This New Delhi boutique sells rare vinyls and cakes

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Nostalgia is the driving force behind Digging in India, the New Delhi-based record store and cake shop from DJ, archivist and record collector Nishant Mittal and pastry chef Mallika Tandon.

When you walk in, you’re greeted by a bright yellow and pink sign with the store’s name, which is also Mittal’s Instagram alias. Tandon designed it and recruited a painter who makes signs for Indian trucks (often decorated with vibrant, instantly recognizable floral prints). On the walls, posters of magic shows and educational pamphlets that an Indian student would recognize from a textbook – guides to rock types and seed germination – hang in cherry-red frames. “The store is very anti-minimalist,” Mittal says. “There’s stuff everywhere. It’s really the aesthetic of the Indian home, the aesthetic of the Indian street.

The food is also based on Tandon’s childhood tastes. She is a pastry chef who transforms works of art like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies or Mondrian’s paintings into beautiful, brightly colored cakes. “Wenger’s is an iconic store in Delhi that offers a chocolate and nut Swiss roll,” says Tandon. “I want to make a version that serves my childhood memory but is more elevated. I also like to use seasonal Indian fruits in desserts like mango shortbread or mango tiramisu.

Real or cake?

Real or cake?

Together, Mittal and Tandon, who have been dating for seven years, want to create a record store driven by positive vibes. Interesting music is always playing, and Tandon notes that as you walk through the store you can eat “really carefully considered, beautiful, delicious food.”

The nostalgia theme of the store is appropriate. As an archivist and record collector, Mittal has a deep understanding and passion for South Asian music of the past. Scroll through his Instagram account for a few minutes and you’ll see continents and decades fold in on themselves. Wait a second, you might be reading the liner notes for Alice Coltrane’s album Radha Krishna Nama Sankirtana, and the next, you’ll discover an obscure Indian record from 1986 that fuses Tamil pop with Christian funk. Scroll a little further and you will discover the story of Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s poem ‘Mohabbat’, recently adapted by Pakistani American singer Arooj Aftab, who won a Grammy for his song adaptation.

In addition to running his Instagram, Mittal plays Indian psychedelic and funk music on NTS Radio and at festivals like Magnetic Fields, hosts listening sessions across India, and is one of the pioneers of the recent resurgence of vinyl in his hometown of New Delhi. His deep love for avant-garde and experimental music drives him to track down and archive fascinating and forgotten pieces of South Asian musical history. It highlights the smallest details of these sounds – a winding saxophone solo or an unusual drum break – while contextualizing the history and productions of entire movements, such as the Indian rock scene of the 1960s. A few years ago , in New Delhi, when he sold me records that he was selling at the time in his and Tandon’s apartment in Hauz Khas, it was clear how vast his knowledge was: I left with an album in Hindi of reinterpreted Madonna songs, hits by Nazia Hassan and Runa Laila, the Meera soundtrack that Jai Paul samples on “Str8 Outta Mumbai” and a handful of rare qawwali 45s.

Mittal started collecting records eight years ago when he met his friend Jeff Valla, an American visiting New Delhi from Ithaca, New York. Valla, who worked at a popular record store in Ithaca called Angry Mom Records, loved bands like Radiohead, Can and Spiritualized, as well as Indian rock and more obscure drone music. “My friend and I were hanging out at the market and this guy was playing in the street,” Mittal said. “He approached us to ask for a lighter. We later realized he had one: he came to us because my friend was wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt and he was looking for friends. He introduced me to records. Before that, I didn’t know how they worked, which ones were valuable, how you could determine the rating of a record. He also showed me a 1969 cover of Janis Joplin by Usha Uthup Iyer. Until then, I didn’t know there was rock music in India.

Mittal was in law school when he met Valla, but he was losing interest in becoming a lawyer. He began selling records, which often appealed to him because of their unusual artwork, so he could buy more for himself. Sadly, Valla died five years ago from a brain tumor, but his influence continues to inspire Mittal. “He changed many lives, including mine,” says Mittal. “In a way, it’s all my tribute to him and what he taught me.”

