New to Indian Music, General

From pumpkin to sitar

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

Move over, Cinderella. The humble pumpkin has a higher purpose to fill.

As a small team working to push the boundaries of Indian art, Darbar recognises that many musical milestones are only made possible while standing on the shoulders of giants—people essential to the industry who often have hidden histories and aren’t acknowledged in the public eye. Music Behind the Scenes spotlights the less visible, but no less instrumental, people and processes that help Indian Classical Music thrive.

The sitar is one of the most prominently recognised instruments in Indian Classical Music, and stands as a symbol for the exoticised, reverberating sound of the East. Conjuring up images of celestial delicacy, few sounds evoke the entire canon of Indian Classical Music—and, by extension, Indian tradition and culture, as the sitar. It consists of a resonating chamber made from a gourd (often ornately and exquisitely carved) attached to a large, hollow neck fitted with frets.

And yet, it is so much more than a string instrument. Almost aspirational in its appeal, it’s the unofficial sound of the nation, as synonymous with India as bagpipes are with Scotland. Scientists have struggled to encapsulate the complexity of the instrument’s total acoustic environment using mathematical modelling alone. Past masters have constantly re-contextualised the landscape of the sitar, adding their decadently harmonic interpretations to the tradition of the instrument. Listen closely, though, and you will hear undertones of the nuanced history it represents.

But where does the sitar come from? Who are the makers, the artisans—dare we say, magicians—turning gourds into godly musical instruments and dedicating their lives to the craft?

Nestled deep in the heart of the Sangli District in southern Maharashtra, India, Miraj is a famed centre known for its finesse in instrument making, particularly sitars. Altaf Mulla and Zakir Mulla are fourth generation sitar-makers in Miraj. Their work begins a hundred kilometers from their hometown, in the fields of Pandharpur and Begampur, where pumpkins are cultivated especially for use in sitar making. They make the yearly trek to attain this crucial raw material. The entire process to complete one sitar can take 25 to 30 full working days, and each step shines with specificity, refinement and idiosyncrasies, as the sitar-maker’s labour is one of both dexterity and painstaking precision as well as unbridled love. Read on to learn about the dramatic transformation from humble pumpkin to regal sitar.

Interview with Zakir Mulla of GS Musicals, manufacturers of Indian instruments since 1904.

Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed, restructured and edited for clarity.

Could you tell us how you started making sitars?

Started? I feel we were destined for this. My brother Altaf Mulla and I are fourth generation sitar makers. Our great-grandfather, the founder of GS Musicals, was Siraj Yusuf Mulla, our grandfather, Ghudulal Siraj Mulla, continued the legacy, and my father, Yousuf Mulla, taught us. Today, we make many instruments including the tanpura, dilruba, esraj, taus, santoor, swarmandal and sitar—sitars are our specialty.

I’m not sure how to articulate it, because it’s like we unknowingly internalised it. It becomes an instinct almost. My father, bless his soul, educated us, and I tried adjusting to employment opportunities ‘out there’ for a while—I was equipped with the skills to do so—but this way of life was so deeply entrenched within me that ‘dil hi nehi laga’ (my heart wasn’t in it). The type of satisfaction the artisan gets when making a high quality sitar...the self-actualisation we conventional employment can rival that. Our village, Miraj, is humble and quaint, but it’s one of the hubs of sitar-making.

Why is that?

Because of the tradition this place is steeped in. New places can’t recreate it or duplicate our centuries of tradition. Making sitars is our way of life; we often start going to the shop with the elders when we’re five or six, so we learn the tools of the trade early. These technicalities would take one or two years to learn, but we imbibe them—almost through osmosis—before we even start. Other localities could potentially become efficient or popular, but I don’t think a new centre could emerge as a hub simply because of our history and the way it’s part of our genetic makeup, almost. Our soil is infused with hundreds of years of collective experience, and we also have a strong community led by innovation, passion and continuous discussion and improvement.

What does innovation look like within your community?

I’d say there are about 150-200 people involved in sitar-making in Miraj. Of course, the quality of the work or individual speciality varies, but we’re all united by this one passion. It’s not a board room or an official meeting where we gather to innovate, but a mindset. We sit with a cup of chai in the evening and have healthy discussions—this wood is posing a certain problem, or we’re facing this idiosyncratic demand from a client. When you’re all cut from the same cloth, bound by the same thread, innovation is inevitable.

