When the 175-year-old Higginbothams store doubled up as a concert venue

The city’s oldest surviving bookstore, Higginbothams, hosted a Western classical music recital, opening up conversations on active preservation

Harmony, rhythm, articulation and dynamics — These aspects define music as well as architecture and by using one as a medium, the other weaved a story as old as the city itself. Organised by Madras Inherited, the city’s heritage was celebrated through a recital by the Madras Musical Association at Higginbothams on Sunday. As Madras Week drew to a close, this collaboration between three different kinds of stakeholders opened up numerous conversations on the city’s legacy.

Held at the country’s oldest surviving bookstore, Higginbothams is one of the city’s few well-preserved structures still standing on Mount Road. Set up in 1844, it embodies the evolution of Chennai as well as its versatility. The Madras Musical Association, a 126-year-old organisation also has a famed history that speaks for itself. Founded in St. Andrew’s Church, Egmore as an all-European group, the group was a response to a formal need for Western choral and classical music in the city. Journeying through national and international fame, the choir currently consists of more than 90 members of various levels and genres of expertise.

Interestingly, the connection between the two was found under layers of history — of a certain Ms Higginbothams who was the Honorary Secretary of MMA in 1920. A talented soprano singer, one could only speculate her relation to the English librarian, Abel Joshua Higginbotham.

With stained glass windows as backdrop, wooden trusses peering from above and glimpses of Indo Saracenic architecture, the choir began to hum strains of music accompanied by a symphony orchestra. A two-hour-long recital interspersed with discussions on Madras, the music transitioned from legendary composers like Bach and Handel to more modern ones of Jim McMillen. The repertoire also comprised Latin, French, German and Italian pieces that brought out the diversity of Western classical music. Tunes of the clarinet, cello, trombone along with sopranos, tempros and bass, thus initiated many first timers into the world of classical melody.

Speaking about performing at a venue very different from the traditional concert hall, MMA Secretary Samuel Prabhakar explained that the acoustics due to the high wooden ceiling meant that the music resonated across the structure and into nooks and crannies. Although the seating arrangements around a central atrium did not establish the typical visual connection, the music transported one back in time, with the structure providing the most dignified ambience. It also helped break the notion that Chennai is only known for its sabhas and kutcheris, as the audience ranged from patrons of Western classical music to youngsters that chanced upon the event on social media.

So what did it mean to take a formal music performance and place it in an informal venue like a bookshop? As the audience interacted, it became evident that of the 80 people who turned up, half had got drawn to the music while shopping and had spontaneously decided to attend. This aspect of equity and public participation was paramount as it addressed the community and increased awareness, according to Shalini Ravikumar of Madras Inherited.

As the walls reverberated with hymns of Mozart accompanied by gentle chords of the piano, it helped unlock the doors to heritage in the city and brought people closer to the building. In the hallowed halls of a bookstore, Chennai’s 380-year-old heritage flowed through music.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 12:36:27 PM |

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