Qayyum not only makes and plays several instruments, he is also using modern tools such as the Internet to market the craft. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Bengaluru: On the dusty streets of Shaniwarpeth in the small town of Miraj in southern Maharashtra, the usual din of life is founded on the classical tunes of sitar and tanpura.

Mixing with the sounds of traffic and street hagglers, the sound of tuning a sitar seems an oddity, but it is perfectly in place, because this is Sitarmaker Street.

Miraj is a small town in southern Maharashtra on the border with Karnataka, known for its rich musical traditions.

It is a town where Hindustani Classical, Marathi Natya Sangeet, Lavani and other traditions thrive.

It is where the legendary Kirana Gharana founder Ustad Abdul Karim Khan lived and now rests in the serene confines of the town’s famed dargah!

Legendary singers Hirabai Barodekar and Vinayakrao Patwardhan were also born in Miraj, but these days the town is not primarily known for its esteemed musicians and singers.

Over the last few decades, Miraj has been famous for the hands that shape the sounds more than the vocals that support them.

Town’s real claim

These days, the town’s real claim to fame comes from its exquisite craftsmanship of traditional Indian string instruments, particularly the sitar, veena and tanpura.

So much so that a Miraj sitar is now more sought after than those made in the traditional hubs of instrument making in India - Banaras and Kolkata.

As one walks along the Sitarmaker Street, seasoned craftsmen sitting in dilapidated workshops, working on string instruments is a common sight.

It is a sight that has been common for almost two centuries, as the local kings from the princely state of Miraj offered patronage to classical musicians as well as the instrument makers.

According to the local legends, the tradition of instrument making in Miraj began when the local monarch invited craftsmen to repair the brass steeple of a local shrine and the artisans then settled in the town and took to making string instruments.

Veteran artisan Shahabuddin has been shaping and adorning Indian string instruments for more than 50 years. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

However, more credible sources of history trace the tradition to the arrival of the town’s most famed singer, legendary founder of Kirana Gharana, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.

First artisan in town - Ustad Fareed Sahab

Once the master settled down in Miraj and received patronage from the king, a couple of artisans followed him and made the town their home.

Some of the 50-odd families that continue the tradition currently, trace their ancestry to the first artisan who arrived in town - Ustad Fareed Sahab.

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Pumpkin gourds hang from the ceiling a workshop in Miraj. Dried, hollowed pumpkin gourds are used to make the bask of classical string instruments. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Altaf Fareed Sahab is the seventh generation descendant of Ustad Fareed Sahab and he is among only a handful of artisans who can now make all traditional string instruments single-handedly.

“I learnt this craft by watching my father work and he learnt from his elders. We are maintaining this legendary chain that was started by our ancestor Fareed Sahab. Art is in our spirit, it is not something we acquired, it is a gift we inherited,” said Altaf, who works alone in his small workshop.

From carpentry and inlaying to attaching the strings and tuning, Altaf carries out every aspect of instrument making alone. He is also among the very few artisans in Miraj who can make a range of instruments.

Among his clients are national award-winning performers such as Ustad Moinuddin Khan.

Though, there is a proliferation of musical workshops in Miraj now, capitalising on the international fame the town has received for its craftsmanship, there seem to be more sellers on the street than makers.

One has to sift the grain from the chaff, to find veteran artisans like Shahabuddin.

The stem of a classical Indian string instrument is made of red cedar wood as it is light in weight and highly durable. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Six generations

The 63-year-old has been in this trade for 50 years, carrying forward the tradition from six generations.

“I started learning from my father Hussain Sahab when I was eight years old. Learning the craft and perfecting the art takes a lot of time. My father was a master artisan and my grandfather Nabi Sahab was an authority in the craft of making stringed instruments,” said Shahbuddin, who continues to see himself as a student of this craft.

Though he has mastered the art of making the complete instrument, the veteran artisan’s passion lies in carving and inlay work.

“Our craft, especially the inlay work, calls for a great eye and attention to details. It takes a month of painstaking work to craft a decent sitar or tanapura,” he added.

Still active despite his age, Shahabuddin is keen on passing on all his experience and expertise to his children, who are among a handful of youngsters in town who continue to practise this traditional craft.

Not only are his two sons mastering the craft, but they are also creating fusion instruments and use modern tools such as internet to popularise this craft and market it abroad.

“Despite the popularity, our craft is in decline and most youngsters from our artisan community are not interested in taking up their ancestral traditions. Because this job requires high skills, hard work and the returns are not much,” said Qayyum Shahabuddin, who runs an Instagram page to popularise the tradition.

Under these circumstances, Qayyum says he is happy to play a role in preserving and promoting their ancestral legacy.

Across the street from Qayyum’s base is a tiny house-cum-workshop where another father-son duo are busy working their magic on wood and celluloid.

Altaf Fareed Sahab, the direct descendant of Miraj’s first instrument maker Fareed Sahab at his ancestral workshop. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Practising their ancestral profession of carving intricate designs on various surfaces Asif, 39 and his 13-year-old son Aftab are working on a traditional Indian string instrument called Surbahar.

Belonging to a long line of legendary instrument makers, Asif is the son of Hussain Farid Sitarmaker. He began learning the art of bhelbutti (carving and inlaying) at the age of 10 just by imitating his father and other elders of his family. Like his father, Aftab has now picked up the craft on his own just by watching Asif.

“Aftab began trying his hand in the art of bhelbhutti last year when he got stuck at home during the lockdown. Within a few months he has mastered the intricacies of the tradition and now handles assignments independently. It’s as if he had been absorbing all the knowledge from me all these years,” wonders the proud father.

Though, this traditional craft and its classical tune may be loosing its appeal, but a few veterans and their children continue to shap the sound and amplify it.

With the development of electronic tanpura and other fusion instruments, the community has learnt to stay relevant, while keeping the traditions alive.

-- Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru based independent journalist. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates the diversity of India.