Strings of purity

A view of the shop where tanpuras are made. Photo: lakshmi Sreeram.  

How did it ever strike someone to stick a piece of wood on a dried pumpkin, build this bridge and that and twist some strings on it, to make this wonderfully resonant thing one calls the tanpura?

I was looking at dried pumpkins of various sizes hanging from the ceiling of the many instrument shops that line the Sitarmaker Street in Miraj.

“They are brought from Pandharpur, and no, they are not of the edible variety,” explained Balasaheb Mirajkar, master tanpura/sitar craftsman. “They are used as floats while crossing rivers; and then to make tanpuras and sitars. It is not just the gourd that is critical in the making of a good tanpura. The seasoning of the wood, the shape of the wood, its thickness, the location of the bridge and above all the extremely nuanced understanding of the jawari work all go into its making. And this is learnt only when one is actually a musician himself. I have learned the sitar and so have my sons. My father had accompanied Hirabai Badodekar on the harmonium. Musical training is the basic foundation for an expert tanpura maker. There are about 500 craftsmen in Miraj and all are musicians.”

Remembering the founder

As much as Miraj is associated with the tanpura, it is also associated with Ustad Abdul Karim Khan saheb, the founder of the Kirana gharana of Khayal. It was after listening to his record, playing in a shop, that Bhimsen Joshi decided at the age of 11 to run away from home to learn music. Music can become as obsessive as that.

The town did not forget its association with Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. At a crucial crossing, a location at which in 99 per cent of urban India one would find a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, there is a bust of this great musician. A magical sight for a music buff. Rarely do municipalities thus honour a musician.

The town comes to life each year during the three-day music festival coinciding with the Urs of Hazrat Pir Khwaja Shamana Mirasaheb, a great sufi saint of the Chishti tradition. The Chishti tradition of Sufism is noted for embracing music as a means of evoking the divine presence. The festival is also dedicated to the memory of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.

The festival is a continuation of a tradition started by Abdul Karim Khan saheb. A faithful follower of the saint, he would sit under a tamarind tree near the dargah of the saint on the day after the urs and sing. His descendents and the instrument makers of Miraj continue the tradition by organising a music festival annually. Balasaheb Mirajkar is the main organiser and he regretted the fact that while musicians of the Kairana gharana do come each year to perform, no one wanted to take an active part in organising it.

All great musicians of the Kairana gharana have sung at this festival such as Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Roshanara Begum, Hirabai Badodekar and Suresh Bhau Mane. “We have a tradition of ending the three-night musical offering with a concert by a Kairana gharana vocalist. This year it was Ganapati Bhat,” said Mirajkar.

Abdul Karim Khan saheb’s music was uncluttered and deeply moving. He could tug at hearts with his plaintive and sharply etched swaras, and the power of his music lay mostly in that. Sheer mastery over swaras, what Bhimsen Joshi once spoke of as ‘swara siddhi.’ Veena Dhanam, who was hard to please, had great regard for his music. He was probably the first Hindustani musician to seriously study the Carnatic system and the first to be invited to sing all over the south. He even recorded a Tyagaraja kriti.

Khan saheb had a hand in the evolution and popularisation of the Miraj tanpura. Mirajkar said, “Kairana gharana’s mainstay is sur ki baarikiyan – subtle nuances of tones. And the role of the tanpura is brought into sharp focus here. Khan saheb would sit with my forefathers to get the tonal quality and resonance that he needed for his music. In this way we evolved our tanpura making techniques and knowledge and today, Miraj tanpura is noted for its unique tonal quality and resonance.”

Air of sanctity

As one entered the dargah premises an air of sanctity was palpable even amidst the usual chaos of people jostling, babies howling and children running. Singing on the stage erected right in front of the dargah was an experience. People from neighbouring towns and villages had come to sit for three successive nights to listen to Khayal and Hindustani instrumental music.

A family from Belgaum said, “We have no other opportunity to listen to live classical music and so this is something we look forward to.” A young boy was recording the music on his cassette recorder, the music bug having claimed another victim. Old and young men and women sat listening, never applauding for that would violate the spirit of the musical offering.

Miraj is a small town but its name resounds in the world of Indian classical music because of its exquisite tanpura and the dedication of its craftsmen.

This article has been corrected for a tyographical error

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 12:48:16 PM |

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