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Old instruments: they need expert care










Love them back to sound health

It's a job that involves breathing new life into veenas, mridangams and harmoniums made precious by old memories. Meet some masters

There's hardly an Indian home without an old harmonium or veena lying in disrepair. No one has the heart to throw them away. These are not just antiques; their sound once delighted our ears and we hope some day to hear that music again.

Instruments have sentimental value too, because they belonged to a mother or grandmother who is no more. Often, we don't know how to get these instruments back in working order. We usually take them to some well-known shop or two, and if they are not able to help, we bring them back and jettison them to the back of a less used cupboard. Only the next round of spring cleaning brings them back to attention.  

Concert artistes are not above hobbyists in this regard. If they find, a few days before a performance, that the strings or keys are broken, they begin a mad campaign to get the instrument in order. Old instruments are dear. No artiste likes to pick up a new, untried instrument just before a concert.

Hearteningly, some shops specialise in the repair of old instruments.

The Mylapore touch

 Mathala Narayanan Street in Mylapore, Chennai, houses many such shops, small and big.

A small shop, owned by Varadan, specialises in the repair of mridangams. He gets the skin of buffalo, goat and deer from Perambur, the area in Chennai known for its wholesale leather shops.

Varadan says repairing mridangams requires a good amount of physical strength, making it difficult for people above 45 or so to continue in this profession. He feels that musicians or the government should set up a fund to provide minimum sustenance for instrument repair experts.

Some eminent musicians have acknowledged the importance of people like Varadan, but nothing concrete has materialised so far.

K Ramesh, who owns the neighbouring shop, repairs veenas, tamburas and sruthi boxes. He entered this line after serving as a telephone operator in a private company; he finds this far more satisfying.

Move over to crowded West Mambalam and you find Venkatesan, who has been running Sri Saraswathy Musicals on Madley Road since 1960. He talks about the problems small business people like him face. Though he had a current account with a particular bank for over five years, when he needed a loan urgently, it was refused.   

With repair houses like his needing to rotate money, it is difficult to maintain the required minimum of Rs 5,000 in a current account. And, if this is not maintained, the bank charges Rs 20 for each cheque processed.   

Venkatesan too feels the government or the banks should help people like him get loans easily. All those engaged in this profession assert there should be a union or co-operative society to look after their needs and to seek redressal for their problems.

Swank stores

Back to Mylapore and there are upmarket shops Sapthaswara Musicals and Sruthilaya. Offering both sales and service, they have well decorated, air-conditioned showrooms with an impressive display of instruments. They do good business in India and abroad. Peak business months are from November to mid-January. Hundreds of foreigners and NRIs visit Chennai during the music season and drop in at these shops to pick up music or instruments.

M N Lal of Sapthaswara, a Gujarati who speaks flawless Tamil, has a suggestion. He feels that like in many foreign countries, music should be made a part of the school curriculum. This would go a long way in giving an impetus to music, musicians and those associated with music.

He says many of his customers are Sri Lankans settled away from their homeland. It is interesting to learn that they have a custom of gifting every son with a mridangam and daughter with a veena. It is to India they come when they want to buy instruments or get them repaired.

Lal plans to start music classes at the shop. He has a good knowledge of Western music too. He has helped out veena players who have to carry their large instruments around the world by designing and building portable veenas. He says they produce the same quality of sound as regular veenas.

Dinakar of Sruthilaya differs. He says he came across an ancient piece of literature which says that after melakattu (the setting of frets), the veena should not be tampered with. So they do not make foldable veenas. Sruthilaya is known for its quality veenas. Noted musicians like E Gayathri come to them for all their needs. They run a plant in Thanjavur where traditional artisans make veenas. They undertake not just repair but also restoration. When an old, dilapidated veena is brought to them, they remake the whole shell using a new base. The repair is so perfect that it is not noticeable.

Dinakar relates the tale of how they repaired a veena for an overseas customer. But during transport it was broken. This customer had a sentimental attachment to the instrument. Instead of ordering a new one, which would have cost less, he returned the instrument to them again, spending an extra Rs 34,000.

In many countries, expert instrument makers are raised to hero status. We in India still haven't learnt to respect them enough. 
Ambujam Anantharaman

(with inputs from Girija Subramaniam)


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