But my brother and I took it a step further to try to create bespoke sitars to our customers. I had this customer...he was about 4 foot 9 inches, and I knew that the standard size wouldn’t suit him. That got us thinking about how much the physique matters, and what a pivotal difference it makes to have a customised instrument. That’s what gives pleasure in the hand of the musician. Girls might naturally have daintier hands, and for some of the sitars we export to European countries, the hand span might be broader than a typical Indian physique. You need the comfort of your own size, so your height and build all come into play. My brother and I try to have a consultation meeting with the artist before we even start making the sitar to understand who they are and their temperament. At the very least, we ask for a picture of the musician.

So tell us about the journey from pumpkin to sitar.

The process starts with the pumpkin, or the gourd. These aren’t the typical pumpkins you’re used to seeing and eating, though. In fact, this type of gourd is so bitter that even animals don’t consume it. We make a yearly visit, usually between March and May, to the special fields in Pandharpur to get our pumpkins. Preparation actually starts before our visit, as the farmer carefully cultivates the crops according to our requirements. You see, there might be 15-20 pumpkins on one vine, but overcrowding doesn’t let the pumpkin become big enough. Farmers retain only three or four pumpkins per vine till maturity. The pumpkins the farmers cultivate are between 40-60 inches, so we group them into categories and classify them according by circumference. 40 to 44 inch pumpkins are used for the sitar, with the 47 to 48 range reserved for the female taanpura, 50 to 51 for the surbahar and 54 to 60 inch pumpkins for the gents taanpura. We suspend the pumpkins after sorting them, and leave them for four to five months to dry. We never put them on the floor. And subconsciously, even within our sitar category, we’re sorting out the most superiorly shaped pumpkin. After all, being able to join the neck to a gourd at the right angle is much easier and makes for the most unadulterated tone.

Right, what happens next?

Then we source the wood. In the Karnataka stretch of Sakleshpur, amid coffee and tea gardens, there are Tunna Cedara trees. We’ve found that this is less susceptible to bacterial infection Tunna Cedara is a resilient wood—and has a superior ability to project sound. That’s what we use for the galaa or the neck. Joining the neck to the gourd is a veritable art. Our forefathers used naturally sourced Falcon resin adhesive, or a heavily whipped mixture of flour and water, as an adhesive. But these days we have powerful glue in the market. It’s a commonly held belief that you need to get the joining right the first time. The more you adjust and redo it, the more compromised the sound will be. That’s the crucial step, and we can start decorating it next.

How is the sitar decorated?

We use the French polishing technique, dipping cloth in spirit and shellac and hand-polishing the instrument, which can take three to four days. But the decoration and carving takes place before that. Usually, we adorn our sitars with grapes, roses or traditional paisley motifs. Is there any symbolism behind these designs? Not that I know of, but they nestle nicely on the shape of the gourd. There’s wood carving, which requires great patience and dexterity, and the pen carving on plastic or cellulite. Then, the final fitting of the pegs can take place, and we start checking the tone.

How long does the complete process take?

25 to 30 full working days, working for eight hours a day. But it’s our family work, and we have six to seven people all trained perfectly in their part of the process, so we’ve all specialised and divided our labour. Everyone’s an expert at their own thing. Sometimes we can anticipate orders or running items in advance and partially prepare the pieces for assembly, but we always do the final fitting after receiving the order. It’s rare to find a fully prepared sitar at our shop, unless it’s a student version for a lower cost. But that’s not an artist’s sitar.

Can you describe what constitutes a good sitar?

It’s in the details. Right down to the selection of the pumpkin or the grains of the wood. A good sitar isn’t made on a whim. It’s beckoned by the musician—he or she summons it. A discerning musician is concerned with the quality of sur, tone quality, depth of resonance, the friction on frets and overall stability in the sitar. How many notes are on one fret? When he or she plays one note, will it dissipate quickly or will it reverberate deep within the hollow of the gourd? How is the resonance? A superiorly made sitar will allow the notes to resonate and circle within the gourd and linger before they fade out gracefully.

Some musicians want a more robust tone, whereas others want more resonance. It’s a matter of diagnostics really. We aren’t musicians in the sense that we could play an entire raag, but this work teaches us the sur and we can tell when a note sounds true. Fitting the frets and checking the tone is a finicky process, but almost like trying to unravel a thrilling mystery.

What’s a typical day like for you and your team?

