Pandit Ravi Shankar would probably have had to stop playing the sitar six years before he passed away had Sanjay Sharma not specially crafted a studio sitar for the legend.
In 2005, Pandit Ravi Shankar suffered a bout of pneumonia, which weakened his left shoulder to such an extent that that it cramped the upward movement of his hand. He faced the prospect of a permanent break. Sanjay, a disciple of the sitar maestro, stepped in with a solution for his guruji.
“I got a call from Chinamma (Panditji’s wife, Sukanaya Shankar) informing me of the problem. I went to guruji’s place with a solution in the form of a studio sitar,” recalls Sanjay, who has also crafted several other new generation instruments like the Z-tar and the E-rod and fusion instruments like ‘Lalita Veena’ and ‘Suroleen’ (a fusion instrument that combines the mandolin and the sarod).
Music is divine, it is said. But the connection that the soul makes with the world of musical sound would be impossible without a quality instrument serving as a link. So, when the younger generation is in thrall of the music that is proffered by Channel V and Coke Studio, Sanjay designs fusion instruments and upgrades classical music instruments with the help of modern technology.
“The idea behind redesigning and adding new technology to our age-old traditional instruments is to keep our musical culture alive and involve and attract the younger exponents. Even if they are interested in fusion music, they should have a supportive instrument for the purpose,” explains Sanjay, sitting in his Bhagat Singh Marg shop, Rikhi Ram’s Music, named after his grandfather, a man who started his journey as an instrument maker in 1920 in Lahore.
Sanjay’s father, Pandit Bishan Dass, continued the family tradition of instrument making and emerged as a trendsetter in the matter of innovation in this field. In 1998, he was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Academy award for his contribution in the field of musical instrument making by the then President KR Narayanan. Though it was a certainly token of appreciation from the government, Sanjay still feels that classical instrument makers do not get their due recognition.
“My father faced great difficulty in find a bride for himself. Since the family spent most of the time in a factory working with wood and other materials, people thought that we were carpenters! Thank God, times have changed and I did not face this kind of problem when I was looking for my life partner,” laughs the father of two teenagers.
Sanjay began as a tabla player – he had a Master’s degree in Music with specialization in the instrument – and toured many cities as a performer. He also learnt sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar, so it was an easy choice for him to continue as a musician. However, when his father grew old it was his responsibility to continue the family legacy. His guruji encouraged him to take over the reins of the family business.
Since Sanjay and his father were always associated with music maestros in India and abroad, he did not face much competition in terms of the quality of his instruments. The only competitor they had was Hiren Roy, an expert craftsman in Kolkata. But the latter’s work suffered due to lack of efficient craftsmen who could continue the legacy of those glory days. Many shops have closed down or couldn’t measure up to the professional quality required. So after Roy’s death in 1942, they went into sharp decline.
The problem in our country is there are many music colleges but no institutions or professional infrastructure for instrument making. And it creates an imbalance in quality of music instruments. They are either exceptionally good as those produced by Rikhi Ram’s – these instruments can be played through an entire lifetime with proper maintenance – or of very poor quality and do not last more than five years. Creating and maintaining instruments of a high professional quality, skilled craftsmen are needed.
“To be a good instrument maker one has to have in-depth knowledge of music, understanding of the science of sound, a grasp over the nature of physics and modern technology and, last but not least, a creative mind to apply all these elements effectively,” he explains.
He adds: “All my specially designed instruments like the ‘E-rod’, ‘Z-tar’ or ‘Suroleen’ came as solutions to specific technical problems that musicians were facing in their bid to experiment with sound. For instance, E-rod is an electronic sarod, which will help with its sound outputs for fusion music concerts where drums, guitars and other instruments play with it. Since it is an acoustic instrument, it was difficult to get the sound across. E-rod is a solution to that.”
“The trick I used for electronic sitar was an in-built microphone inside the instrument which helps to play for a fusion platform as the sound will amplify by the mic. It was a specially designed sitar for Anoushka Shankar when she was working on her fusion album ‘Travelers’. I applied this in-built mic theory for tabla as well,” he adds.
His skill is beyond doubt. But making these quality musical products couldn’t be cheap. How does he address the issue of costs? With no help forthcoming from either the government or other sponsors, he fights a lonely battle. Sanjay has an NGO, Sanjay Rikhi Ram Vadya Parampara, which works for the cause.
Indian instruments like the sitar, sarod and santoor are far more delicate than western instruments like the violin and guitar. So they take time to make. A sitar takes two months to be made. The seasoning of the wood takes at least 25 years and it is a costly process. The older the wood the more long-lasting is the instrument. And the older the wood, the more expensive is the instrument.
The problem the instrument making industry is facing is due to the lack of knowledge that new comers have. The difference between a good and bad instrument is not the look of it but the sound quality and the longevity. An instrument is a ‘lifetime investment’ in Sanjay’s vision. Therefore, when a student or musician buys an instrument, he/she should have the knowledge to define the quality of the instrument by its sound, wood features, strings and shape.
Sanjay asks: “Why don’t today’s aspiring musicians have technical knowledge of the instruments they play? Though they are good with their music, how will they give full rein to their musical imagination without proper knowledge and understanding of the instrument? Are they receiving proper guidance from their teachers and music schools from the primary level?”
Excessive use of technology is the undoing. A musician uses an electronic tanpura and does not learn how to manually tune the instrument. That, says Sanjay, is a worry because the younger generation of musicians is abandoning the traditional methods of learning Indian classical music. The knowledge gap is bound to eventually have an adverse effect on the quality of the music that is produced.
Sanjay believes that the time has come to redesign the country’s music learning system. It is necessary to understand that it isn’t just a vocalist or an instrumentalist who is a musician. The instrument maker, too, should be regarded as a musician, he argues. It could be a viable career option for creatively inclined youngsters if it is accorded its due place in the musical pecking order.
“Instrument making should be made a part of higher studies in music from the very outset,” says Sanjay. “Otherwise, the day is not so far when our children will go abroad to study Indian classical music as NRIs are taking far greater interest in learning our music the traditional way.”.