If you’re versed in Indian classical music, then you are no stranger to a tanpura. It is a long-necked plucked string instrument, that originated in our beloved country thousands of years ago. It does not play rhythm or melody but rather sustains the melody of another instrument or singer by providing a continuous harmonic bordone or a dark drone-like tone. While Hindustani classical musicians favor the term tanpura, Carnatic musicians call it tambura. Today, we delve into the world of the Sitarmaker family of Miraj, who are regarded as the most prolific creators of tanpuras in the world. With their hands-on labor of love, they transform something quite inanimate into a living, breathing piece of art.
The transformation begins as the humble pumpkin shell undergoes a meticulous process of sanding, cutting, and adorning. Emerging from this metamorphosis is the tanpura, a fruit born out of tradition and legacy converging. Nestled in the heart of Miraj, a vibrant city with over 500,000 souls, Farooq Abdul Majid Sitarmaker’s family has been fashioning musical instruments like the tanpura and sitar for an astonishing span of seven generations. Miraj stands as a bastion for classical musicians and serves as the very birthplace of this ancient craft. Crafting just one tanpura is no small feat, requiring a minimum of three weeks to complete and bearing a price tag almost three times that of its electronic counterparts.
Farooq’s nephew, Imtiaz Abdul Majeed Sitarmaker, in a short documentary by Business Insider, divulges the secret behind a Miraj tanpura — the precious shell of a bottle gourd. This distinct variety is cultivated exclusively for instrument-making purposes, demanding a year of careful drying and hardening. Imtiaz meticulously soaks it in water for up to two days, diligently cleansing it inside and out. As the gourd absorbs the water, it transforms the once rigid shell into an elastic-like rubber. Imtiaz, having embarked upon this profession at the tender age of 13, now finds himself at 44, collaborating with seven family members to handcraft tanpuras and sitars. He skillfully carves the shell, delving a quarter of the way through, while ensuring no debris remains.
This partially carved shell serves as the tumba, the resonating body of the tanpura. Other elements, such as the soundboard and neck, comprise meticulously selected wood of exceptional quality. Seasoning the wood for a formidable three years is a critical step to fortify its strength. The crafting of the wood is a time-honored practice that demands patience and unwavering dedication. Sawing, carving, and filing, all performed painstakingly by hand, can consume up to 12 days. Over his 31-year tenure, the woodwork has evolved into Imtiaz's specialty.
Imtiaz now focuses on preparing the top of the tumba for the vital neck joint, aptly known as the gullu. This connection is pivotal, as it unites the tumba with the remainder of the instrument, ensuring flawless sound output. Imtiaz employs bamboo nails, crafted meticulously by his own hands, for their remarkable compatibility with the tumba; imparting a more finished look. These sticks of wood faithfully uphold the tumba's shape during its two-to-three-day drying period, basking in the sun's warmth. To fashion the tabli, or soundboard, Imtiaz traces the contours of the hollow tumba onto a wooden canvas, diligently shaping and carving it throughout the day.
Crafting the neck of the tanpura, known as the daand, requires a full day's labor. Imtiaz skillfully employs a block plane to meticulously hollow out a 40-inch piece of wood, carving out its soul. With consummate skill, he assembles the various parts of the tanpura, meticulously gluing them together with wood adhesive. Tender taps resonate through the air, as he ensures the instrument's sound reaches perfection. The instrument then passes into the expert hands of his uncle — Farooq.
Farooq, a seasoned designer with over four decades of experience, leads the family's creative endeavor, turning it into a harmonious group activity. Eight of his kinfolk unite to preserve the legacy, devoting hours to the intricate carving of peacocks, flowers, and vines on wood, interspersed with strips of white plastic. These dedicated efforts leave their hands calloused and weathered. While ivory was once employed in this artistry, a ban imposed by the Indian government in the late '80s necessitated an alternative approach. Farooq ingeniously blends coal dust with wood glue, concocting a striking black hue. The culmination arrives with the delicate act of polishing. A final layer of natural resin, the exquisite gum cobalt, adorns the instrument, followed by the scrupulous removal of any superfluous polish. Each tanpura can demand up to three weeks of painstaking craftsmanship. The family's techniques have remained virtually unaltered for close to two centuries.
Should anyone inquire about Farooq's occupation, a simple mention of his last name, Sitarmaker, would suffice. This sobriquet designates the esteemed lineage of instrument makers, tracing its roots to the individual credited with introducing the pumpkin tanpura. Legend whispers that the visionary Farid Sahib Sitarmaker first conceived the idea in 1850, inspired by Hindu monks who utilized pumpkin shells as water vessels. Others assert that the inspiration was born from observing African ships employing pumpkins as containers for transporting jars of honey. While other regions in India fashioned tanpuras from Jackwood, Farid discovered that the pumpkin bestows upon it a resonant vibration and an unparalleled sound. In the late 19th century, this instrument soared to eminence, captivating classical singers across India, simultaneously elevating Miraj as the revered home of these peerless handcrafted instruments.
With the advent of electronic tanpuras in 1979, the demand for their handmade counterparts dwindled, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the family's craft. Today, they sell merely half the number of instruments they once did a quarter of a century ago. Yet, each piece that emanates from Farooq's skilled hands is an embodiment of precision. He meticulously drills four holes atop the daand, where the pegs shall reside. The strings, crafted from Japanese steel which he buys from Mumbai, are painstakingly threaded through minute beads known as manka, facilitating fine-tuning. The bridge, composed of camel bone, lends unwavering support to the strings, while the cotton threads, lovingly referred to as javari, enrich the timbre of the instrument's voice.
The art of tuning a tanpura requires artisans to devote years to honing their skills. Seemingly trivial factors like room temperature and humidity have the power to sway the sound, demanding an attuned ear and an unwavering dedication to perfection. Farooq patiently sits for three hours, delicately adjusting the tension of the strings until their harmonies resonate flawlessly. The Sitarmaker family's unwavering commitment to producing high-quality handmade instruments has safeguarded their legacy, ensuring their instruments find their way into the hands of renowned musicians such as Subhadra Desai.
The revered singer has immersed herself in Hindustani classical music for an extensive duration, her journey commencing at the tender age of 13 when she acquired her first tanpura, lovingly fashioned by Farooq's family. Though digital alternatives may offer practicality, Subhadra maintains that they cannot replicate the authentic tonal nuances of these cherished instruments. She graces stages across India, captivating audiences with her melodic prowess, while also imparting her musical wisdom at various universities. Many of her students, too, remain loyal to the Miraj-crafted tanpuras, a testament to their enduring allure.
A fully adorned tanpura, bedecked in exquisite detail, can command a price of up to ₹33,000. The Sitarmaker family shares the fruits of their labor, ensuring a fair distribution of the profits among themselves. However, the spectre of modernity, with its conveniences and readily available alternatives, looms over their craft, threatening obsolescence. Yet, it is their profound love for music that fuels their indomitable spirit, allowing the family legacy to persist. In this age of convenience, one must ponder: are we sacrificing authenticity and true craftsmanship at the altar of modernity?
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