Some of the best-known names in Carnatic music came to this building, including M.S. Subbulakshmi
I stand at the entrance to Saravana Bhavan on NSC Bose Road, opposite Law College, hoping to get a seat and then a hot cup of its famed coffee. All is hustle and bustle. I cannot help reflecting that half a century ago, the atmosphere would have been different, for this was Diamond House, showroom-cum-workshop of the famed jewellers, Surajmal's.
The eponymous founder moved to Bombay from Palanpur in Gujarat at the age of 17 and set up his own shop there by 1895. Business prospered and the firm was approved in Antwerp as a sourcing agent for diamonds. Branches were opened by 1916 in Rangoon, Tiruchirapalli, Calcutta and Madras. In our city, Jaysinghlal K Mehta, one of the founder's nephews, managed Surajmal's. Till 1925, it operated from Audiappa Naicken Street.
Success meant the necessity of a bigger showroom and Surajmal's took on lease the newly built Shankar's Building, at 313, Esplanade, standing at the corner of Umpherston's Street and China Bazar (now NSC Bose) Road. The ground floor had the showroom, the first floor the offices and the top floor the lunchroom for the staff. In the basement sat the army of craftsmen, working on silver and gold. It was to the showroom that the well heeled came to purchase and sometimes discretely sell. Among the latter would have been the formidable Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who counted Jaysinghlal a personal friend. It was through Surajmal's that she sold most of her famed jewels to fund the construction of Tyagaraja's Samadhi temple in Tiruvayyaru.
In time, Surajmal's diversified into optical products and musical instruments. And from the latter came further diversification into gramophone records. Jaysinghlal's Musical Products Limited secured rights to produce Indian music under the label ‘Broadcast' owned by UK-based Crystallate Gramophone Record Manufacturing Company. Broadcast was launched with fanfare in 1934. Its bright labels and logo, which featured a diamond, highlighted its association with Surajmal's.
Some of the best-known names in Carnatic music were contracted to record and they all came to this building, including M.S. Subbulakshmi. By 1937 however, a series of monopolistic moves by competition, none of which would stand much scrutiny, saw the stopping of Broadcast records though Jaysinghlal was to launch other brands – the Lotus and Jay Bharat records through his Bombay-based firms. In 1944, Musical Products Limited closed and Surajmal's links with recording ended.
The company remained in the jewellery business in Madras till 1965 and the Mumbai branch continues till date. When Surajmal's lease ended in the 1990s, Shankar's Building became the Saravana Bhavan branch. The semi-circular arches and the pilasters topped by Corinthian capitals in the front are all hidden by a warren of shops and also by construction necessitated for running a restaurant. The old façade is almost intact on the side street. And the ceiling of the main hall, with its teak rafters is still a joy to behold. Wonder how many of those eating care to look up.
Sriram V. is convenor of INTACH, Chennai chapter.