Sood and Avinash Oak. Courtesy Avinash Oak.

Even after all these years, the shock and disappointment they felt at the studio’s sudden closure is still palpable in the voices of Avinash Oak and Asha Nadkarni. Oak says he worked in some other studios but, after spending a lifetime at Western Outdoor, “found it difficult to work elsewhere”.

In 1994, Oak started teaching twice-weekly classes at a studio owned by Mumbai University’s music department. He decided to become a full-time teacher. Since 2006, Oak has been a Visiting Faculty at various colleges, including the National Institute of Design and the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute.

Do his students ask him about the old days? “No, they are not bothered,” he said. “I don’t really talk about those times.” The sound engineer’s profile has also drastically changed, he pointed out: “We had to capture the performance; now, it’s more about post-production.”

The rise of visual and graphical interfaces has meant that engineers “are more focused on seeing rather than listening” and “the 3D world of tape has been replaced by the 2D world of the computer screen”. While this has provided an engineer with an extraordinary amount of control over every aspect of the process, Oak believes it has “eliminated the fun and tension” that was part and parcel of a live recording.

For someone who has captured thousands of musical performances by some of the country’s greatest talents across genres, Oak still maintains he is “not a music man”. He says he thinks of himself as someone standing on the banks of a great river. “I can’t get into the water because I don’t know how to swim. I can only stand and watch. And enjoy the view.”

Western Outdoor. Photo by Rudradeep Bhattacharjee.

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