Reminiscence Society

When ‘Make in India’ was more than just a government slogan

Preparations are in full swing ahead of the 75th Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi.

Preparations are in full swing ahead of the 75th Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

My father, Abhijit Ghose, graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1973. Engineers are sure of their numbers and he is certain that more than 70% of his batchmates are now overseas. As graduates of India’s premier technological institute, they were welcomed by universities and corporations abroad with handsome offers. As a child, while figuring out ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’, I often asked my father why he wanted to be an engineer. He said it was because he wanted to build things — this was confusing to me because most engineers I knew then, and know now, work in sales or finance. He wanted to make it, and he wanted to make in India

For the first two years after college, he made audio systems at his parents’ Calcutta home with a batchmate, commissioning local carpenters to build cabinets to encase them. Though they had one ‘celebrity client’ — Sharmila Tagore’s sister Tinkoo Tagore — this was not likely to turn into a sustainable business for two idealistic Bengali boys. So when a government agency called to pair him with a fledgling Calcutta company called Sonodyne, he took the meeting and joined as one of their first designers of audio equipment. 

Sonodyne was founded in 1970 by Ashok Aikat and Ashoke Mukherjee, young engineers who quit their jobs at GEC to set up a company that would grow to become the pioneer of high-fidelity audio in India. “The only options for electronics engineers back then were to join government service or go abroad… I wanted to start an industry,” Mukherjee tells me. And that’s what they did with a ₹2.7 lakh government loan. 

Abhijit Ghose outside the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in 1980.

Abhijit Ghose outside the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in 1980. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He travelled to Berlin for their first international fair in 1972 and remembers a comment about people from the land of bullock carts aspiring to make sophisticated amplifiers. When he travelled again in 1974, after India’s first nuclear bomb test, the comments had appreciated in quality.

Amplified quality

Despite its modest scale, there was always a certain flourish in the brand’s vision. Aikat had marketing savvy; Mukherjee was an avid art collector, a close friend of M.F. Husain, who lent his art to the brand at various stages. Sonodyne managed to get on board Subir Pramanik as an advisor: my father still speaks about him with a rosy-eyed reverence. India-born Pramanik was a legend in the international audio space as one of Bang & Olufsen’s design engineers in Denmark. Every weekday for a little over a year, my father and another designer-in-training went over to Pramanik’s Ballygunge home for lessons in design, distilled into two words: “Choose elegance.” 

Pramanik taught them to design amplifiers and loudspeakers in stark opposition to the Bose philosophy of ear-pleasing psycho-acoustic engineering. “Just amplify, never ‘colour’ sound,” he said. Audiophiles appreciated that, particularly jazz aficionados. The training was put to test when Sonodyne was called upon to design the loudspeakers, mixers, and amplifier banks for Jazz Yatra in Calcutta in 1977 with performances by the greats — Louis Banks, Braz Gonsalves and Pam Crain. 

The brand found cult status. In its heyday in the late 70s and 80s, their iconic Uranus cassette deck was a status symbol, retailing through showrooms beyond Calcutta, in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Madras, and Allahabad. They acquired large orders as OEM (original electronic manufacturers) for companies in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany. The USSR became a gargantuan buyer. They obtained a Dolby licence and for a long time remained the only Indian company to have one. To keep up with rising export demands, my father moved to Mumbai to set up the export design lab and factory. 

Abhijit Ghose at work at Sonodyne.

Abhijit Ghose at work at Sonodyne. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Beyoncé was using Sonodyne

Liberalisation might have bought us Coca-Cola but it wasn’t all sweet and fizzy for Indian manufacturers. While it did mean that importing Italian paint and critical components from Scandinavian suppliers was possible (till then, everything Sonodyne used had to be made in India too), it came with a host of complications. Until the market had opened up to multinational players like Philips, brands such as Sonodyne and Cosmic (now defunct) had enjoyed a good market share because imported speakers, taxed as luxury goods, were prohibitively expensive. 

Admittedly, Sonodyne was never cheap either. But as my father points out, ‘Made in India’ meant something to Indian buyers who were willing to spend — until mass-producing international brands, with low prices and big marketing spends, made their wares irresistible. Indian manufacturers were plagued by labour problems. And specifically for Sonodyne, Aikat and Mukherjee split, cutting a line through audio and TV. 

With a crowded domestic market, in the last two decades, Sonodyne has shifted its focus to professional audio, most of which are exported to markets that can afford to pay for high-fidelity quality. And so it came to be that while Beyoncé was using Sonodyne studio monitors at some point, as were the London and Sydney Opera houses, it had faded from most Indian homes, except for a niche audiophile crowd.

Despite its reputation, the market dynamics that the brand has to deal with now are vastly different. Both Mukherjee and my father believe that Made in China has an unfair competitive advantage because of its manipulated currency. And that the Make in India campaign has become more about balancing foreign exchange, rather than innovation and ambition. 

Sonodyne at 50

Mukherjee’s son, Anindya, is keen to bring back the focus to the domestic home audio market. He plans to focus on high-quality wireless devices that optimise the performance of streaming. 

Sonodyne’s handcrafted Bluetooth stereo speakers launched in 2020.

Sonodyne’s handcrafted Bluetooth stereo speakers launched in 2020. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Following Sonodyne’s 50-year celebrations in 2020, Anindya launched Bandish and Aalap, handcrafted Bluetooth stereo speakers that I would have loved even if they were not part of family history. Almost half a century on, my father is still a Sonodyne man. Only that at 74, he visits the lab and office five days a week instead of seven. He no longer designs, but the Bandish is good, he says. “It’s elegant.”

The writer is a Mumbai-based arts journalist and editor. Her debut novel ‘The Illuminated’ was published in 2021.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2022 4:48:26 am |