We’re literally family, but when we’re working, we’re joined by this higher purpose. I always try to make sure that we eat and pray together. When one of us is feeling low or has had a hard day at home, we don’t do major things like joining or checking the resonance that day. If you’re not in the right head space, the joint will appear ‘masculine’, or the tone won’t sit right, or the sur won’t sing as beautifully. The more you adjust an instrument, the harder it becomes to redeem its essence and sound. But if everything connects, it’s like God’s gift to the world.

What is something music connoisseurs and beginners alike might not recognise as an essential part of the sitar making process?

You can’t have a cookie-cutter, one size fits all sitar. It’s not plastic or something dead. These are grains. Gourds. Wood from every part of the tree. Jaan hai is me’ (There’s life in all of these things). It’s so important to match the life of the raw materials to their musical destiny. And that’s not a formulaic calculation. It’s learnt from experience, from what I absorbed while watching my father and grandfather or stowed away in the recesses of my mind while they spoke to me as a child.

For example, the annual growth rings inside a tree trunk bend of their own volition, and the distance between them varies. Have you ever wondered why? It’s because each of those rings is testimony to phases in the tree’s life. When there’s a drought, those grains are thinner...they veer in different directions and they’re sparse. But when the tree gets ample rainfall, those rings are a reflection of optimal conditions. They’re closer together then. In fifty years of the tree’s life, you’re not going to get the same annual rainfall pattern or mean temperature, so the patterns inside will also vary. And those, in turn, affect the sound and tone. It’s the same with the soil. You need to respect where the disparate parts came from to appreciate the harmonious whole. It’s a process with a million nuances, but it doesn’t end when the sitar is ready.

Really, how so? When do you feel like you can see the final fruit of your labour?

Even when we’ve fully prepared the sitar, it’s only half done. Then, it’s the artist’s job to play it, and to play it well. That’s when it becomes seasoned and perfect. All those things, the decoration, polish, sound, fitting, pumpkin selection and wood grains all burst forth with this impetus and fulfil their calling.

It feels terrible when we pour our soul into a beautiful instrument and it ends up on a mantle or in a museum. It’s when it’s played that we get satisfaction. When the instrument comes back after a year or so for maintenance like Jawari work, that’s when we know how it’s doing.

What changes are you witnessing?

Well, social media makes it easier for us to share things; we can get clients, conduct consultations and see our instruments being played in concert. In my grandfather’s time, things were a lot harder. There wasn’t a concept of a payment advance, and people often wrote letters commissioning sitars. It made it harder to receive payment on time and lags were common. Compared to that epoch, these are small conveniences we have today. But e-commerce also makes the process commercialised, and the customisation option isn’t always available.

Do you hope your children will continue this legacy?

I have two sons, and Altaf bhai has a son and a daughter. We’re both teaching them about sitar making, but also educating them in school. The scope for sitar making is shrinking. And it’s up to them if they want to choose this path less taken or opt for mainstream employment. Ultimately, they have to want it, if they don’t have that passion, they’ll produce ‘ghatiya’ (slang for terrible and lousy) work.

How do you feel about advances in the electric sitar?

With the advent of Indo fusion, I suppose it’s inevitable. Classical music is also trying to reimagine itself in the domain of fusion. But the pumpkin takes sound inside the depths of its once-living soul. You don’t get that with a fully electric sitar; the bass takes over. There’s always the inherent danger that with an electronic tanpura, you might learn the wrong notes if the voltage fluctuates. I don’t support fully electric instruments, because with some natural elements, there’s still life in it, you know?

What keeps you doing this work?

Making a sitar is like raising a child. When the musician says, “Wah! Sitar bariya banaya hai!” (Wow! You’ve made a lovely sitar!), then it’s just the most exhilarating feeling. Conscientious parents are always on the lookout for any potential character flaws. We’re like that with our sitars also. There are times when the wood might let us down, or the joint may be compromised. But there are also times when the sitar is adjacent to divinity. The artisans and enthusiasts give us great respect and ask for our good blessings before taking the sitar home. We get so much innate satisfaction. That’s why we work tirelessly to do this work for them.

Would you like to say anything else?

Creating art like this is only possible when your stomach is full. We don’t wish for a lot, we live hand to mouth but we can educate our children and feed our families, That’s enough. But the financial repercussions of Covid have left things strained, and I often worry about the last ten to 20 years of life. It’s that last stretch that I’m concerned about. There’s no security.

Music will always stay alive. But it’s important to keep the makers alive.


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