Around the same time that Bernard Furtado opened his religious goods store, his brother, Luis Manoel Furtado, opened LM Furtado and Sons. LM Furtado sold sheet music and Western classical instruments. Business thrived, but in 1959, George Selwyn, Luis’s descendant who was running the store, wanted to move to Canada.
Looking for a buyer, he had almost closed the deal with Bombay’s Bhargava and Company (now Bhargava’s Musik), which dealt in Indian classical instruments. But LM had a small section selling Christian religious goods. The Bhargavas, who didn’t deal in religious goods and weren’t Christian, planned to close that department and relieve the staff manning it.
By this time, [John] Gomes already had a good reputation. The story goes that LM’s staff, discovering Selwyn’s plans and desperate to save their jobs, requested that Gomes buy the business. Gomes walked over to the store, met Selwyn, and after a brief discussion closed the deal by offering Rs 5,000 more than the Rs 1.1 lakh the Bhargavas were willing to pay.
Gomes inherited ten staff and LM’s guitars, violins, banjos, drums, trumpets, and other wind instruments displayed in the 1,800-square-foot shop. LM also rented out restored secondhand pianos. In time, Gomes brought both firms under one banner, naming the business Furtados.
Gomes had no background in music. He’d never played an instrument. And so his school friend and legal advisor, Dhiman Malvi, threw a fit that he had not been consulted and that Gomes had not had all the documents checked. Christopher Gomes recalled Malvi saying, “John had the guts that no one in his normal mind did. He got away with it because of his strong belief in god and the good person that he was.”
Gomes may not have been knowledgeable about music, but he couldn’t have remained untouched by the wave of Western classical music that was being led by Goans, mostly living in and around Dhobi Talao. In an expansive account of jazz in 1960s Bombay for Quartz India, senior journalist Naresh Fernandes wrote:
“The Portuguese may have neglected higher education in Goa, but the parochial schools first established in 1545 put into place a solid system of musical training...
Their musical inclination came in handy when Goans sought work in British India...
...By the 1920s, many Goan men were being employed as seamen by such British lines as BI, P&O, Anchor and Clan...By the 1930s, Goans in Bombay had come to be associated with the ABC professions: ayahs (maids), butlers and cooks.
But by the ’40s, Bombay’s swing bands had earned a solid reputation...
They soon established themselves as the musicians of the Raj, staffing the orchestras established by British administrators and by Indian maharajahs seeking to appear sophisticated...
Goan musicians who didn’t play the nightclubs mainly worked at weddings, Parsi navjote initiation ceremonies and Catholic funerals. . . .
When jazz swung into the subcontinent, Goans seized it as the song of their souls...New tunes came to India as sheet music.”
John surely must have seen the opportunity.
But what Gomes may not have anticipated was the cultural and economic shift that patriotism would lead to in independent India. On the one hand, there was a desire to shun all forms of Western influence. On the other, socialism was taking over the hearts and minds of his countrymen.
In the process, the arts got denigrated as being frivolous. These factors also influenced economic decisions that led to the Licence Raj. The period beginning then, and extending until liberalisation, in 1991, saw not only the nationalisation of corporations and banks but also extremely high tariffs on imports and, eventually, a virtual ban on all imports except essential goods. Trade restrictions, which were part of the License Raj, were also influenced by the minimal foreign exchange reserves India had at the time of independence.
These changes affected all industries and private businesses in India. The Licence Raj is infamous for giving birth to smuggling and India’s black market. But what did it mean for Furtados?
Trade in religious goods, which were largely procured locally, was safe, as was printing. But the business of musical instruments, which were imported, took a hit. The saving grace for music was that books, being educational tools, were considered essential imports and hence could be procured from abroad.
Faced with these challenges, Gomes’s strategy was three-pronged. On the music front, Furtados would continue to procure print music and to provide repair and restoration services to the owners of Western classical equipment. His clientele mainly included schools and churches, but business also came from the film industry. Brits who’d remained in India, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, and some aristocratic families also were clients.
Furtados began selling domestically manufactured instruments, but no one manufactured pianos in India. Therefore, Furtados, as well as competitors such as Godin and Marques, participated in auctions by schools and military establishments. They would buy 80- to 120-year-old pianos and restore them in-house. Repairs of guitars and other instruments had to be outsourced. Recalling how Gomes invested his mind in music, Musée’s Das said:
“If you went to him with a problem, he’d always try to give you a solution. He used to pore over music books and was good at getting work done from the labour – telling them what to do when they got stuck. Seeing that he knew his stuff, they feared fooling him.”
The second strategy was to bypass middlemen and reduce the procurement cost of books. Gomes began traveling and establishing a direct relationship with international suppliers in the Middle East, Italy, Rome, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where a lot of Christian religious goods were sold. He sought goods such as pictures, which could be imported, because these were paper-based and readily available. Print music cost a lot in “aristocratic” West Germany, so he bought music in East Germany at one-third the rate.
The third strategy was diversification. Gomes wanted to hedge risk and get greater returns from other products, since the margins on books and repairs weren’t substantial. Das recalled:
“You would get a meagre Rs 10,000 out of books. Furtados would have got a little more because John would buy them in bulk and sell to everybody, all over India, by post and [value payable post]. He took that risk; not everyone could. Bulk purchase results in a lot of dead stock. Out of twelve, you could sell only three to four.”
