Set back a little from the busy Mount Road in Chennai is
a quaint old shop called 'Musee Musical'. For the past 100 years, in
association with Trinity College, London it has been fostering western
classical music in south India. The business itself is 150 years old. Its
current premises [- since 1932] used to be elephant stables and you'd say
it's an appropriate residence for this long lived institution.
Musee Musical sells western musical instruments, conducts
classes and arranges every year for a visiting examiner from Trinity
College, London to test and certify its students. So far over 15000
students have appeared before Trinity examiners. For some decades now,
Indian instruments are being sold and Indian music taught as well.
The fascinating story of Musee Musical in a way
epitomises India's reputation as a land that welcomes ideas and cultural
India is a society in constant churn; adapting, innovating and
internalising. Musee Musical is one of the numerous little known
institutions dotted all over India, that grew for a specific purpose and
doggedly pursue their mission.
Its story can be told only by following three independent
threads that have their origins in Madras, Gujarat and Europe.
In 1842, Misquith & Co began business in Madras [now,
Chennai], selling and servicing western musical instruments for the large
European community. It had branches in Bangalore, Coonoor, Ooty and
The second strand, in chronological order, begins in
London where the Rev. Henry George Bonavia founded in 1877, the Trinity College of
Music. Born in 1847 Bonavia graduated
from King's College, London and Christ's Church, Oxford obtaining a
doctorate in music. The college was founded to actively spread formal
learning of western music throughout the British empire.
1901 saw Trinity represented in Madras by a local
Englishman. Beginning with 1906 examiners from Trinity have been visiting
Madras. Dr. R. G Bowers the current Chief Executive of Trinity writes:
"...the first examiner's visit took place in 1906, when one Dr. Wm.
Creser examined two candidates for pianoforte performance certificate, one
Sarah May Rawley of Mount Road, and a Grace Hortense Watts of Rundall's
Road. Both unfortunately failed. The following year saw four candidates,
two of whom achieved the ATCL [Associate of Trinity College, London] and
one, the Performance Certificate, while Grace Hortense Watts sadly failed
Meet now in 1935, Mr. E. A Prudhomme a French citizen and
a businessman of standing in Madras. He buys Misquith & Co and renames
it Musee Musical. However it was his devoted friend Ms. Amy de Rozario, a
lady of Spanish origin but a naturalised British citizen who was to become
the soul of Musee Musical, until her death in Madras in 1964.
The Indian element:
The final strand begins in distant Gujarat some 250 years
ago when a family of devout Hindus begin to head south looking for a home
and livelihood. By the mid 1800s we find them settled in Madras dealing in
cotton and textiles. Into this family in 1908 was born M Giridhara Das, a
restless spirit and a bold innovator. Seeing little opportunity for
himself in the growing extended family's business, MGD, as he came to be
known, was searching for new avenues. He was a certified accountant but
more inclined to entrepreneurship.
In his twenties, we find him of all things, operating
Alpha Phonographics that published Indian music on 78 rpm records and
challenging the Gramophone Company of India's brand, HMV. MGD's grouse was
that HMV was ignoring Indian music. He was something of a nationalist and
realised soon that there was little money to made in that mode!
An odd situation saved MGD and propelled him on to
fortune. The financial auditor of Alpha and Musee was one Mr. Sharma, whose
son was the talented but troublesome Ranjan, later to become a famous film
star. Sharma had set Ranjan to learn the piano at Musee [-which he did
masterfully!] and wanted someone to keep an eye on his wild son. By a
strange coincidence, MGD was almost the only person whose authority Ranjan
somehow respected. Sharma persuaded MGD to join Musee Musical in 1932.
There was perfect synergy here: MGD's business was failing and Sharma had
a minder for his son.
MGD grew to become a loyal employee, though a trifle
unlikely in an establishment devoted to western music, visited as it was
by Europeans and Anglo-Indians. He was an orthodox, practicing Hindu and a
devotee of Mahatma Gandhi! He sought and obtained permission from
Prudhomme to wear the Gandhi cap - the badge of nationalists, then - to
work, with the proviso that he removed it as soon as he entered the shop.
He was at liberty to don it soon as he crossed the threshold of the shop
on his way out; this MGD did with ostentatious display.
Musee Musical matures:
The next twenty years saw Musee become an establishment
of repute in the Raj. They were by appointment to the Governor of Madras,
the tuners of piano, polishers of the dance floor and managers of the
Governor's Saturday night dances. They were by 1935, established in their
present premises. The high ceiling of the elephant stables gave the shop -
as it does now- a great sense of space. Upstairs in the converted mahouts'
quarters music saloons taught - as they do now- pupils one on one.
Examiners visited annually without fail, except during the war years. The
indefatigable Ms. Rozario got with Trinity's consent, Dr.Alfred Mistowski,
a tutor in piano to the Maharaja of Mysore to conduct the examinations
during those years.
The trio of Prudhomme, Rozario and MGD were building a
lasting business. In the fifties a dying bachelor, Prudhomme sold his
shares to the loyal MGD. Rozario the spinster, did so like wise in 1964.
And that was how a pious Hindu family came to preside over the propagation
and support of western music in south India. Though MGD had introduced Indian
instruments in the fifties, he was fiercely committed to the association
Many notable names in Indian music have learnt their
craft and appeared for examinations at Musee Musical, among them Ilayaraja,
L.Shankar, L.Subramanyan and A.R.Rahman.
A third generation of promise:
In a rare happening for a shop in India, the government
commemorated the century old relationship between Trinity and Musee Musical
by releasing a first day cover in 2001.
Since MGD's death in 1966, his son M. Haricharan Das
presides over the shop. He maintains it and the relationship with Trinity
with great care. There is a brooding bust of Artur Rubinstein that stands vigil
over the interests of western music. As for the elephant stables, they are
safe too. M.H.Das's son, Sachin Das, is currently studying architecture
and music in the USA. "He repeatedly urges me not to do anything to the building that would alter its character. He wants to maintain it when
he returns to take over from me," says MHD.