How Gulshan Kumar Took The Music Industry By Storm But Lost His Life In The Process

Before being brutally murdered in August 1997, Gulshan Kumar Rai was the uncrowned king of music production in India. In 1980, he started Super Cassettes Industries whose T-Series music label became Bollywood’s main music label in the 1990s.

Gramophone Company of India (now Saregama HMV) had been the reigning king of Hindi music for decades, although in the 1970s Polydor and CBS emerged as challengers. But for the two multinationals, India was not a priority market given its small size, because very few people could afford turntables and records.

Two factors combined to change that. First, a liberalized import system allowed an increase in Japanese cassette players in the country. But with the big boys, mostly HMV, still focused on the records, the opportunity might have turned craving if not for the entry of Gulshan Kumar.

The son of a fruit juice vendor in the Daryaganj area of ​​Delhi, Gulshan Kumar’s first introduction to the music world was through a record store his family bought. Shrewdly he realized that the future was in cassettes and using the concessions available for units classed as small scale he began producing low cost cassettes which he also priced aggressively on the market. His masterstroke, however, came from a loophole in Indian copyright law which allowed the production of cover versions of well-known records provided the singers and musical orchestra were different. On these cover versions, only a nominal royalty was to be paid to the original producer.

It also helped that there was a whole generation of talented singers who could make little headway in an industry dominated by Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle. Kumar enlisted singers like Anuradha Paudwal, Mohammed Aziz, Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik to sing popular numbers. Obviously, he only paid them a fraction of what the original star singers would charge.

Kumar also turned his attention to the distribution network, which in the past included stores in high-end areas that sold high-priced records. The T-series cassettes, on the other hand, were sold by panwallas and neighborhood grocery stores.

Kumar also identified the virgin market for devotional songs and tapped into it with a series of cassettes featuring well-known religious singers.

In 1997, T-Series was a Rs 500 crore business. But Kumar was making enemies with each passing day. His relentless pricing strategy was sending other companies rushing into losses. Plus, the whole business was built on pirated music. It wasn’t just the music labels that were suffering. Filmmakers have also seen these pirated tapes eat away at their potential profits from music sales. When the music for a hit film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was pirated and sold within days of its release, the financiers started to get upset.

Eventually, hitmen acting at the behest of the Bollywood mafia took advantage of a lack of security and shot him dead.

Abdul Rauf aka Daud Merchant, who was among the attackers who fired 16 bullets at him on that fateful day in August 1997, was given a life sentence in the case in 2001. Although he challenged the sentence, the High Court of Bombay in July 2021, upheld the earlier decision.

Days after the murder, police also declared music composer Nadeem Akhtar Saifee, a member of the Nadeem-Shravan duo, a co-conspirator in the case. They alleged that Nadeem was angry with Kumar for not giving enough mileage to one of his albums. Nadeem was however later acquitted and has lived in the UK ever since.

—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and co-author of the recent Azim Premji: The Man Beyond Billions. Views are personal

Alice P. Darby