Teachers and schools were the biggest clients for Gomes’s music books business. Furtados also provided print music to Calcutta’s Braganza and Company, established in 1942.
Gomes’s son, Anthony, said, “Not forsaking print sheets was the biggest service my father rendered the music industry.” Furtados carried sheet music for all instruments and every type of music. “Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible for kids to learn music. In those days, there was no other source.”
To achieve diversification in books, he added cookery and schoolbooks as well as imported novels. This meant going to Gulf countries, which used Indian curricula and often had Goan principals. Gomes tapped his core network of schools and churches and began exporting schoolbooks to Bahrain, Dubai, and Muscat.
Finally, he also diversified into sporting goods, because quality Indian sporting equipment was available and there was more demand than the city’s four or five shops could supply. Schools that entrusted Furtados with printing confidential material such as test papers and providing them with music books automatically went to them for sports requirements.
Catering to schools meant that Gomes could purchase in bulk, gain a cost advantage, and pass the savings on to customers. Perumpally said:
Fathers [principals] of these schools really wanted to purchase from us, and once big schools like Campion and St Xavier’s did, the rest followed. They knew, if they were buying from Furtados, quality was assured. Mr Gomes personally looked into procurement and also arranged with salesmen to take back defective goods. So customers were happy with our after-sales service, too.
While Gomes was open to diversifying (as well as discarding anything that didn’t make business sense), expansion wasn’t something he’d consider. Even so, Furtados opened a branch in Margao, Goa, in 1961. “A new church had been built in Goa on a plinth and the priest wanted shops below to be taken on rent,” explained Anthony. “My father conceded because of his relationship with churches.” With two or three staff, it offered the same mix as the flagship store and did about 15% of the business.
Diversification is what truly saved Furtados. Other renowned shops selling Western classical musical instruments, such as S Rose and Company (which even legendary actor Ashok Kumar wasn’t able to salvage), James and Company, Bain and Company, and several others, began to close down due to labor issues, lower demand, and trade restrictions.
By the 1980s, the business of religious goods was gradually on the decline as people were increasingly becoming less religious. After a bypass surgery, in 1982, Gomes also had to reduce his printing business drastically, due to his ailing health. Printing at the time was a stressful, labour-intensive affair requiring a lot of manual work—placing letters by hand, cutting, binding, proofreading, and so on.
At the peak of its printing business, in the late 1960s, Furtados’s print volume was second only to that of the Times of India. In fact, Anthony said, “After doing the day shift at the Times, their staff would do a night shift with us to make an extra buck. My father never got to enjoy Christmas because schools required calendars by early January, and one thousand copies each were printed for about thirty-five schools.”
In those years, Gomes’s fanatical ambition was a blessing and a curse. It led him to set up a pantry and install a bed in his shop. He didn’t go home for nights. By age thirty-five, Gomes had already suffered three heart attacks.
In the 1970s, Gomes was representing Maharashtra’s sporting goods at fairs in Spain. Sales from sports had begun beating that of religious goods, fetching about Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 per day. Sales continued to swell during the 1980s, by which time, Furtados’s market share in sports was 50% to 60%.
From the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Furtados also stocked audio cassettes, vinyl, records, and other new music products that hit the market. Largely manufactured in Kolkata, Uttar Pradesh, and South India, domestic instruments were of very modest quality.
Speaking of the time before economic liberalisation in India, veteran jazz musician Louis Banks recalled, “Musicians dreamed of owning high-quality instruments, but the ones manufactured in India didn’t compare with the world-class instruments made abroad. Till today, we don’t have any that compare...Hence, only a few musicians, fortunate enough to buy from abroad, could possess high-quality instruments.”
Gomes had a great desire to offer quality instruments, but the government wouldn’t relent regarding imports. Das recalled:
“As a member of Rotary, Gomes was quite influential, and had clout in Delhi, too. He tried convincing the government to allow import of parts, if not whole musical instruments, but they denied even him. What he did manage to do, though, was ensure that taxes didn’t get levied on educational books.”
In the mid-1980s, Trinity College of London, which Gomes had started representing in the 1970s in Western India, honoured him for his contribution to the music industry.
Overall, Furtados’s sales were by now in lakhs. But their turnover must not have crossed Rs 40 lakh, Christopher estimated, because the income tax department wasn’t auditing their books at that time.
He knew this because Gomes encouraged his kids to spend time at his shop, starting at a very young age. Fine piano manufacturer Steinway’s founder, Henry Steinway Sr, did the same with his children. Also at the young age of six, all of Gomes’s children were initiated into music through piano lessons. Today, Christopher and Nonabel still play the piano. Anthony plays the violin, and Joseph is a great singer and has a performer’s certificate. Later on, the children would naturally gravitate toward the music business because of their musical training.
When Gomes’s children entered college, they would go to Furtados after classes. Christopher, in particular, enjoyed spending his free time and Christmas holidays at the store. “I liked attending to people and would feel excited if I managed to sell something,” he shared. And who could blame him, with legendary musicians such as Mickey Correa, Anibal Crasto, Melbourne Halloween, Michael Martins, Joe Pinto, and several others walking in to buy their music books?
Excerpted with permission from Intelligent Fanatics of India, Rohith Potti and Pooja Bhula.