Miraj: From Swords to Strings



Finding Amir Hamza’s workshop involves navigating several byzantine bylanes that lead to the Sitarmaker gully, a few hundred meters from the main market yard of Miraj, a town famous for its remarkable craftsmanship of Indian string instruments, notably the tanpura.


Miraj is famous for its remarkable craftsmanship of Indian string instruments.

Located in the portico of his balconied stone mansion, suitably called the Bada Gharana, with its 50 odd inhabitants, the workshop is a hubbub of activity, strewn with unfinished sitars and tanpuras, an array of carving tools, several mounds of dry gourd, plastic sheets, nails and wood shavings.

The family’s children strut and sashay, unconcerned that a gentle shove could smash the precariously poised and assiduously crafted instruments into pieces.

Musical instruments on display at the workshop
Musical instruments on display at the workshop| Ameya Marathe  

“None of them will get into this line of business,” complains Hamza, as he arranges his gears, while simultaneously admonishing his grandchildren. “For the effort involved, the money is simply too miniscule to lure the new generation into doing what my family has been doing for centuries”.



Amir Hamza with the instruments he has crafted
Amir Hamza with the instruments he has crafted| Ameya Marathe  

Amir Hamza or Amir Hamza Abdul Aziz Sitarmaker as he introduces himself is a septuagenarian master craftsman, 5th generation descendent of Farid Saheb Sitarmaker, a man known to have pioneered the Miraj tanpura nearly 200 years ago. He is man with deep wrinkles, gleaming eyes and teeming age spots and exudes a somewhat other-worldly charm, seeming almost like a figure of history in the age of smart phones and touch devices.


Farid Saheb Sitarmaker pioneered the Miraj tanpura nearly 200 years ago

Today, with the burden of a 200 year old legacy on his shoulder, and a fast disappearing craft to protect, he stands at an intersection, in some sense, keeping with the natural disposition of his forefathers, as well as the town in which they made their name.

A Town at the Crossroads

Its unremarkable present day character does much to belie the glorious history of Miraj, a squalid, grubby town – on the southern tip of Maharashtra, bordering Karnataka’s northern districts – that has long stood at the crossroads of culture and geography and unimaginable as it may seem today, seen itself seeped in the tumults of history that placed it deep in the throes of the Mughal-Maratha wars.


Miraj has long stood at the crossroads of culture and geography

In the present day, much as it is known as a medical hub in Southern Maharashtra and a strategic junction on the central Indian railway network, Miraj sticks out principally as a name that echoes proudly in the world of Hindustani classical music. As home to Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan, pioneer of the greatest of gharanas, Kirana, and to craftsmen like Amir Hamza, who bear the torch of his grand musical legacy, producing the finest tanpuras, the accompanying plucked string instruments that provide the harmonic bourdon to a classical performance, giving it its soul.

For all its pangs, plans for a museum commemorating the history of this priceless art, and a sanction of capital to develop a musical instruments manufacturing cluster has newly given the town a shot in the arm.

Past Tense

To appreciate the history of the Miraj strings, one would need to revisit the history of the town itself, which is to go back at least a 1000 years, when it passed on from the Silaharas of Kolhapur, falling to the advent of the Yadavas, till it came under the reign of the Bahamanis some 130 years later.


Miraj has had a tumultuous past that can be traced back to almost 1000 years

After the collapse of the Bahamani empire, in whose sovereignty the Fort of Miraj (now in irreversible ruin) is said to have either been built or restored, the settlement was captured by the Sultans of Bijapur. In fact, Ali Adil Shah is said to have been kept under house arrest by his father here, while Shivaji, as he raged a battle against the Mughals, arrived in Miraj in person circa 1660, as it resisted the Maratha siege, even while there were a string of capitulations by other minor forts.

Miraj remained under the Mughals at least for another hundred years thereafter, when it was taken into custody by Chhatrapati Shahu, and then transferred to the Patwardhans by Madhavrao Peshwa, who used the fort here for the maintenance of his troops. The dynasty continued its rule on the town, as a principality under the British, until it was acceded to the Dominion of India in 1948.



