The Development Centre for Musical Instruments, a music lover’s paradise, preserves rare instruments from the past

At the Development Centre for Musical Instruments, just off Anna Salai, S. Gopal is busy crafting a boat-like base for a bow harp. This will soon be ready and on the shelves of the department, where a collection of more than 300 rare instruments are on permanent display.

Started in 1956 by musicologist Professor P. Sambamoorthy, the centre aims to create awareness about musical instruments that are rare. Gopal has been a part of the centre for more than 27 years and learnt the craft from his father V. Somavachary, a traditional veena craftsman in Panruti who came to Madras to work for the professor.

Gopal has so far crafted about 100 pieces such as the magara yazh, matchya yazh, villiyazh and miniature veena, thavil, tambura and so on. “We have a few reference books on instruments and I choose the rarest and make them. We also go to temples, study the sculptures there and look for traditional instruments. We then take pictures of the instruments and create life-size replicas. It takes me a few months to prepare one instrument,” says Gopal.

At the centre are cupboards full of percussion instruments, including the chandra pirai and surya pirai. A thin strip of leather is strained over an iron ring and Gopal lifts the metal handle to his head, wears the instrument with ease and begins to play it. “These were used in temples when the idol was taken out on an oorvalam,” he says.

Jamidika is a barrel-like drum with one end closed and covered with leather. A string passes through the instrument and is tied to a stick at the other end. “This instrument is from Andhra Pradesh and is used as an accompaniment while singing ballads,” says Gopal.

There is the panchamugha vadhyam, a large copper vessel with five sockets on which small drums are attached. Behind this vadhyam, rows of string instruments are kept upright next to each other. Gopal picks up the kokari, a long plank of wood with one end carved like a temple lion with wedges right down its body. A thin wooden stick is beaten up and down the wedges. “This was used as the kokari talam in the palaces of yore,” he says.

There are even veenas made of bamboo, cane splinters, red cedar and other material. Some of them, with intricate ivory work were made by Gopal’s predecessors. The tanthi panai is a ghatam-like pot with a string inside and a leather cover. “You wind the string to get a different sound,” he says. There is also the ravanastram, which is believed to be the earliest of bow instruments, made with a bamboo stick and a half hollowed coconut shell. The bow, on the other hand, has a string of horse hair.

Apart from these are the yazhs that were part of the palaces of Tamil Nadu. While they make many appearances in Tamil literature, they seem to have been displaced by the veena in the middle ages. “You can still see some of them on display at the Tanjore palace,” says Gopal.

There is also the kinnari, named after its inventor Kinnara, a celestial musician. It can also be spotted in many sculptures and paintings and the rudra veena, which is said to have been used by Ravana to impress Lord Shiva.

There are also unique pieces, some the innovation and work of Sambamoorthy. The Narayana veena, developed by the centre and inspired by the Japanese koto.

The pillar-like revolving tambura is set on a wooden base on which it revolves and there is even a chatur mukha tambura that has frets and strings on all four sides.

The centre preserves not only Indian instruments but western too. For instance, there is the walking stick guitar that was in use in the early 19th Century. Balalaika, a Russian guitar with a triangular body and a phono violin, also looks like a walking stick. “Many foreigners and music students visit the centre,” says Gopal as he gets back to work on the bow harp.

“These are instruments you won’t find anywhere, especially in such good condition. We are invited to conduct exhibitions all over the country. Our aim is to make people know about these instruments and preserve their history.”