Music makers

Shruti Shankar




Artistes abound. Some are famous, some well-known, some locally respected. Far greater is the number of practitioners who are referred to as enthusiasts. Then there are students eager to learn music. One things that is common besides their area of interest is their need for a good instrument. The art of making musical instruments involves dedication, passion and talent of almost equal magnitude. It also involves other things that generally lie outside an artiste's concern. As it is a material activity, the principles of production and economics are an essential part of this craft. Yet it remains within the purview of art because of the subjectivity involved. Experimenting with tonal quality of Sitar, Berndt Pichelbauer reports that increase in resonance and volume results in a substantial loss of decay time of tones, and improved quality of sound in the tar saptak was followed by less sonority in mandra saptak. He also experimented with the shape of tabli and placement of bridge suggesting an opening in the kantha.

In India vocation has been an area of tradition than of choice. While it has unjustly checked the progress of many who are bound to drudgery and labor that their fore-fathers quietly suffered, in certain areas it has imparted knowledge of such immensity that no modern day expert system matches it. Before the ban on snake-hunting and public shows, the Indian snake-charmer would use his generational wisdom to catch snakes lurking in cupboards and alcoves, treat for snake-bite and impart genuine knowledge about reptiles when seriously addressed. People consciously develop a special skill required in their vocation and impart it to their young ones who often store it in their subconscious and later bring it out as a reflex. Instrument makers too have followed this pattern. Whenever some one in the family was blessed with a musical ear, he would naturally be groomed to lead the trade. The artisans would live close to their resource material, hence names such as Dacca, Miraj and Calcutta would crop up in reference with musical instruments. Later, other centers like Varanasi, Allahabad, Meerut, Puna too began producing musical instruments. The artisans migrated from one town to other and now almost every city in India has at least one good music store with a few craftsmen who offer repair and maintenance services. Demand for folk instruments is gradually diminishing and so artisans who can make such instruments too are sparse and few. A Ravanhattha which could be produced in a few hundred rupees a decade back costs around five thousand rupees today. This is the price of an entry level Sitar, which traditionally has been a far expensive instrument.

Thanks to stalwarts like Pandit Uday Shankar, his illustrious brother Pt. Ravi Shankar and his co-disciple Ustad Ali Akbar Khan along with several other Indian musicians the interest in Indian music has created such a demand for Indian musical instruments that the craft has almost attained the status of industry. A Sitar from some of the larger stores in Delhi, Calcutta etc. may cost anything from twenty-five to fifty thousand rupees. The manufacturing process is quite streamlined and attention is paid to standardization and packaging of the instrument. Artists patronize some particular manufacturer and ask their pupils to procure instruments from this very source. While students get a well-made standard product, it allows their mentor the freedom to move around without having to carry a heavy piece of luggage. For even those who always carry their own instruments, the availability of an instrument similar to their own in design and quality in case of emergency adds to their peace of mind.

The large-scale production is detrimental to creating and sustaining the master craftsman. With more and more of standardized and synthetic parts, there is very little opportunity of growth as a musical instrument artisan. An artiste-artisan is a rarity today. I remember with what reverence the names of Hiren Roy, Radhakrishna Sharma was taken; people would give their all to possess an instrument made by these masters. The gifted ones are employed by large houses and are thus out of reach. There are still a few like Nitai Chakraborty's son, Tarak in Varanasi, Yusuf Mirajkar grandson of Umar Saheb Miraj in Pune, Mahesh Sharma in Jaipur apart from some others in Calcutta who can handle a string instrument with required expertise. Lucknow used to be good center for sitar but it is gradually losing ground to Varanasi and metropolis. The practising artistes wait till someone of this stature travels to their town so that routine maintenance like jawari, change of strings etc. can be done. If they get a chance to travel to the city of the craftsman, they inform him in advance about their needs. The craftsmen also enjoy such attention and gloat on the praise of the artiste, often recounting the artiste's visit to their local visitors and customers.

Mahesh Sharma is a second generation artisan. His father, Shri Ganga Sahay Sharma ventured into creating musical instruments as he had a natural love for music as well as wood-craft. His children inherited their musical sensibility and one of them also enjoyed working on instruments. The patience with which one waits for the wood to season, the precision with which he files once and appraises the result, the concentration of thought while he tries to manifest abstractions of sound into wood is indeed addictive. It is also fatiguing. Tarak needs at least three months to prepare a Sitar. Yusuf Mirajkar can sometimes work faster, but is willing to go on till the artiste is satisfied. Sharma in Jaipur does not come across a demanding artiste, as his hometown is not traditionally known for craftsmanship in this area, but is no less competent. When he is not attending to some commissioned task, he spends his time experimenting with various material and design. Using layers of resin compressed together he is experimenting with a synthetic bridge instead of the horn or camel-bone ones used traditionally in most string instruments. The bridge, he says, maintains the jawari for longer duration and the sounds same as the natural ones. Not all artistes agree. Jawari or giving the right curvature to the bridge for exacting a certain tonal quality is germane to an Indian instrument. The moving metal wires rub with horn or bone and both the surfaces undergo a definite erosion. With the synthetic bridge, it is only the metal that erodes; also, the synthetic material absorbs certain frequencies. Yusuf Mirajkar says that he uses only deer-horn for bridge and might use a bone piece ocassionally in case of urgency. He obtains these along with decorative and useful parts like mogra, nail, aad (the wedge through which all strings pass) etc. from Lucknow.

Everyone in the modern age is free to pursue his vocation and happiness. A young carpenter with musical inclination enrolled himself for a course in Sitar. He was so moved by the classical music he encountered in his classroom that he set out to trace its source. Unable to find the seasoned wood normally used in Sitar, he took a mango stem and seasoned it himself. He carved out a sitar and decorated it with brass strips. Despite its apparent crudity the Sitar sounds quite normal, yet its meend is limited. Weighing almost three times, the artistic abstractions are grounded by dead wieght of the instrument. Some state governments have organised workshops for these craftsmen with the aim of preserving of their art, but such efforts are sporadic and fail to achieve their goal. The problem is not limited to string instruments alone. Any rare instrument that does not appeal to mass market is sure to perish. With synthetic table-ware replacing traditional china, it is very difficult to prepare a jal tarang set. Dilruba, Israj and now Sarangi too is on path of extinction. Not until the artiste fraternity realises the impending disaster and takes concerted steps to empower the artisan community, would the Indian instruments retain their natural tone and range.



References :

Sonorous Sounds the Veena

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Sitar

Jal-Tarang: Tinkle that enchants

Details of Shruti Veena

For views of musicians on aspects of music click here


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