Dargah of Khwaja Samsuddin Mira Saheb
Dargah of Khwaja Samsuddin Mira Saheb| Ameya Marathe  

The Sufi from Kasgar

As the vagaries of combat played out though, and kingdoms rose and fell to the march of powers, one structure that has stood its ground for the last 700 years in Miraj, and come to become an insignia of the secular syncretism that defines the place & its musical legacy, is the Dargah of Khwaja Samsuddin Mira Saheb, a great Sufi from Kasgar (in modern day China), who was instructed by Allah in a vision to go to Murtajabad (modern Miraj) and free its people from the clutches of a wicked magician and his wife, who was a witch.

The <i>Dargah </i>holds a special significance in local lore
The Dargah holds a special significance in local lore| Ameya Marathe  

The strange tale is magnificently Arabian Nightesque and fantastical even, involving demons, ghosts and evil spirits. But the healing touch of the Sufi, and the curing powers of the Dargah’s hallowed grounds where Mira Saheb is laid to rest, draws visitors of all religious affiliations in hoards several hundred years later.

The resting place of Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan
The resting place of Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan| Ameya Marathe  

In fact, it is here, under the expansive green canopy of a tamarind tree in the Dargah, that Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan’s plague was said to have been miraculously cured, and where 120 years later, an annual concert commemorating his legacy is held. It is also within these compounds, that he lies buried alongside his wife Banubai.



Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan’s grave
Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan’s grave| Ameya Marathe  

Most importantly though, the Dargah of Mira Saheb is where the genesis of the journey of Amir Hamza’s ancestors, the original tanpura makers, can be traced.

The Arrival of the Swordsmen

In 1850, five members of the Shikalgar family landed up in Miraj to carry out repair works on the Kalash or arch stone atop the Dargah’s dome. It included the Late Farid Saheb Sitarmaker, who is often ascribed as the pioneer of the Miraj strings. But in fact, he must share the renown with his brother Mohinuddin and three other members of the family, who were all originally a clan of swordsmen producing armory and weapons for Adil Shah in Bijapur.

The tradition of making musical instruments in Miraj started in 1850
The tradition of making musical instruments in Miraj started in 1850| Ameya Marathe  

But this was a period when the arrival of firearms and guns had begun spelling the demise of traditional artillery. So, when under a royal commission from the Patwardhans who were impressed with the work the Shikalgars had done on the kalash, the 5 brothers got jobs as repairmen of the king’s collection of musical instruments, they gladly took up the offer, and eventually began crafting the instruments themselves.


The first sitar makers of Miraj were originally a clan of swordsmen

With the dawn of the early 20th century, as maestros such as Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustaad Aladiya Khan and others, largely rooted in and around Maharashtra, revived classical music from a long period of decline, the market for the Miraj tanpura only flourished. Musicians no longer wanted to travel to far off places like Baneras, Luknow and Calcutta where the instrument was originally manufactured.

“In fact”, says Farooqbhai Sitarmaker, Amir Hamza’s son, and one of the 500 artisans in Miraj, who are all descendents of Farid Saheb, “it was only a matter of a few years before there was a reverse migration of musicians from the North, who travelled to Miraj to place an order for our coveted tanpura jodi.”

The Workshop

Back in present day, it takes nearly half an hour before Amir Hamza can pack up his riotous grandkids to show us how this much admired tanpura jodi is crafted. At least 3 craftsmen tirelessly work for 15 days at a stretch, each one a ‘specialist’ who performs only a specified task in the intricate sequence of steps that go into the making.

The <i>tanpuras </i>are carefully crafted by skilled craftsmen
The tanpuras are carefully crafted by skilled craftsmen| Ameya Marathe  

“It all begins with a non-edible, poisonous gourd, grown on the banks of the unrepressed Chandrabhaga, in towns such as Pandharpur and Begumpur” starts Hamza, with a dramatic flourish.

The <i>tanpuras</i> are made of non-edible, poisonous gourd
The tanpuras are made of non-edible, poisonous gourd| Ameya Marathe  

These gourds, weighing up to 50 kilos in their original state, and 5 feet in diameter are sown in the peak monsoon and may take 6 months to grow. Once ready, they are hollowed out and dried for a whole year, which reduces the weight to as little as a kilo.

