ANUSHA PARTHASARATHY narrates the story of a music salon started by a Portuguese man, managed by an Englishwoman, and now run by an Indian family

At Chennai's oldest surviving ‘music salon', a severe-looking bust of composer Anton Rubenstein towers over the pianos and the stacks of guitars that adorn its main hall. High ceilings, heavy wooden doors and large, low-hanging fans complement the colonial architecture while black-and-white portraits of Amy de Rozario, E.A. Prudhome and Giridhar Das, often called the Trinity of Musée Musical, line the walls along with posters of Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi. At Musée Musical, which began its journey in 1842 on Mount Road, the list of accomplishments is as long as its 169-year-old history.

Kishore Das, who has been a part of this family-run business since 1982, gives a glimpse into its past. “This store was started by a Portuguese man named Misquith, mainly for servicing pianos and organs. He named the business Misquith and Co. and it grew so popular that we soon had about 16 branches all over the south, in the Nilgiris, Bengaluru and other places. When he fell sick, he had to shut them all down, but he kept the Chennai branch open.”

The present-day office, tucked into an innocuous corner off the main road, was once an elephant stable of the nearby Parthasarathy Temple. “Musée Musical moved into this building sometime in the 1930s,” says Kishore, “when Amy de Rozario was in charge. She was a pianist and a piano teacher here who eventually became the director of the company after Prudhome. Previously, we used to be just opposite the post office.”

Kishore's grandfather Giridhar Das took over the company from Amy in 1942. “In the 1920s, my grandfather joined the company as one of the directors,” says Kishore. “Amy de Rozario was a spinster and wanted to go back to England in the 1940s. Until then, there was a joint management by Indians and the British. My grandfather took over completely when Amy left.”

In 1956, upon Giridhar Das' demise, Musée Musical's current Managing Director, M. Haricharan Das, took over the company. “Even though the management has changed hands many times, we still go by the same principles and service-oriented mentality that Misquith started this business with,” smiles Kishore. “Until our family took over the business, the company only dealt with pianos and organs. My grandfather expanded it to include the manufacturing, service and sale of violins, guitars and drums. Later, we introduced Indian instruments.”

With their pianos adorning Rajaji Hall, Raj Bhavan and most churches, Musée Musical is intrinsically linked with Chennai's western classical music scene. Their tie-up with the Trinity College of Music, London, which began in 1901, has seen annual enrolment grow from just two students to the 8,000 odd who appear for exams today. “When we started conducting exams way back then, the two students who appeared the first year apparently failed,” laughs Kishore. “The music instrument industry in India, even today, is very small and you can only imagine the number of people who would've appeared for exams in the early years. Moreover, when we began to import pianos in the 1940s, there was almost a 330% duty levied on these instruments, putting a lot of people off buying them. We almost lost touch with western classical music until the early 1990s, when the duty was lifted. Our principle of promoting music never changed through those troubled years and now, we're the most sought-after exam centre for Trinity.”

Manufacturing instruments since the 1950s, preserving a library of vintage music, starting a School of Music, becoming a centre for music examinations and being a part of Madras Musical Association, a 118-year-old initiative that promotes music, the business of music has come a long way. “In 1995, we bought five pianos from Holland and it took us three years to sell them,” Kishore says. “Today, we import 10 international brands and sell about 25 guitars a day. We help promote music in any fashion, from organising concerts to teaching the visually impaired.”

A.R. Rahman, G.V. Prakash, L. Subramanian, Veena Balachandar, Karaikudi Mani – the list of celebrities that Musée Musical has fostered over the years is endless. “We have never looked at involving celebrities in any of our projects so far, says Kishore.” We'd like to encourage talent as we believe this is the place where celebrities are made.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012