“China has so many Orchestras, I get envious when I go there”
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“China has so many Orchestras, I get envious when I go there”

August 26, 2019

Says Symphony Orchestra of India Founder Khushroo N. Suntook

Not all people who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth stay rooted but if one belongs to a community with a philanthropic bent of mind then every achievement sits lightly on their shoulders.

One such person is Khushroo N. Suntook, the Chairman of National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai and the Founder of Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). He had great support from the likes of his mentor Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha and the legend J.R.D. Tata, who when the former apologised for taking up his (Tata’s) time said, “One day, perhaps the NCPA’s work may be more important for the country than the work   of our steel plant.”

Suntook had got the SOI to Mysuru to perform during the Birth Centenary celebrations of Sri Jayachamaraja Wadiyar at the iconic Mysore  Palace for the first time. Star of Mysore Features Editor met this gentle, affable, multifaceted giant at Hotel Radisson Blu, where for more than an hour, he shared how he started Bisleri company, his fondness for record collection, setting up of NCPA and SOI, how China is miles ahead when it comes to Symphony Orchestra and what needs to be done to keep the interest in classical music alive.  Excerpts…—Editor 

By N. Niranjan Nikam

Khushroo N. Suntook

Star of Mysore (SOM): There is this lovely cartoon which shows a young man at an office which has displayed the board ‘Liquid Funds.’ He is telling that he wants to invest in this fund so that when he retires he can have money to buy water. But you started Bisleri, a brand, which people started asking for, way back when it was almost crime to pay for water. Did you see the struggle for clean drinking water very early?

Suntook: Yes, but I took to Bisleri by a strange coincidence. My father was the custodian of enemy property those days and Italian firms were a part of enemy property. Bisleri in fact was a company which used to make anti-malarial drugs and the owner was a gentleman called General Cacciandra and he was married to the owner and daughter of Felice Bisleri, a large mineral water and wine making company. This was in the middle of 1950s when I was doing Articles with my father’s firm for being a Solicitor. 

General Cacciandra was approached to say you can’t make wine in India and so he said we have a very good product which is called Acqua Minerale Bisleri and why not start it in India with the funds available. The son, Vittorio, who was a charming, very elegant Italian gentleman, when he visited my father, was put forward to start the company. He was one of my best friends then, who died recently. When we met socially, he asked me, why don’t you join me because I don’t know anything about India and we can be partners and we can start.

I thought about it and said from being a lawyer from a distinguished line both from my mother and father’s side — they were all Judges and lawyers — where am I getting into water? But he convinced me. Of course, my father and everybody were shocked. Who the devil is going to buy water in India? But I was convinced as people were not very happy with water in India and there was a reputation Delhi Belly, Bombay Belly, as soon as people landed in India. So I went in there. I always had the feeling for going in for things which were difficult to do. 

So I went to Delhi to get a licence to manufacture and start a factory because it was artificial water. All the mineral water we tasted in India was not good. We tried springs everywhere right down to Bombay but they were not okay. They had some little bug or the other. Then we decided to build naturally the mineral water. So you get what you call zero minerals which are dangerous, which is more pure than distilled water but that is very bad for you. Then you mineralise it and it is a process.

When I went to Delhi, the Secretary in-charge of the Department was my friend who played tennis with me, Manohar Bhida. He said what are you doing, going into water? Who is going to give the licence to you? I said please give me a small licence. He gave me a small licence and we started a very fine factory near Bombay. Then an unfortunate incident in the family of the Bisleri in Milano made us sell the organisation. We sold the company to a friend of mine, Mr. Chavan, the owners of Parle. They still own it and it’s a household name. There was an opportunity missed but I never bothered about that. After that I was asked to join the Tatas.

Dr. Jamshed Bhabha with his successor Suntook (left), the present NCPA Chairman.

SOM: You yourself are a descendent of a distinguished line of lawyers and your mother is also a grand-daughter of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, 5th Baronet. But what does having such a distinguished lineage actually mean to you?

Suntook: (With a broad smile) Well, it opens all doors. Also, on the other side, apart from the mother’s side, she was descendent from Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy the 5th, the other grandfather was Sir Dinshaw Davar. He was a judge who defined what a Parsi is! He was quite distinguished for making several landmark decisions and that remains to this day, very controversially but it remains.

SOM: What did he define?

Suntook: He said that a Parsi is not a religion. Zoroastrianism is a religion. So Parsi is a race. Whether you like it or not if your father is Parsi, the son can become a Hindu or Muslim or whatever it is, but he remains a Parsi Hindu or  Parsi Muslim but if he doesn’t want to describe himself as that, he is welcome to do so. But the fact is that in law he is entitled to all the privileges of a Parsi which are enormous. The Hospitals which are at a very low rate, the baghs, the huge conglomeration of housing, which can be only available to Parsis at a reasonable rate, the charities which are available. So it is sort of a very privileged community and there are only 65,000 of us left (laughs) in India. 

