Spotlight: 150 Years Of Furtados

Every Saturday morning when all the other children in the neighbourhood went out to play, the Gomes siblings — Anthony, Christopher, Nonabel and Joseph — had to drag their feet and head towards music lessons. They cursed their fate under their breath but couldn’t find a way out of this weekly chore. The siblings, all born a year apart, got piano lessons as gifts on their sixth birthdays. Back in the 1970s, these lessons were a privilege. Not everyone could afford music lessons from western music greats like Melbourne Halloween, Jini Dinshaw (founder of the Bombay Chamber Society) and Juliet D’Costa. But as parents, the Gomes’s were keen on teaching their four children music, not surprising as John Gomes, their father, was a man who knew the real worth of music. He owned Mumbai’s legendary little shop of music, Furtados, which even today remains the most popular among musicians of all levels of expertise.

This year marks 150 years of the store’s existence and the Gomes family is celebrating it throughout the year by organising various events. One of them was the all-India piano competition, ‘Con Brio’, held in July this year in association with the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).

Originally owned by Goan migrant, Bernard Xavier Furtado, in 1865, the shop was known as BX Furtado and Sons, a store that sold sports goods and trophies. Then, John, Gomes Sr., bought it in a public auction in 1953. Although he had been successful in the printing business for a while, he did not have the money to acquire the store. With funds pooled in from fellow Goan migrants, he bought the tiny shop which was tucked away in between other sport goods shops in Kalbadevi’s Jer Mahal building. He soon started a religious books business too and things began looking up.

The only reason that Joseph, or Joe, who now manages marketing and IT at Furtados, could think of for his father’s success was his “work ethic”. “He [my father] was all of 25 when he took over Furtados,” he said. “I have heard stories my mother used to say about how he had moved his bed into his office and used to work there for almost 20 hours a day.”

It took John six more years to take over LM Furtados and Sons, the shop a few metres away from the one in Jer Mahal, which now houses the best pianos in the country. “My dad had absolutely no idea about music or the music business. He would later joke with us that the only thing he could play then was a gramophone.” It was on the request of the staff of LM Furtado that John took over the business as whoever was set to buy it did not want to take them on.

Furtados survived the test of time even during the ban on the import of consumer goods, following the FERA Act, that was imposed in the 1960s and which ran its course till the 1990s. (The ban was on the import of consumer goods following the FERA Act which restricted the import of musical instruments. It was lifted after liberalisation.) “Many music stores had to shut shop during that time,” recalled Joe. “What kept Furtados alive was clearly the other businesses that my dad had invested in. We also became quite popular because we were the only ones to import sheet music back then. That’s how we got a few loyalists.” Young and curious musicians thrived on these sheets and the music books which were available at affordable rates at Furtados. In a way, John can be credited for the space and opportunity he created for Western musicians in the country then. To sustain his business, he soon diversified into selling travel luggage and vinyl records. But never in all these years did he think of changing the name of the store. “There was no point in making it Gomes and Sons,” said Joseph, with a laugh. “We survived on the huge goodwill that came with the name Furtados. So neither my father nor any of us saw the need to change the name. We are proud and happy to have carried it forward.”

As for the Gomes siblings, the music classes they dragged themselves to eventually paved the way for some business lessons as they all joined Furtados to work part-time right after school. They did everything, recalled Anthony, starting at the lowest rung and working their way to the top. “We cleaned the shops, the instruments, made deliveries and packed boxes,” says Anthony. “There was no easy way out with my father. We all had to prove our worth to him to be entrusted with more responsibility.”

John’s workaholism may have helped built a strong foundation for Furtados but in return it gave him a weak heart. After suffering three attacks, he decided in the 1990s to hand over the baton to his children, a move that couldn’t have been timed better as the ban was lifted in the same year. Furtados became the first in the country to import musical instruments.

“Our focus was to use the emerging technology as a means to grow and sustain the traditional business,” said Anthony. “The 30-year ban had created a huge void and about two generations were not exposed to learning music.”

Under the siblings, the business flourished with many firsts to their credit. They started the Furtados School of Music in 2011, which now has eight centres across the city and about 1,500 students enrolled for classes. They also kicked off the first ever piano technology institute in India which offered a two-year U.K.-designed course for piano tuners in 2012, with the first batch of 18 students graduating successfully.

The way forward for Furtados, said Joe, will be one that is concentrated on the education and the promotion of independent musicians. “This has been one of our USPs.”

“To be a musician in India is not an easy thing. There are many bottlenecks in the system and we always support musicians and bands that are starting out to navigate through all of this.” The store has a separate section for the sale of independent music, which is their way of “giving back to community” that has helped them grow. “It is not just important to ensure the sale of musical instruments,” said Anthony. “There is also the need to cultivate the right kind of culture and build an audience for all kinds of music.”

With stores in over seven States and 350 dealer outlets, the family-run business has now become more professionally managed. However, to Joe, the four children of the new generation are free to join the business if they wish to, but for that, they will have to start from scratch. “There are some values we learnt from our father and we want to impart them to our own children and all the employees who work here,” he said. “We want to celebrate 300 years of Furtados, so it becomes necessary that everyone who is associated with us has the same passion for the business.”

This passion is palpable in any of their stores in the country. Even on a weekday, the store at Jer Mahal is packed with music enthusiasts. They walk around, their eyes filled with the amusement of having entered a candy store, gently caressing guitar strings and sliding their fingers over keyboard keys. What caught our attention, however, was a small stack of religious books and Catholic articles tucked away in a corner of the store. That corner of Furtados represented everything this little, quaint music shop in town stood for, with the real success of its owners being in their ability to fly high while staying strong to their roots.

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