Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2018

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

– SRIRAM V

The store that brought music into homes

Page 4Saraswathi Stores.

On its site stands a building, all multi-coloured plate glass and geometric patterns, that looks as though it is a UFO that has landed on Mount Road. Who would believe that here stood a landmark outlet that was synonymous with gramophone records? Ask any music-loving old-timer about Saraswathi Stores and you will get an idea about its popularity.

Gramophone recording had come to India in the early 1900s and from then on, the country proved to be a good market for the discs, or plates, or records as they were known. The dominant names in the market were the Gramophone Company of India (His Master’s Voice) and Columbia. AV & Sons of Karaikudi had the distributions rights for these discs in the areas of Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy and Tirunelveli from 1928. The founder, Avichi Chettiar, would often travel to Madras to discuss business matters with his principals. His son, Meyyappan would accompany him and it was on one of those journeys that it occurred to him that the family firm ought to enter into the business of producing gramophone discs rather than just selling them.

Saraswathi Stores was born in 1932 as a consequence. It was a partnership between AV Meyyappan, K.S. Narayana Iyengar of Salem and Sivasubramaniam (Sivam) Chettiar. Realising that Karaikudi was not the best place to commence such an activity, Meyyappan soon moved the business to Madras. The company tied up with the German label Odeon. This was not the latter’s maiden venture into Madras, for the brand was a familiar one in the city from 1906, when it was first distributed by Misquith & Co. At around the time AVM signed up with it, Odeon, though based out of Berlin, was actually an American-owned company, having become part of Electrical Music Industries (EMI), a conglomerate formed out of the merger of several record labels, as a measure to fight the Great Depression. But for all practical purposes, AVM dealt only with the German plant, an arrangement that would have major repercussions once World War II broke out.

But in 1932, all that was in the future. Meyyappan and his partners worked with characteristic energy. A handsome showroom was set up on leased property on Mount Road. Its wooden floors and high ceilings were characteristic of the Chettinad area that Meyyappan came from. Saraswathi Stores convinced Odeon that it needed a mix of folk, classical and theatrical entertainments on its list and set up a studio for recording local artistes. Soon, the South Indian catalogue of Odeon became hugely popular. Artistes such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar preferred to sign exclusive contracts with Saraswathi Stores. The Harikatha exponent C. Saraswathi Bai, the fact that her name was the same as the firm’s being made much out of, received a cheque for Rs 10,000 in 1933 as recording fee and royalty from sales – a mammoth sum for those years.

Meyyappan proved a pioneer in releasing drama dialogues as gramophone records. He also realised the power of the talkies and took to releasing discs of songs from popular films of the time. When M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, the reigning monarch of the screen, refused to record for Saraswathi Stores owing to disagreements on royalties, Meyyappan had Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma, who would become a long-term staffer, sing the same songs with an in-house orchestra and released them. That soon gave rise to a new trend – film songs being sung by independent artistes and released. Not strictly ethical perhaps, but the records sold well.

Meyyappan moved on to films in the mid-1930s and persevered despite the failures of his initial attempts. Success became his in 1940, with the release of a portmanteau that was three independent comedy tales rolled into one. Legend has it that these were shot at the Club House premises of the Madras Club, then on Mount Road. This is, however, highly doubtful. It is unlikely that the Club, then a whites-only institution, would have allowed a relatively unknown film-maker to use its space. The success of the production and others that followed ensured that Meyyappan’s interests were dominated by cinema, but Saraswathi Stores was not neglected. It became a natural outlet for the gramophone plates for the songs from AVM films, apart from classical records produced by its in-house orchestra and artistes.

World War II saw the Nazi Government in Germany confiscating the Odeon plant as enemy property. That naturally brought the agreements with Saraswathi Stores to an end. But the latter had by then already finalised agreements with HMV’s Calcutta plant and produced its discs from there. It also became a retail outlet for discs made by other brands under the EMI umbrella.

Managed for long by Sivam Chettiar’s son, Saraswathi Stores remained in the gramophone business till the 1970s when it switched to cassettes. It sold recorded concerts, film songs and theatre dialogues – a continuation of what AV Meyyappan had begun. It later moved to compact discs as well. In the 1980s, with an exclusive outlet not being a pre-requisite, Saraswathi Stores on Mount Road became AVM Dasa – a restaurant set up in collaboration with members of the Dasaprakash family. Its masala dosa, with the potato being served separately and the dosa having inside it a sliver of a banana leaf with loads of butter on it, became a particular favourite of many. Sadly, this venture folded up chiefly owing to differences within the Dasaprakash family. With the lease running out as well, Saraswathi Stores opted to move, becoming purely a billing entity of AVM’s. The old outlet was demolished by its owners who put up the commercial building that we now see.

Saraswathi Stores moved to AVM’s Sound Zone on TTK Road, where it had a revival of sorts each December Music Season. A huge sale of CDs and DVDs would be organised by it there and this was a favourite hunting ground for several music and cinema aficionados. The arrival of online music sales and the consequent death of the recording industry brought that annual feature to an end as well. Saraswathi Stores probably now survives as an entity on paper.

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