SOM: TATA means Trust and you worked in this group in several senior capacities for 32 years. There are stories galore of the legendary J.R.D. Tata. How do you look back at this great career of yours in one of the leading brands in the country?

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Suntook: Well, it was not a great career but it was a good career (laughs loudly). I started working with Mrs. Simone Tata, that is Naval Tata’s wife and they were friends of the family. I wanted to work in a small company, as I did not want to get lost in steel or in TELCO. So we built together cosmetics and we started exporting and, of course, there was always a joke in the group saying that you are always exporting to areas where there is a good opera house or a good musical centre. So we went to Moscow, Milan, Paris where we tied up with Christian Dior for export to Russia. Then we went into pharmaceuticals and then for export we went into medical equipment with Toshiba. We did all this going to Tokyo… to Holland… I must say I enjoyed my career and it was very free area of operation. They were wonderful employers and they never treated you as an employee. My father, of course, was a Trustee on the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and he was a Director in TELCO etc. etc. It was a close relationship.

After that I was about to retire and I was asked to go into TATA service which needed some redoing. So three years I stayed till 65, and I was about to retire and say so now I am going to enjoy my life, go and hear music all over the world but my dear friend and mentor Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha got me into NCPA.

SOM: You speak to international audiences on old and rare vocal recordings and have a fine collection of vintage records. How do people react to your talks and are there converts?

Suntook: Well, I think that my greatest joy and my greatest friends have come from the record collecting fraternity. I wrote to a great record collector who was writing in the gramophone magazine which was given to me as present by my father for a subscription of a princely sum of Rs.10 a year and I have been a subscriber since 1952. Those are on column, called Collectors Corner and my grandfather had many of these records as he was very fond of music, in fact he was a good singer. Even on my mother’s side there was great love for western music and so I wrote to the columnist and said I was fascinated by your column. 

I was going to try for Wimbledon that year probably in 1956. So John Freestone, the columnist, invited me for lunch in London and ever since then until he died at the age of 95, we were extremely close friends. He then introduced me to collectors who were legends like Vivian Liff. They gave us a collection. Just now he is sending us 10,500 CDs. There is a Recorder Collectors Society, where all this distinguished record collectors are there. They meet second Tuesday every month in the UK and I had the privilege of presenting some talks there over the years.

SOM: Dr. Jamshed Bhabha, the founder and creator of NCPA Mumbai, chose you as his successor. It is said that there is no other place like NCPA in the country. Can you share something about this unique place?

Suntook: The NCPA was already an established organisation, it is a vision of J.R.D. Tata and Jamshedji Bhabha. You know the story, Bhabha wanted 8 acres of land in the middle of Bombay and since they were friendly with the Gandhi family, as was his brother, the illustrious Homi J. Bhabha, the request came from Delhi to tell the Government to do something for them. So they went around and came to the end where the Oberois was and he said, now Dr. Bhabha, where shall I give you the land, would you like some of the sea? 

He said, yes, thank you. So he took the sea and for eight years they built it, because every year it would sink. First, they started the NCPA at Bulabhai Desai’s son-in-law’s house. It was a small hall that they had but the purpose was to promote culture. Then the Tata theatre was built in 1982 once the certificate allowed that they could build on the sea. As usual Jamshed Bhabha said who is the best architect in the world? It was from Lincoln Centre, Philip Johnson, get him, who is the best acoustician in the world, Cyril Harris, get him. We got two and there was lot of arguments as to how it was to be built and now, Tata theatre is one of the most perfect theatres in Bombay. 

Then it was inaugurated by Mrs. Indira Gandhi with a performance of Italian Opera and there was objection that it was built for national culture, for which they replied it was built for all.

There is no narrow mindedness. So there was this lack of money after J.R.D. died and lot of other people were not as sympathetic for art as we were and so we carried on and somehow it was not active as it should have been and Jamshed was getting old also. So, when I retired, he sent for me, now join when I am alive. There was no question of saying no to him. Nobody could say no to him. I joined as Vice-Chairman and when he died, the Council was kind enough to elevate me to the Chairmanship. Then I saw everything and I thought some changes are necessary and did them. Then, of course, I met Marat in 2003, we were mesmerised by his playing. We went and met him backstage. Would you like to come to India with your troupe? He had this very good looking young Kazak ladies playing with him in the concert.

So he said do you have this music in India and we said well we don’t but we have wonderful halls. He came first with his West Kazak Orchestra which is a very good Orchestra and he is a very big noise in Kazakhstan. He is a very modest and a fine man if you could ever find one. He got on very well with Dr. Bhabha. 

SOM: The first fully professional Orchestra — The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) — was started by you in the country. How was the experience of setting up SOI?

