On a sultry May afternoon, a group of students makes its way silently through Pune’s Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, occasionally taking notes. There are ornaments, war weapons, sculptures and art — spread over eight galleries — that founder and collector Kelkar acquired during his travels. But it is the extraordinary collection of musical instruments that has these visitors enthralled.
Intach Pune chapter’s coordinator, Supriya Goturkar-Mahabaleshwarkar, is leading the students, giving them a sense of the range of instruments on show. Tat or string instruments like the the tanpura or sitar; ghan or percussion instruments such as cymbals or ghungru; sushir , wind instruments such as flutes or shehenai, andavanaddha or membrane-based percussion like the tabla or drums.
The first one to catch my eye is a peculiar 28-stringed taus, shaped like a peacock, and played with a bow. Taus, which means peacock in Persian, can be traced back to Punjab, some 250 years ago, where it accompanied devotional music or kirtans.
A little ahead is another string instrument, this one shaped like a crocodile. I learn that the magara yazh, once popularly played in Tamil Nadu, figures in Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural : ‘Judge a person by his deeds: the straight arrow is destructive and yazh, the bent musical bow, is sweet,’ he writes. In fact, the instrument’s significance resonates as far as Sri Lanka, where legend has it a king, delighted by the way a blind man called Panan played the yazh, gifted him a piece of land. In fact, Jaffna is also called Yazhpanam after the man and his music.
Take a bow
Starting 1920, Kelkar began collecting pieces of artefacts and instruments from the remotest villages. By 1960, his collection had over 15,000 pieces: terracotta pots, lamps, even nut crackers.
The mayur veena, a wooden veena in the form of a peacock and embellished with silver, launched Kelkar’s journey as a collector, says Sudhanva Ranade, museum director. Of the 500 instruments originally kept here, only 200 remain because of the lack of space.
But these are fascinating enough — a veena made of ostrich egg, another shaped like a tortoise, a panchamukha vadyam, a metal drum with the five faces of Shiva once used in the temples of South India, and more.
Taking pride of place is a sarinda, a string instrument made of wood and shaped somewhat like a guitar. It once belonged to the noted Marathi writer and Hindustani classical musician, the late Pu.La. Deshpande, who played this instrument in the song ‘Itech Taka Tambu’ in the 1953 Marathi classic Gulacha Ganpati . Deshpande, who knew of Kelkar’s passion, gifted him the sarinda. I notice that the wooden handle, which holds around 30 strings, is ornate with floral patterns.
The sarinda is said to have originated from a fiddle called dhodro banam used by the Santal tribal community in central, north-western and eastern India.
The gallery tells the stories of instruments, and the musicians too. It showcases instruments used by 22 famous artists: Pandit Bal Gandharva’s tambori, Ustad Kadarbaksha Khan’s sarangi, a tabla that belonged to Ustad Alla Rakha, and a pakhawaj owned by Pandit Ramshankar Das.
Acquiring these is not always easy — they are precious family heirlooms. “It was difficult for Kelkar to convince people and assure them that the musical instruments would be safe in his museum. There are a lot of emotions attached to them,” says Ranade.
The Kirana gharana is represented by three tanpuras that belong to Gangubai Hangal, Sureshbabu Mane and Sawai Gandharva. The museum is now trying to acquire one from Bhimsen Joshi to complete the collection.
Many instruments needed much attention, explains Ranade. “Some came with a broken string or needed polishing.” As the museum works on restoring the instruments, Ranade says much still remains to be done.
“The entry fee is ₹50 and we receive a footfall of three lakh visitors a year, which isn’t enough to do more. Touch screens, interactive displays and books on each instrument would help visitors learn more.” Ranade hopes for government funding, but getting money for museums is a daunting task. As Ranade says, “The museum sector is not yet on any priority list.”
Intach Pune has helped significantly, teaming up with the museum not only for these heritage sessions, but also with plans for a catalogue and an interpretation booklet for visitors. “We also want to record and document the sounds of some of these rare instruments,” says Mahabaleshwarkar.
The writer is as happy writing stories as she is crunching numbers.