Musicians want airlines to secure their instruments

Shattered notes: Shubhendra Rao’s sitar broke into multiple pieces when it was transported by air.

Shattered notes: Shubhendra Rao’s sitar broke into multiple pieces when it was transported by air.  


After receiving broken sitar at the end of flight, maestro launches petition for accountability

As a crowd of over 200 lovers of Indian classical music gathered in a temple in New York, preparing to spend their evening in the shimmering melody of a sitar, musician Shubhendra Rao greeted them and announced that he had not brought his sitar along. The collective gasp of the crowd filled the auditorium.

The sitarist, who is among the leading soloists in India and a protégé of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, discovered after a 15-hour Air India flight from New Delhi on November 1 that his sitar had been irretrievably damaged. Its stem had cracked, and the ‘tabli’, or the soundboard atop the pear-shaped base, had broken into three pieces.

But perform he did, on a sitar borrowed from a disciple though it was “like walking on an artificial limb”. He says he has had too many strokes of bad luck lately — three incidents of “vandalism” during air travel in the past three consecutive years, which even forced him to cancel a concert in France in 2017.

Pandit Shubhendra Rao in Kozhikode.

Pandit Shubhendra Rao in Kozhikode.   | Photo Credit: S. Ramesh Kurup


Mr. Rao has restarted a petition he launched in 2017 on In it, he urges that airlines be made accountable for damage to a musical instrument. He also demands that making passengers waive the liability of airlines for fragile items by signing a “limited release” document be done away with.

He describes the special relationship every artiste has with his or her musical instrument, which is also their voice. “To every artiste, his or her instrument is like a child he or she loves and nurtures every day.” Mr. Rao says his sitar is always by his side, whether he has a broken arm or on a honeymoon.

The petition has received more than 10,600 signatures and many world-renowned Indian musicians have joined the cause. Each has his or her stories of agony and suspense every air travel brings with it.

Grammy winner and Padma Bhushan awardee Vishwa Mohan Bhatt calls the mohan veena his ‘aatma’ (soul). “Glued to my aeroplane window anxiously tracking my instrument, I once saw it falling from the top of a 4-5-foot-high tractor trolley carrying baggage to the plane. My heart sank.”

Ustad Baha’ud’din Mohiuddin Dagar, who plays the rudra veena, once arrived at a concert in Nottingham and opened the protective case to realise that the ‘tumba’ was cracked through and through. “It was like being bereaved. How then can you expect a musician to perform? But there are commitments to the audience, the organisers and the sponsors.”

These musical instruments are irreplaceable. Take Mr. Rao’s sitar, for instance. It is made with a pumpkin that was more than 20 years old and a piece of aged wood seasoned for 70 years. It took two years to make it, and four to five years for its owner to play it before it could produce the trademark sound the sitarist is known for. The maker, Rikhi Ram, says that while the soundboard can be replaced with a new one, it will not be able to produce the same quality of sound.

The instrument is packed in a tough fibreglass case and secured by a thick vinyl padded cover and, therefore, for the sitar to break without deliberate harm is impossible, says cellist and Mr. Rao’s wife, Saskia Rao de Haas. It can only be an “act of stupidity or malice”. Her own horror stories from air travel forced her to make a travelling cello, a smaller version of the Indian cello she is known for.

For Ustad Shujaat Khan, whose musical pedigree extends seven generations and is the son of Ustad Vilayat Khan, the mishandling of musical instruments is a sign of apathy and disrespect to artistes. “Everyone is ready to bend rules to accommodate the super rich, politicians, Bollywood stars; but a classical musician, for some reason, seems to come very low in the scheme of importance,” he tells The Hindu in a telephone interview.

The problem faced by Indian artistes is a global phenomenon and a nightmare for many musicians across the world. Artistes quoted in the story have encountered mishandling by both Indian and international carriers.

But travelling is particularly stressful for Indian musicians because of the size of their instruments. For example, a sitar is 5 feet long, while a guitar is 3 feet long. Moreover, the U.S. regulator, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — on whose rules the regulators of different countries, including India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, model their guidelines — has made provisions, keeping in mind western instruments such as violins, guitars and cellos. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, 2012, which came into effect in March 2015, requires U.S. airlines to provide three options for carriage of instruments, depending on the size: smaller instruments to be carried as cabin-baggage and stowed in an overhead bin or below a seat; purchasing of an extra seat for the instrument which has to be properly secured to the seat; and checked-in luggage. Though allowing passengers to book an extra seat for their instrument is “encouraged”, it is not mandatory. Artistes recall that while two-three decades ago, they were allowed to buy an extra seat for fragile instruments owing to safety concerns, this provision has been withdrawn over the years.

Air India says it has checked CCTV footage at the Delhi and New York airports and has not found any evidence of pilferage or mishandling of Mr. Rao’s instrument by its staff.

At Indian airports, the CISF is in charge of hand baggage and the responsibility of handling checked-in luggage lies with either airlines or airports, according to a senior CISF officer. As in Mr. Rao’s case, a Delhi airport source says, bulky items are carried by the passenger to an OOG (out of gauge) counter after signing the limited release document. From there, an airline staff member takes them to a special conveyor belt in a tray for X-ray screening by the CISF. If the metal detector alarm goes off, a passenger is called and the instrument has to be opened in his presence. If not, the musical instrument is loaded along with other baggage on a trolley and carried to an aircraft. All that the petition seeks is that the buck stop with airlines instead of being passed on to different agencies.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 4:44:58 PM |

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