Suntook: It is like this. Because of lack of finance we have a system which is quite good and that is we have got 20 members who are professional teachers in Kazakhstan or Russia and they live at the NCPA and then we have another to eight or ten other Indians who come every day from their homes. Now, these Kazakhs, Russians who live at NCPA, not only teach at a salary but they play all over the country, they could go to the areas in the suburbs to play and they give concerts twice a month and they form the heart of the Orchestra which is then augmented by bringing in players who have been coming to us for years. 

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There is a bond and one of the most important in an Orchestra is to have an equal vision when you play. You can’t have people who play the different school, playing together.  Onay is the person who gets us the players, then there is Marat of course, a wonderful friend. He has no inhibitions; he will roll up his sleeves and do anything. He is a friend, philosopher and guide and a wonderful musician. He is not only a violinist, he is a conductor. For example for today’s orchestra he has arranged for favourite of Sri JC Wadiyar’s works, Metner’s second piano concerto.

SOM: Rarely have the birth centenaries of the rulers of India been celebrated in the way Sri Jayachamaraja Wadiyar’s birth centenary is being celebrated. Having yourself been a part of and participated in many unique shows, how does it feel to be a part of this occasion?

[He showed a book which had on the Advisory Committee the name of Sri Jayachamaraja Wadiyar along with Yehudi Menuhin, Mrinalini Sarabhai, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Satyajit Ray, André Malraux, Zubin Mehta. He was amused and delighted to show it to me. I don’t know whether they met but he was on the Committee; unfortunately he passed away, he said).  

Suntook: It is an honour for us and it’s mainly to honour this great patron of music who put India on the international map. After all, music is an international thing, right from the place where it is blossoming today, it is China. 

SOM: Is it?

Suntook: Oh, oh oh, China has got 42 Orchestras now and it is so sold out and some of the Chinese are absolutely world class. They are given huge funds. There is an NCPA-like in Beijing which is five times as large. They had invited me for head of organisations meeting which was wonderfully organised. We said we will sue you for using our name. He said in China there is no trademark or patent or anything (smiles). But it is a common name. Anybody can use NCPA. If you said Jawarharlal Nehru Institute, then no. But if it is National Centre for Performing Arts, anybody can use it. It is a wonder I tell you. China has so many Orchestras that I get envious when I go there. The amount of teachers, equipment they have got etc., etc.

SOM: But do they have inclination to Western Symphony Orchestra?

Suntook: Yes, yes. You know up to 1972, classical music was banned in China and then came in Deng Xiapong after Mao, he absolutely turned the economy upside down, and then welcomed musicians. Chinese musicians are good you know. They are playing all over the world in Orchestras. Today, in all the Orchestras of the world you find Japanese, Chinese, South Koreans, Vietnamese, Singaporeans but not Indians much because we don’t have a structure of instructions which we have to have at a wide level. But, I can tell you some of the most musical people are Indians. When London symphony came to us, which is ranked one of the four best symphonies in the world, one of the chaps said to us, I want to go and see in the slums how things are? So, he went and after a little while he said, give me two days I want to demonstrate something to you. I said, sure.

We had this big dinner for the London Symphony and he said, this is what I want to show you. He brought eight boys from the slums dressed in khaki uniform and all. He said these boys have learnt something quite complex called Finlandia. I said what rubbish, impossible. They sat down and sang it accurately, a complex piece of western music. 

We asked when you taught them? day-before-yesterday. He said, “I have never seen such gifted children and not only singing on specialised scale but on a general scale. He said you have the most wonderful raw material, now mould it. And it is true, I believe in every line. Indians can shine if there is leadership to take it forward. You can shine anywhere in the world. You can see how well we are doing abroad in every area. Look how brilliantly our people are doing in England and America.

SOM: But what happened to those boys? 

Suntook: What can I do to them?

SOM: You could not do anything to them?

Suntook: Shew.. (heaves a sigh). You know the difficulties of dealing with this. The slum lords are there. They come and then extract from you. It is very difficult to deal with that whole area, it is like entering into a mafia area. They will not only exploit but God knows what other demands would come. We were not equipped for that. We are not a political body at all, we are purely artistic, and we stay out of politics completely. But if there is any cause for India we will stand by it.

SOM: Classical music whether it is Western, Karnatak or Hindustani is only for the discerning audience. How can a layman cultivate the sense for this kind of music?

Suntook: Teach it from school, teach it from home, and create an atmosphere like in Vienna where after dinner the three children play for you, one violin, one cello and one piano. One main thing which I forgot to tell you is the Academy we have created where these teachers are teaching our children. We have 50 children and they are so gifted, with three South ladies, they are eight, 12 and 14 and they play violin, piano and the cello. Marat says in another four years many of them will be playing in the Orchestra. That is how to develop it. 

SOM: But what is the future of NCPA?

Suntook: (laughs) I am looking for people. We have got good people on the Council, very eminent, the members of Godrej family, two representatives of Tata Trust, two representatives of Government of Maharashtra, the Culture Secretary and the Chief Secretary. So whether I am there or not, it will carry on.


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