The musical city of Miraj

Updated - December 22, 2016 08:10 am IST

Published - December 22, 2016 12:55 am IST

It was a nostalgia trip with a musical difference. As a child, I often visited Miraj, south of Maharashtra, en route to my maternal family farm at Athani in north Karnataka. I last went there in 1983 as a 20-year-old. Barring the increased population, fancy cars and mobile phone shops, the place hasn’t changed much in 33 years. However, my mindset has, and Google helped me discover a few new things.

I had heard of Miraj’s thriving music culture much before Pune and Mumbai took over. Hindustani classical, Marathi natya sangeet, lavani and abhang all flourished there. Legendary Kirana gharana founder Ustad Abdul Karim Khan practised in the dargah, where his tomb now lies. Singers Hirabai Barodekar and Vinayakrao Patwardhan were born there, the great Vishnu Digambar Paluskar spent a few years learning under the iconic Balkrishnabuva Ichalkaranjikar, and Bal Gandharva made his debut at the Hans Prabha Theatre.

There’s so much musicality in that belt. Asha Bhosle was born in a hamlet near the twin town of Sangli. And years before, the great filmmaker V. Shantaram, known for producing some great film music, was born in Kolhapur, 50 km away. Pandharpur, known for its abhang roots, is 130 km away.

All that is history. What interested me the most was a visit to Sitarmaker Lane in the heart of the city. I recalled a conversation in which Pandit Ravi Shankar told me some of the best sitars were made in Miraj, besides Banaras and Kolkata.

There were some 25 or 30 shops on either side of the road, and more in the adjoining lanes. Sitars, tanpuras, harmoniums, tablas and an assortment of percussion instruments were in various stages of being handcrafted. One place also had a Pandharpuri veena, used in abhang music, and an ektara.

Having heard and admired these instruments, I was thrilled. But not being a trained musician, I regretted I couldn’t ask too many technical questions. Most shops were over 100 years old and the only reason I am not mentioning them is that I don’t want to miss out any.

The karigars patiently explained the process. The pumpkin gourd of the sitar and tanpura were sourced from farms in Pandharpur. They weren’t edible and were in fact poisonous. The strings mainly came from Mumbai, and the camel bone used for sitar bridges from various suppliers. Different polishes were used.

The sitars were made of tun wood. There could be Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Shahid Pervez styles of sitar, based on the technique practised. Likewise, there were larger male and smaller female tanpuras used in khayal, and Dagar-style tanpuras used in dhrupad.

There were surbahars (bass forms of sitar) with teak and rudra veena for dhrupad musicians. One shop had a line of elongated pots, which I discovered were the inner part of the tabla. Another had many models of tasha, a kettle drum used in weddings.

Some sent their instruments directly to music shops. Others have taken to selling their wares online. Though the sudden surge of electronic tanpuras affected business a couple of decades ago, there is a demand for regular tanpuras among main musicians. Today, the main challenge is to train younger people in the art of instrument making.

Yet, the overall mood is optimistic. As one shop owner said, “As long as people play or learn acoustic music instruments, we will continue to thrive.” The best thing is their passion and hospitality. That really is music to the ears, eyes and heart.

The author is a freelance music writer

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