Pursuit of Happiness

Everlasting melody

He’s the man who brings world-class symphonies and classical music to the country and even at the age of 84, his passion for music shows no signs of slowing down

“Without music, life would be a mistake”, goes a saying attributed to German philosopher and author, Friedrich Nietzsche. A tad grim, but Nietzsche himself was a composer, so perhaps he’d know what he’s talking about. Step closer to home and time, and Khushroo Suntook seems to have embraced this idea. His love for music came at an early age, stayed with him throughout his career and now serves him well as the chairman of The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in South Mumbai.

“I was born with it,” he says and adds, “My mother and grandfather would play the piano and there were gramophones in the house. We were a very musical family.” With the deep musical background came a massive music collection — of over 2,000 classical records. Naturally, Suntook became a collector himself and made friends with like-minded people, including Eddie Khambata. “First, we raided the relatives for whatever they didn’t want. And then there we’d go to find them in several corners in Bombay,” he recalls the initial days of collecting.

One of the first milestones in this particular musical saga is his interaction with John Freestone, the then columnist for The Gramophone. When he was 15, Suntook wrote a letter to the author of Collectors’ Corner, a column that described “mouth-watering” discoveries. Freestone responded, and it was the start of a 35-year long friendship. “We were friends until he was 95 years old,” he says. Just like his tryst with Freestone, conversation with Suntook is peppered with casual mentions of famous people. Very matter-of-factly, he talks about attending musical gatherings in the Isle of Man or meeting the royal family of Mysore, The Earl of Harvard or even rock-and-roll stars such as The Rolling Stones. 

Suntook’s professional life before he joined the NCPA, too, has been party to several anecdotes centered on music. He was one of the founders of Bisleri (India) and then worked with the Tata Group in various capacities for over 30 years. “There was an old chap called Bachumia in Chor Bazaar. A disreputable looking fellow, he once came to my office at Bombay (Tata) House, with a heap of records on his head,” Suntook says with a laugh. When stopped, Bachumia warned the secretary to be careful as stopping him could cause the latter to lose his job.

While it wasn’t always easy to balance work and his hobby, Suntook managed it well and also learnt to play the piano. “One of my colleagues used to joke that I traveled to places with opera houses. Which was true!” he says. He explains how he would choose flights with day-long stopovers in London and says, “I would go straight to Tower Records and buy my records there.”

Suntook retired in 2000, but it didn’t last long. “Dr (Jamshed) Bhabha told me, ‘you now have to work for the arts. We’re not going to waste you’,” he recalls. During the same year, he joined the NCPA as the vice chairman with a salary of Rs.1, when he founded the Symphony Orchestra of India.

The 84-year-old music aficionado says that he has lost count of how many records he has. His collection now inhabits two houses (one in Mumbai and the other in Khandala), and he has nearly five thousand original records. He hesitates to pick his most cherished record, but says with pride, “I have the complete set of the Warsaw Battistini.” And although he believes the new-age music players — streaming on the internet or MP3 players — are not for him, he says some of the reproductions today are “excellent” in terms of quality. “We play the originals, not even the LPs or reproductions. It would be like reading Shakespeare in a pocketbook!” he exclaims. One would be surprised to hear that Suntook would rather spend ten minutes readying and playing a three-minute song, but he jokes, “Playing reproductions is like having a copy of the Mona Lisa. Who on earth wants that?” 

Suntook has eased his obsession in recent times, giving away hundreds of records to younger collectors. As he concludes our chat, he says, “This is a very gratifying hobby, and you meet interesting people. Then hopefully, you end up as a fairly well-rounded person with all your experiences.”