Sunday, December 24, 2017

Waving the baton

"That’s the Cherniavsky trio."

Khushroo N. Suntook is giving us a tour of his office. It’s been a full workday for the 81-year-old chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, followed by a long chat with us, and now he has a concert to attend. But aside from a slight hoarsening of his voice, he shows no sign of fatigue or dimming interest.

I stare at the sepia-coloured photograph. I hadn’t heard of the early 20th century trio from Russia, nor do I recognize most of the classical music luminaries on the walls of his office in the NCPA building in Nariman Point (save for tenor Plácido Domingo, standing next to Suntook in a framed picture, both men grinning). Suntook mentions other names: violist Yuri Bashmet, tenor Giovanni Martinelli. He points to a portrait of a striking-looking woman; “Maria Callas,” he says—a name I do know, one of the great divas of 20th century opera. I ask Suntook if he ever saw her perform. “In 1956, during the Mozart bicentenary in Vienna. I met her after the show. She asked me, ‘You listen to music in India?’” he chuckles, shaking his head.

Thanks to Suntook, classical fans in Mumbai have been able to watch quality music performed on a regular basis over the last decade. While still vice-chairman of the NCPA, he founded the Symphony Orchestra of India (SoI). The idea for this germinated with a concert by a Kazakh orchestra which he attended in London in 2004. Suntook was floored by the playing, especially that of violinist Marat Bisengaliev. Backstage, he urged Bisengaliev to bring his orchestra to India. They came down twice, performing first in suits and dresses, and the next time in Indian clothes.

In 2006, Suntook convinced Bisengaliev to start a full-time orchestra in Mumbai comprising Indian musicians and his existing players. The violinist agreed, though he insisted he wouldn’t accept any local players who didn’t meet his standards. “My God, the auditions were a pain,” Suntook says. “He just wouldn’t pass anybody. Finally, we ended up with six or eight.” Today, that number has increased to 16 full-time Indian members, and another five-six seasonal recruits. Still, there’s a long way to go before Indians can constitute the majority, or even a sizeable portion, of SoI. To this end, Suntook has tasked some of the members with travelling to different parts of the country and identifying talent (Assam has been a fruitful hunting ground). He’s also happy that the advanced tuition programme for youngsters that the NCPA has run since 2012 is starting to show results.

It makes sense that Suntook would be the one to start what is billed as India’s “first and only professional orchestra”. He grew up soaked in music in Mumbai, with a piano-playing mother and grandfather, and a classmate in future conductor Zubin Mehta. “I was surrounded by music at home,” he says. “My father was solicitor to lots of foreign companies, so many of them used to bring records.” He took classes with Olga Craen, a celebrated pianist from the 1930s to the 1950s in Mumbai. “I played it very badly, because it was in competition with my tennis, which I played at a good level.” I ask him what that level was. “Let’s say if there was an Indian eleven, I would have been in it,” he replies.

Tennis is one of Suntook’s great passions; he speaks about Ramanathan Krishnan, his favourites John McEnroe and Roger Federer, about organizing a tournament which was delayed due to the theft of Raja Dhanraj Girji’s spittoon. In a conversation littered with casual mentions of famous names, Suntook’s offhand recollection of Rod Laver is a high point. Asked if he ever saw the legendary Australian play, he replies, “I knocked with him at Queen’s Club. The ball used to come like lead.”

Growing up, every night, after dinner, there would be music in the Suntook household. “Parsis are fond of big romantic works—Tchaikovsky, Strauss,” he says. “Of course, God is Beethoven.” He began a record collection in his mid-teens. He remembers buying Aida, spread over 20 records, over six months in single instalments, each costing Rs7. “In those days collecting was tough. Today, you can see the same performance on YouTube for nothing.”

K.N. Suntook is particular about the way he listens to his own music. He has two music systems at his Mumbai home—one for recordings that require transparency and cleanliness, like chamber music; the other one for big orchestral sounds, like Wagner. He has two more systems in his house in Khandala. He cannot put a number on his personal record collection, but says that it must be at least a few thousand.

Suntook’s initiation into the world of business happened by accident. He trained as a lawyer, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. At the time, his father was a “custodian of enemy property” on behalf of the government of India (properties that belonged to the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, etc., were vested after the war in a legal custodian). One of these companies was Bisleri, which at the time made anti-malarial drugs. One Dr Cesari Rossi of Bisleri decided that India needed bottled water, and convinced Suntook senior to allow his son to help set up the company.

Suntook managed a licence—his tennis matches at the Cricket Club of India came handy—and started the venture (he was then in his mid-20s), establishing a factory in Thane. Voltas was engaged as a distributor. “We used to carry crates to Irani restaurants,” he laughs. Were people willing to shell out a rupee for bottled water in the 1950s? “I thought it would be a long time before India could drink water from the tap,” he says. “I knew it would be a grand success.” Bisleri was launched in India in 1965. Unfortunately, circumstances compelled Suntook to sell his shares in the company. He turned to another tennis partner, biscuit baron Narottam Chauhan. And in 1967, Bisleri was sold to Parle, which was run by Chauhan and his brothers.

Soon after this, Suntook joined the Tatas, with whom he would work in various capacities for the next 30-odd years. The first place he worked at was Lakmé (“I wanted the smallest company”). “I was with Mrs (Simone) Tata,” he says. “The turnout was peanuts then. We turned it into quite a big company.” While at Lakmé, he helped set up pharmaceutical and lyophilization plants, established Tata Pharma, and began exporting cosmetics and medical equipment to Russia. He also served as director on the boards of Tata Oil Mills, Tata Finance, Tata McGraw Hill, Tata Investment Corp., Tata Services and National Peroxide Ltd, and as a president at the Council of Fair Business Practices.

It was after he retired in 2000, at the age of 65, that Suntook was invited to lunch by NCPA chairman Jamshed Bhabha and asked to help out at the institute. “There was no arguing with him,” Suntook recalls. “He said, ‘You realize, my dear boy, that your salary will be one rupee a year?’ I said, ‘Of course.’” He joined as vice-chairman. After Bhabha’s death in 2007, he became the chairman a year later.

In Suntook’s initial years at the NCPA, he had to battle low occupancy and cash flow problems. The centre was “limping along”, he says, on “donations, a small membership fee, extremely low salaries and income from rentals”. Bhabha sold his paintings, which included Husains and Gaitondes, to keep the place afloat. This situation has been remedied to an extent by the sale of Bhabha’s home, which was in legal limbo for years. Today, the annual operating budget is a little more than Rs30 crore. Apart from regular theatre, dance and music performances and film screenings, the NCPA has also hosted a couple of large-scale productions in the last couple of years, including La Bohème Revisited and a stage version of Mughal-e-Azam (which will have its first Delhi show on 8 September). Suntook is looking at a “big bang festival” across disciplines sometime in the near future.

Suntook hasn’t yet decided when he will retire. He would like to see the running of the NCPA professionalized, though he knows they can’t pay the kind of salaries that would attract top-flight executives. He believes the institution needs to concentrate first and foremost on fund-raising. “All of us with some influence will go sooner or later. It is hugely necessary to encourage people to give us legacies. I’ve just heard from a very wealthy friend of mine that he would like to donate all his paintings to us. If we have wealth in that form, I wouldn’t like to sell it, unless we’re on our last legs.”

As he’s saying this, I have a vision of a teenage Suntook counting his annas and buying another precious instalment of Aida. It’s a kind twist of fate that the SoI continues to be guided by someone who’s had a lifetime’s practice balancing finances and a passion for music.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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