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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
many countries, expert instrument makers are raised to hero status. We in
India still haven't learnt to respect them enough.
(with inputs from Girija