Then begins the assemblage.

After soaking the dried gourd in water overnight, its lower fraction is cut at a point that is determined by the required size.

The parts of a <i>tanpura</i>
The parts of a tanpura| Ameya Marathe  

The front is then fitted with a tabli (a connecting piece of wood that is rounded to size), while to the side, a gala (or neck) that links to the wooden body is attached.

The body, made from a piece of red cedar (under 4 feet long for a woman’s tanpura, and over 4 feet long for the men’s variety), a light weight wood that is seasoned for 3 years, is then carved out from the inside and appended to the gala, with a wooden cover then fitted atop the body.

Using a bridge (made of plastic these days, but of deer ivory in the past) on either side of the instrument, and swan shaped fine tuners in the front, strings (4, 5 or rarely 6), of varying thickness are attached.


Tanpuras are made from non-edible, poisonous gourd, grown on the banks of Chandrabhaga, in towns such as Pandharpur and Begumpur

To finish, the tanpura receives a varnish in deep yellow, maroon or black shades, and is decorated with elegant, often elaborate motifs and designs.

However, it’s not over yet. Up next, is the dexterous process called Javari, where cotton threads are placed on the bridge to sharpen and refine the sound, and produce a rich, buzzing, rounded overtone.

Wooden pegs are then attached at the rear end of the shaft, and used to tune the strings.

“There are several variants of the tanpura, but across the board, the process used, is much the same,” says Hamza, who also makes sitars or the rarely played surbahar (popularized by Pt Ravi Shankar’s estranged wife Annapurna Devi), which is pitched in the lower octaves and also called the Bass Sitar.

Driven by a passion

The arduous process that goes into making these instruments is as much a science as it is an art. The rich, melodic, meditative resonance of a finely crafted tanpura can not only support and sustain the prowess of a performer, but give life and vibrancy to a recital.

The advent of new technology – the electronic variant – has however made the instrument dispensable, even though its metallic, synthetic echo can be no substitute for a performing artist of a certain caliber.


The process of making these instruments is as much a science as it is an art

The market for other stringed instruments meanwhile, is only about 20% of the total demand.

“The electronic variant has taken at least 50% of our market in the last 10 years,” mourns Farooq bhai, who once provided in large quantities to music academies, radio stations, and regular students who’d ask for a jodi, to do their riyaz. “Now our sale is largely to the performing artists”.

Sitarmakers are struggling to keep the craft alive
Sitarmakers are struggling to keep the craft alive| Ameya Marathe  

But rattling out marquee names doesn’t translate into large business. The town’s 500 craftsmen sell an average of 1000 jodis a year, at the rate of Rs 25,000 per Jodi. That’s a per capita earning of a measly Rs 50,000 per year, or less than Rs 5,000 per month.

To add to the pain, supply of raw material has become both erratic and expensive. This year, there was no gourd crop that fit the measurements required for the male tanpura.

“The drought led to this situation, these gourds require a lot of water” says Hamza, lapsing into a lecture on climate change, and how that is impacting his craft.


The industry has been hit by a number of challenges in the recent years

A dedicated cluster or a museum will streamline some of these problems he feels, prompting the state government to cast a sharper gaze on the trials of this ancient tradition.

But he doesn’t lose sleep over the undulations of business or the anxieties about the future. This is what drives him, this is his true passion. In his free time, he is busy making miniatures of India’s other stringed instruments, which he plans to give to the museum that’s on the anvil. It also includes his own invention – rather unimaginatively called a 4-in-1 – on which you one play the violin, sarangi, guitar and dilruba.

“I’ve made 14 miniatures so far,” he says, eagerly laying them out for us on a charpoy. “And my own instrument as well. Is that enough to get me a place on the Guinness Book of World Records?”


Author

Nikhil Inamdar is a multimedia journalist with a decade of experience across mediums such as online, magazine and television. He regularly contributes to leading digital publications and television news channels. His first book ‘Rokda: How Baniyas Do Business’ was brought out by Random House India in 2014.

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