At 55 years, one may not expect someone to possess the manual dexterity and motor skills to create something as delicate as flutes, but Sajid Husain does it with finesse. The Pilibhit-based flute-maker starts his day at 5 am by cutting a piece of highly graded bamboo cane, especially sourced from Silchar in Assam, and smoothens it with a sharp knife that moves through his dark, patchy, and blistered fingers. The sticks have been dried and treated with natural oils like mustard and almond for over a month. He makes some markings on the sticks and places each one of them in a hot metal rod skewer to create holes of different diameters.
By 9 am, Husain completes a lot of 25 flutes, because in the next few hours, he packs, tags, and supplies it to his vendors based in Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi, Nagpur, Hubli and neighbouring temple towns in Uttar Pradesh like Mathura and Haridwar, known for being some of the major flute-using hubs of the country.
“This is my everyday task. I start early in the morning to avoid heat from skewers. I work on different sizes of the stick—11-36 inches—adjust it to various holes to achieve purity of the musical notes,” says Husain, whose home district in Uttar Pradesh is known for flute making.
Bamboo flutes are strong and melodious. Each piece is handmade, unique in shape and dimension. That’s why Pilibhit’s craftsmanship includes ordinary straight-blown and side-blown style of flutes. “Traditionally, it started more than a century ago in Pilibhit. Today, you will find over 20,000 skilled karigars (craftsmen) here. The tone and quality are different. But it isn’t a sustainable business,” shares Husain, who gets bulk orders amounting to as much as Rs 1 lakh during some months, but absolutely nothing in others. Festivals like Raksha Bandhan and Durga Puja are good productivity periods.
“Now we have a landmark in the city, Bansuri Chowk, to promote this industry,” says the proud first-generation flute maker, who learnt the art while on the job and has been in the business for more than 40 years now.
Like Pilibhit, several places in India have earned a pedigree certificate when it comes to delivering trademark-style musical instruments. This is largely because the raw materials found in some places are apt for making a particular instrument, while for others, it is an age-old family tradition that is keeping alive the name, fame, and the requisite skills required to run a business. Yet again, some musical instruments are unique selling propositions for creators and music maestros who look for style, quality, texture, tonality and design in the instruments they play.
For instance, if renowned flautist Pt Pannalal Ghosh is credited with developing flute, then Hari Prasad Chaurasiya was the one who took it to another level. “Ghosh improved the structure of the bamboo flute that could play heavy raagdari, made it a longer version of 32 inches and improved the diameter for better tonal quality,” says Delhi-based sitar player Shubhendra Rao, a protégé of world-renowned sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar who feels that a music instrument is an extension of a musician’s body. “My sitar is my hand. When you buy an instrument, you must ease it. It needs to breathe life, bloom like a flower for years, only then we can get a perfect combination of a raga,” says Rao.
Many regions in India have taken their cultural legacy and tradition forward with expertise from age-old technological know-how, skills, and patterns of trade, which have made artists, maestros, music lovers buy instruments from a particular region. Take for instance, tabla, which is an important instrument known for its skin. It varies in different regions: a set made in Kolkata uses thin skin while Varanasi uses thick skin on the top. Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is famous for Carnatic veena and sitar and tanpura come from Miraj, a nondescript town in Maharashtra.
Miraj has around 40 families of hereditary sitar makers, who live in Shaniwarpeth area of the town. The trademark of the instrument is identified with the surname Sitarmaker. For about 150 years, Miraj was known for its tanpura, but it gained name and fame for sitar in the last two-three decades. This is because the climate and soil to grow quality tumba (the body of the sitar), which is traditionally made from a large, dried gourd (pumpkin), come from a river-side farm near Pandharpur, about 150 km from Miraj. “Because of the extremely fragile nature of tumba, we take great care to protect it from damage, store it well so that it doesn’t break in transportation. The speciality of pumpkin is its thickness (5 mm or less). To produce good sound, we look at how grainy or layered the wood is and what side is best suited,” says Naeem Naushad Sitarmaker who works at the family’s century-old shop-cum-home in Miraj.
The tone quality is another attraction for a musician which makes the sound very human and not wooden. Sarod can be made of coconut shell, tun wood, drone, shikri, and ivory but the most important factor is how long the wood has been seasoned so that there’s flexibility and depth. The wooden belly is made of goat skin, sacrificed during the Kali worship in Kolkata, which is also considered best for tabla makers.
But most important is the tun and Burma teak wood, seasoned for minimum 50 years, says Ratan Sen, son of Hemendra Chandra Sen of Hemen & Sons, a music shop that has existed for around 80 years and has produced sitars, sarods, violins, guitars and more for musicians like George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Indian stars like Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Baba Allauddin Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Ustad Bahadur Khan, to name a few.
Tabla, a popular drum in classical Hindustani and folk music, has two drums played simultaneously to achieve a homogeneous sound. “It is one universal instrument which can sound like pakhawaj, drum, dholak, percussion, mridangam or nagara. It has endless syllables and sounds. I have synced it in hard metal, jazz, rock, pop,” says professional table player Pranshu Chatur Lal, grandson of legendary tabla wizard Pt Chatur Lal and son of Pandit Charanjit Lal.
Chatur Lal tells us how the two drums are totally dissimilar, but they complement each other beautifully. “Bayan, played with the left hand, is the larger of the two drums and provides the bass sound. It is more spherical in shape and can be made of clay or metal. Dayan, the right drum has high melodic pitch, and can be made of heavy woods like vijaysaar, sheesham (red or black teak) and sometimes neem wood, mahogany,” says Delhi-based Chatur Lal.
