A 56-year-old family business, an oasis for musicians

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The family business is not always an easy affair. This is the story of how a family business grew, split and continued to sell its love for music to the city of Dhaka for five decades through waves of change.

07 June 2022, 09:45

Last modification: 07 June 2022, 09:55

Twelve years ago, one morning in February, I decided to quit my university classes. But the problem was that I didn’t know what to do with the six hours of free time I suddenly had on hand.

So I started walking.

I came across the municipal cleaners sweeping the roads early in the morning at 7:30. And then, as I walked through College Street, the delicious scent of incense found its way to my olfactory system. I started looking for the source and found New Surasree – a musical instrument store standing in front of me.

A middle-aged man was chanting mantras and spreading incense smoke in the store.

Suddenly, I felt like I was standing on the Varanasi ghat that I had seen so many times in the movies, and a priest was performing his morning rites. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but I realized that someone was calling me “Maa” (mother). Someone was asking me if I needed anything. Later I learned his name – Ramchandra Barui, a store employee.

I replied, “I need a harmonica”, something I’ve always wanted but never had. I had Tk10 in my bag, and yet I started browsing Swan and Hohner harmonicas. Ramchandra said, “You are our ‘Bouni’ (first) customer today, our Laxmi (the Hindu goddess of fortune). I will give you a special discount. Choose whatever you want.”

When I said “I don’t have any money for this purchase” I could see the instant disappointment pass over his face, the bright light in his eyes faded and with a dry smile he said, “No worries, come when you have the money. I’ll give you that special discount.

Twelve years later, on a rainy day in May, I revisited New Surasree, now called Adi Surasree, and still had Ramchandra.

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Photo: Noor-A-Alam

After all these years, he didn’t recognize me. So I never got my “special discount”. Instead, I got something even more fascinating – the story of a family that has been selling musical instruments to Dhakites for 56 years.

From Surasree (1966) to New Surasree (1978) and finally Adi Surasree (2020), the original family music store has seen waves of change. It also branched out into new stores such as Melody and co in 1987, New Golden Music in 1989 and Surasree in 2013 – and all of them remained in the family. New businesses were the result of family members separating and starting separate businesses.

I spoke to Suman Sarkar, the manager of Adi Surasree and Shankar Sarkar, the manager of Melody and Co. And it seemed like a genuine and unique family story – with a happy start, painful partings and, above all, the love of music.

A humble beginning in a workshop

So it all started in the 1960s, when Baikuntha Sarkar, a middle-aged artisan guitarist, decided to build a guitar-making workshop. Baikuntha lived in the Shakhari Bazar area of ​​Old Dhaka at the time.

Later in 1966, Baikuntha decided to open a musical instrument store in his neighborhood seeing the success of his workshop. This is how Surasree was born.

The harmonium, the baya-tabla, the guitar, the flute, etc. were made in Bangladesh, mostly in his workshop, then the tanpura and sitar were imported from India.

The business was flourishing but everything collapsed during the 1971 liberation war. Sankar Sarkar, director of Melody and co and grandson of Baikuntha said: “During the war, the situation became terrible. My grandfather, my father, my uncles and their families all fled to Keraniganj, our ancestral home. Everything was closed.

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

But they survived, and in 1972 Baikuntha decided to relaunch her shop. In 1978 Baikuntha’s three sons – Rambhakt, Mangol and Manoronjon Sarkar – thought it was time to expand the business to the new town and name the new outlet New Surasree.

After Baikuntha Sarkar’s death, his eldest son Ram Bhakta Sarkar and second son Mangol Chandra Sarkar took over the business. During the 1970s and mid-1980s, the business did very well. Another brother, Manoranjan Sarkar moved to Mohakhali and started his own business called ‘New Golden Music’ in 1989. All his sons still operate their respective stores.

Water under the bridge?

Unfortunately, a disagreement over the distribution of profits caused a rift in the family and the Sarkar brothers went their separate ways. Eventually, in 1987, Mangol Sarkar started his own company, Melody and Co, which is currently run by his son Sankar Sarkar.

“It’s our family business, and although we don’t get along very well now, my uncle and my cousins ​​decided to open businesses in the same place,” said Suman Sarkar, son of Rambhakt Sarkar. Sumon is currently Adi Surasree’s manager.

These stores carry a wide range of instruments, from classical instruments to modern electric guitars. “In the 1980s, we imported keyboards and guitars from Japan, and they were very high quality instruments. They were expensive, but we knew customers wanted them,” Suman said.

Japanese brands Roland and Kord were the preferred brands, but now various Chinese brands like CGM, SCO, Chord, etc. are on the market. “Before, artists wanted quality, but now people want cheap instruments, so we keep a product line based on customer needs,” echoed both Sankar and Sumon.

For guitars, they have brands like Signature, Gibson, Givson, etc.

All these years, with so many ups and downs, Surasree Dynasty has amassed a number of loyal customers. So much so that University Street in the science lab district of the capital is iconic for two characteristics: firstly, the students, as the name suggests, and secondly, various Surasree instrument shops.

Md Reza, musician and singer has been a loyal customer of this family for 40 years. “In the 1980s, with some of my friends, I started a band and at the time New Surasree was where I found the latest electric musical instruments.

From keyboards to electric guitars, it was an oasis for us musicians,” Reza said.

Baikuntha Sarkar’s legacy is carried on by his sons and grandsons through their music stores. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Baikuntha Sarkar's legacy is carried on by his sons and grandsons through their music stores.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Baikuntha Sarkar’s legacy is carried on by his sons and grandsons through their music stores. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

And still today, Reza visits their store to buy, customize and also repair his instruments. “I even took my nephew there to buy his guitar.”

Sumon said, “We used to have fun doing business, artists came and people understood the value of a good product. Now, as the quality has gone down on one side [musicians]the company also suffers.”

Before the pandemic, Adi Surasree was making sales worth Tk 5-6 lakh every month, which has now fallen to Tk 1 lakh per month.

Things may be looking a little disappointing now, but maybe one day someone will stand outside those stores and buy that harmonica that I never bought and the music will live.

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