This Chennai musician is reinventing ancient instruments from different countries

Tharun Seka redesigning a traditional Tamil yazh at his workshop in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: Naveen Sekar by special arrangement

Its likeness is said to have been found on seals from the Harappan civilisation. Today, few musicians play the yazh, an ancient, stringed, harp-like traditional Tamil instrument — its presence has largely been relegated to museums, research pieces and rare private collections. Yet, 23-year-old Tharun Sekar has amassed enough know-how to craft one in his own workshop and state that he is open to more orders.

“The research alone took two whole months and making it took another two or three,” says Tharun over a phone call from his Chennai home, to which he is currently restricted because of physical distancing rules under the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. But Tharun isn’t complaining, for his home in Kodambakkam is also where his open, green little studio-workshop is. “We would normally use this space to rehearse,” says Tharun, who forms one half of the two-man, Tamil folk-pop outfit Othasevuru, “But this is also the space where I began making instruments.” So far, he has made a variety of Western music instruments; it is with the yazh that he unveils his outfit Uru, aimed at creating lesser-known traditional instruments from around the world. “In Uru, I try to redesign folk instruments, making them more easy to play and maintain. I want to bring up the playability of these instruments to global standards, so that everyone can learn them.

Tharun first began honing this instrument-making skills on his own, in 2014, back when he was 17 years old. His maiden project was a Hawaiian lap steel guitar, before moving on to other acoustic and electric variants mainly from specifications and instructions found online. “Then in 2017, I began to be mentored by Erisa Neogy, from Auroville. I would show him the four or five instruments I had made by then, and he would give me pointers on how to improve it,” he says.

From there, it was a journey of another two years before Tharun got his first order for the yazh. “It came from a college professor in Madurai. He was in touch with us because he likes Othasevuru’s music, and we met him when we last visited Madurai. That was when this conversation happened.”

It was, he recalls, a more difficult project than his previous ones, largely because the information he needed wasn’t readily available. “There are some mentions and descriptions in ancient texts and traditional literature, but they are also quite vague.” There are a number of other challenges too, such as sourcing the right kind of wood for each instrument, or a proper substitute in case the right wood isn’t available.

Now that the yazh is complete, Tharun has moved on to the cajón. “And after the lockdown, I plan to start working on a Mongolian folk instrument called morin khuur. I want to redesign it,” he says. This, in a way, would be similar to the slight redesigns he made to his yazh as well, the idea being to make it more familiar and simple. “In the yazh, for instance, I had adapted some characteristics of the lyre.” He believes this might encourage more musicians to pick up these lesser-known intruments: music, after all, should be universal.

To get in touch with Tharun, follow on Instagram.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 8:41:02 AM |

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