Sound quality comes from quality material only then can a mesmerising performance win the heart of audience, feels tabla maker Mahmood Khan Niyazi, son of Qasim Khan Niyazi, who won the Akademi Award for making of Musical Instrument (Delhi) for the year 2011 and has worked with Ustad Ahmadjan Thirakhwa, Ustad Shafaat Ahmed, Pt Durga Lal and Fateh Singh Gandhi.
Niyazi shares an incident when his father gifted a strapless bayan, an invention made by his father, besides a double side table, to tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain in 1997. “The strapless bayan was as brilliantly played as the normal one. Straps (baddhi) are the braces that stretch from the gajara, a thick belt made of strong water buffalo hide weaved from the rim of the top to the bottom of the drum, ensuring the top is tight and stable for strength and sound,” explains the 33-year-old Delhi resident.
Changing with the times
Instrument makers have constantly experimented with new and natural materials to avoid environmental damage caused due to banned ivory, teak wood or if certain materials are not unavailable. But somehow, these haven’t resonated well with both musicians and creators. That’s because most music buyers don’t get that sound and quality from an artificial make.
“The most important part of string instruments like tanpura and sitar are bridges made of different materials — ebony wood or ivory, stag horn or even camel bone. Bridges in string instruments were made from ivory before the 1940s. During 1945-46, ivory was banned, and we replaced it with stag horns. Stag annually shred their horns, so animals were not killed,” says Delhi-based Ajay Sharma, owner of famous Rikhi Ram Music Shop that was set up in 1948 by his grandfather Rikhi Ram.
Every bone has different properties, some like camel bone, some like stag. But constant vibration can break strings, so Sharma came up with a remedy where the sound is not sacrificed and tonal quality remains the same, and the product must last more. “Ebony wood bridges were liked by some gharana musicians as it is a flat and dense wood, sinks in water. We also started teflon bridges (a by-product of petroleum and it is recyclable). But it didn’t augur well for musicians as using man made material might bring a glitch,” says Sharma, whose father Bishen Das Sharma won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1997.
String instruments are susceptible to climate change. Strings break, mould or twist in extreme weather conditions. “Santoor wood can crack in Delhi due to heat, so the sides are made strong to bear maximum tension of wires. Synthetic bridges don’t work as they compress in a week,” says santoor maestro Abhay Rustum Sopori, son of santoor virtuoso Pt Bhajan Sopori.
Kalam (strikers) made from walnut or rosewood have different sounds. “Metal kalam sounds like a central Asian instrument, it ruins the saaz,” says Sopori who has composed music for film Shikara and has bought strings from different parts of the world and noticed the change in playing. “We compare the sound of steel strings made in India and the US (Washington, Albuquerque in New Mexico, Colorado) or from the UK, there is a difference in the make and cost. Santoor has 25 bridges.
Each bridge has four strings, making for a total of 100 strings. One string in the US is over $4, in India, the cost is Rs 500 per coil. We can use one coil for santoor. Before the pandemic, we used to have regular concerts and I changed it every 10 days. It’s a Rs 20,000-25,000 expense every time.”
The regulations imposed on the use of certain woods were lifted and were not applicable for the instruments manufacturing industry worldwide. “Leading manufacturers have cooperated with governments in instituting and executing responsible reforestation objectives to ensure tree cover and foliage is at least replenished if not increased,” adds Anthony Gomes, director, Furtados, a retail music store in Mumbai.
New-age technology and innovations have brought changes to many instruments. Variations in tanpura and sitar like the electronic tanpura or fusion instruments like dilruba, a combination of sitar and sarangi, or Pt Niladri Kumar’s invention of zitar, a combination of the sitar and guitar, are best known.
Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt invented mohan veena in 1967. It has 23 strings and combines north Indian vichitra veena and south Indian slide vina (veena) called gotuvadyam of Karnataka. The beauty of this instrument is that continuity of sound remains for a long time, and Bhatt can play 32 notes in one stroke. “I have designed it in a way that I can control my tone, reverb, echo, equalisation, bass or sharpness I require,” says the Jaipur-based musician, who was born to noted vocalists and music teachers Manmohan Bhatt and Chandrakala Bhatt.
Most musicians feel safe to buy stuff from reputed shops as they get what they want. Carnatic vocalist and veena exponent, Rama Varma, a descendant of the royal family of Travancore, shops from Saptaswara or Haribhau music stores in Mumbai, Chennai. “I get what I want in my veena: age, bright tone and lightness in my instrument matters, just the way it is made by these two,” says Varma, who regularly conducts music workshops on ‘rare compositions of great composers’ online.
Technology has also widened the reach of music. Students don’t have to learn a tanpura before they learn to sing. “They can learn on YouTube and Skype,” says Natwarlal, owner of Saptaswara Musicals, music dealer in Chennai, who goes by single name. “People like western instruments like piano, guitars as they are handy and easy to learn. There are no guidebooks for classical, and veena, sitar is bulky,” says Natwarlal, whose buyers look for guitars, electronic keyboards, drum sets and percussion, and pianos. “Today 85% of sales come from western instruments. Keyboards have the highest sales as one can play 1,800 instruments at a time, including Indian music. Acoustic or Spanish / electric guitar (cost Rs 4,000- Rs 40,000) are the second most saleable items,” he adds.
Agrees Mumbai based Uday Diwane from Haribhau Musicals, a 96-year-old shop with musical relationship with Shankar Mahadevan, Suresh Wadekar, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Shankar Jaikishan. “There is more demand for western guitar and keyboard. You need to have basic knowledge to play keys on western instruments. It’s also the world of instant learning, light and easy to learn music,” he adds.