In addition to honoring Jeff Valla’s legacy, the store, and Mittal’s work in general, is a tribute to the everyday sounds that punctuate Indian life. One of the great joys he gets from researching and archiving obscure records is making them accessible to those who thought they had lost the music forever. “I like to post unobtainable content on YouTube,” he says. “Every time I post songs like this, the comments are crazy. I’ll read people saying they hear a song after four decades. People say things like, “My mom was playing this song when I was 6 and someone threw the record away. I’ve been looking for this song for decades. Imagine a 60-year-old woman returning to her 20s through music. If I can be that person, there is no greater blessing in the world than the gift of music.

How do you find your files?

When I go to Bangalore, Mumbai or any other city for a concert or a listening session, I make sure I have two days to myself to look for records. But I have also developed over time a number of contacts who deal in antiques. When I come across an Indian registry, unless it’s very new, I’m probably familiar with it. So if I see a record that I don’t know, I definitely buy it. If I haven’t seen him in seven years, it’s probably rare. If it’s not Indian, I google it to hear the sounds and buy based on price, condition and sound. Deciding what goes in my personal trash or on sale is one of the biggest battles of my life.

My friend Shrey once asked a teacher to give her a stack of records that she didn’t know what to do with. She gave them to me but I won’t sell them: if you give me a record, I’ll keep it for life.

What is the most expensive record you have ever sold? The rarest?

The Indian pressing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Queen collectors are very hardcore. They want every pressing of every Queen record: the Thai pressing, the Indian pressing, the Dutch pressing, etc. Basically, they have 60 different pressings of the same album. The Indian pressing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is apparently super rare. I didn’t know when I found it.

Who is the most famous person to ever walk into your store?

I haven’t sold to a celebrity, but a lot of big musicians have bought from me, and I enjoy that more than selling to someone from Bollywood or something. Baalti’s people bought stuff. Rounak Maiti did it. DJ Mocity, who runs Gaurav Nagpal (producer Lapgan) came to my house two and a half years ago and bought a bunch of records. He took them to the US and used a lot of material from the records and my YouTube channel as samples for his project. I’m super happy that he found inspiration for my channel. He is fantastic. I can’t wait for him to get his due and I’m happy to have helped him in some small way.

What was your first concert?

Probably an underground concert in Delhi. The first one I remember going to was French Kiwi Juice. I saw him at Hauz Khas in 2014 or 2015.

Favorite album?

Madness by Madvillain, High Violet by the National, and Songs of love and hate by Leonard Cohen. What these three albums have in common is that I’ve been listening to them for 10 years and they never get old. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the songs on these albums because I just put them on and don’t pay attention to the name. I know the album second by second, that’s how many times I’ve listened to them.

I love Cohen’s lyrics and how depressing The National is. MadvillianyThe beats, lyrics, production and samples are all perfect. I like that there are so many Indian samples. My friend Akhil Hemdev runs a record store in Bangalore. We do these listening sessions where we talk about Indian samples. He collects a lot of hip-hop, and I collect a lot of Indian stuff, so I bring the Indian sample on wax and he brings the hip hop record that samples the Indian song. We’ve done three or four and people are so amazed. We are trying to bring this to Delhi, maybe in the store.

Any advice for someone wanting to open a record store?

(Laughs.) Don’t do that, man… I don’t want any competition, bro! All joking aside, go for it, it’s your money to spend. I never consider myself the type of person to give advice to anyone.

Opening a record store is a somewhat risky move. Real estate is so expensive. Many people are turning to online sales. But personally, I would never know if I didn’t try. When I buy a record in a physical store, I remember when and where I bought it, even years later. It’s one of my fantasies to give this feeling to others. And I had to open a store because my house was flooded with records. (Laughs.) I needed storage space, so I figured I might as well open a store.

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