The city of Pune can have had few more generous and committed patrons of music than Maharookh Forbes, of the multinational engineering company, Forbes Marshall. An accomplished pianist herself, she lent her whole-hearted support to organisations in Pune and Mumbai, notably to the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Mehli Mehta Foundation, and to the Sangat Concerts, designed to promote the careers of artistes of Indian origin, studying abroad. The Poona Music Society, close to home, occupied a special place for her. She was its President for ten years, and, through both personal financial contributions as well as from Forbes Marshall, she not only kept the Society functioning through some lean years, but ensured that the city’s audiences had the benefit of attending performances from musicians of international repute. Says her son Farhad, remembering those early years,
“The few artistes who came to Poona had to be hosted; all you could do was provide hospitality, due to foreign exchange regulations. My mother would have many of these artistes stay at our home, and many became close friends.”
She played a prominent role in the Society’s acquisition of its Blüthner, and, more recently, in the ambitious project of restoring its century-old Steinway. And thereby hangs quite a tale.
Steinway 70794, to give it its full “name” began life at the company’s factory in Queens, New York City. Case and frame were then shipped to Hamburg, where the remaining parts were assembled, a serial number assigned, after which it made its long voyage from London to Bombay in 1901. It had a royal enough home in India, in the palace of the ruler of Dhrangadhra state in Gujarat. It spent most of the second half of the century as the PMS’s principal instrument. Relegated to use by students and for local events, with the PMS having acquired a Blüthner, it yet captured the appreciation and interest of visiting musicians, among them the eminent pianist Stephen Kovacevich. After consulting experts in the field, the Society decided to undertake a mammoth restoration project, to bring it back, as closely as possible, to its original sound. There were many players in Project Steinway: Furtados of Mumbai, Ajay Mistry, piano builder, whose own lineage in the piano assembling industry goes back over a century, Steinway of Hamburg, and generous donors like Maharookh Forbes. Thus it was that 70794, a century and a quarter later, made the return voyage from Mumbai to Hamburg, where its ‘heart’, the pin block was replaced. The final restoration was done at the Furtados facility in Mumbai, and, possibly the only piano in history to have crossed the Suez Canal three times, it came home to Pune – a grand instrument, worthy indeed, in its new avatar, for the great master, Stephen Kovacevich, to inaugurate in a recital .
This was the first Maharookh Forbes memorial concert. Says Farhad Forbes, “She was an ardent concert-goer.” Talking about her legacy of bringing good music to the city, he says,
“We were still collecting funds for the restoration; my mother had personally contributed a fair amount, as had our company, but there was still a gap. We were thinking of helping to bridge that, but also not just do it as one-time thing, but…. through a series of concerts, where we could have really good artistes come and perform, and institute that in her memory”.
For Maharookh Forbes, who passed away in 2018, the November evening, when Stephen Kovacevich sat at the Steinway, and the first notes of Bach’s Prelude in C sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier resonated through the Mazda Hall, it was a fitting valediction, and for Pune’s music-lovers, a happy augury of things to come.