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Symphonies from the soul

A small shop in Kolkata, India, holds on to its traditional profession of violin making even as the country’s musical landscape sways to the tune of changing times

Ranjit Mondal
Image Credit: Archisman Dinda
Ranjit Mondal, heir-apparent to the 135-year-old legacy of Kolkata’sNN Mondal & Sons, at work in the shop
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The high ceiling of NN Mondal & Sons seems to weigh down with years of history. The rows of teakwood violins infuse this shop in Kolkata with an old-world charm and ecstasy — rare in this ever-more mall-crazed city. Luther Biren Mondal, the fifth-generation owner of the shop, sits making violins on the ground floor of this building on Chitpur Road, now rechristened Rabindra Sarani after its most famous resident, Rabindranath Tagore. The shop, more than a century old, is a perfect pathway to the symphonic rhythm of Kolkata’s provincial life.

The road itself is an exhibition of so many things that have become an integral part of Bengal’s life and culture — the paan (betel leaves used as mouth fresheners), the adda (stray gossiping), the jatras (folk theatres) and the brass band playing “He is a jolly good fellow” to liven up Bengali wedding receptions. Nakhoda Mosque, the largest in town, built in 1926, is just a block away from the city’s only Armenian Church. But that’s another story.

Mondal’s is a 135-year-old family business that has been manufacturing and repairing violins and violas for the who’s who of the music world. As Mondal carefully inspects the neck of a damaged violin, a row of grimy framed photographs overhead show many of the shop’s famous patrons. Mondal treasures a certificate from violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin, whose Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu they repaired back in 1952, when he had come to the city for a recital and a part of the violin had come apart, maybe because of the city’s sultry weather. Virtuoso Vishnu Govind Jog, whose name is synonymous with the Indian genre of violin music, patronised the shop for the delicacy they imbued their instruments with. As Manoj Ghosh, a disciple of violinist Samir Seal, says, “Each and every piece they make is painstakingly created by hand and has the craftsmanship that a violin deserves.”

“We don’t make instruments that don’t deserve to be called one,” Mondal says. “This attitude is very important in India. Even though we are forced to offer different price segments, as Indian customers are price-sensitive, we act on the basic premise that even those instruments in the lowest price category can be played upon. If we sell an instrument with a bad tonal quality to a young student, he or she is bound to lose interest in learning, and may eventually turn out to be an inferior musician. This will hurt us more than anyone else.”

“Even today we don’t have a single advertisement, or even a website. The only way people know about us is when they see musicians playing our instruments and fall in love with its tonal quality, or when teachers recommends our shop to their student. That’s how we have survived all these years,” he adds.

The honey-coloured instruments that NN Mondal & Sons manufactures refuse to sway to changing times — the violin bowstrings are still made of horsehair, even though today it is not difficult to find synthetic, self-adjusting ones. “We still make the violin the way our forefathers did, and will continue to do so all our lives,” Mondal says emphatically. “In this business, satisfying the customer is more important than anything else, and the reverence and adulation we receive in return is more valuable than money.”

It is somehow comforting to hear that some things in life are enshrined. “Our customers are like family members, and many just drop by to spend time in the shop, which they also consider a learning experience as they get to interact with a lot of people with similar interests,” he adds. “Sometimes people gather in front of our shop when famous names from the industry come down to pay us a visit.”

NN Mondal & Sons also manufactures other musical instruments, such as the sitar, the sarod, the tabla, the tanpura, the harmonium — and the guitar. “Of late we have started to repair electric guitars and other such Western instruments, because this genre of music is becoming more and more popular in the country. I even travelled to Germany to learn the art of making a guitar,” Mondal says. “We also make the fiddle, or the five- or six-string violins that are popular in the south of our country, where they play Carnatic music.”

Though NN Mondal & Sons has proudly held on to its traditions, globalisation has also benefited the shop. “Business is growing these days, as we are able to import wood from the United Kingdom,” explains Sudam Mondal, Biren’s brother. “This wood is seasoned and is useful in making world-class products.”

“Today many international schools, which teach Western music, have opened up in India, and the number of orders for the violin, the viola and the cello has gone up. A number of foreign music schools, mostly from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, have also started buying instruments from us, as they find that the instruments we give them are of international quality and much cheaper than others,” says a visibly happy Biren Mondal.

“Ours is a family-run business where the chief craftsmen are my nephews, and the knowledge is passed on from generation to generation,” Sudam Mondal says. His brother believes this is the key to their success. “My devotion to the violin began when I was 11,” he says. “I came to this shop holding my father’s hand, and over the years, he taught me how to make this delicate instrument, and I have passed this knowledge on to my sons and nephews.”

“The techniques are such that we really do not want to share it with anybody outside the family,” Sudam Mondal adds. “Now it has almost become a ritual for male members of the family to be brought into the shop for the first time on their eleventh birthday.”

Even today, the Mondal family follows certain traditions, where the eldest son becomes the legal owner of the shop. However, they tell me, a girl child is not allowed to be part of the family business. “I really cannot justify the reasons for such a tradition, but this has been followed for years now. Maybe one day you will interview my granddaughter, who will have taken on the responsibility from my sons — and I will definitely be a happy man,” Biren Mondal says.

But with money pouring in, will the Mondals give up their profession as one of India’s finest violin makers? “Our work is such that the day we denounce all that we have learnt from our ancestors, we will cease to exist. Even today we do not believe in large-scale production. Each and every instrument is made only when an order is placed, and at times you need to wait for as long as four months for a violin, even if it costs as little as Rs3,000 [Dh197],” Sudam Mondal says.

But in this world of electronic gadgetry, will old symphony survive? Ranjit Mondal, heir-apparent to this 135-year-old legacy, gives me the answer while he adjusts the bridge on one of the shop’s many violins. “The melody that a violin creates in the human heart is irreplaceable by any other instrument, no matter how superior it claims to be,” he says.

 

Archisman Dinda is a writer based in Kolkata, India.

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