Once buzzing with music, Sitar ‘gallis’ of Miraj go silent under COVID shadow

Repeated lockdowns have devastated the Indian classical instruments manufacturing and wholesale business in Maharashtra’s Sangli district that has been the source of livelihood for many for over a century-and-a-half

A musical instrument artisan at work in Miraj. File photo: Shirish Khare

In more normal times it would have been the joyous strains of the sitar, sarod and tanpura filling the air in the historic town of Miraj in Sangli district of western Maharashtra, close to the Karnataka border. After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the town is now shrouded only in a melancholy silence.

Repeated lockdowns have devastated the Indian classical instruments manufacturing and wholesale business that has been the source of livelihood for many here for over a century-and-a-half.

The demand for the instruments has fallen sharply, deliveries have been affected and local artisans in the town’s famous ‘Sitarmaker galli’ sit idle waiting for sales to revive. The situation is such that these, once much sought-after, artisans do not even have money to take care of their monthly household expenses.

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“The town and its markets used to be crowded with music lovers round the year. Now only the sirens of ambulances can be heard in our streets,” laments Amjad Majeed, a local businessman. According to him the making and selling of musical instruments in the Miraj, popularly known as the ‘Citadel of Classical Music’ and the ‘House of String Instruments’, has almost stopped since March this year.

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“Exporters associated with this business have lost millions of rupees in lost orders. The crisis has hit the livelihood of thousands of makers of musical instruments and brought production of these instruments to a standstill,” says Altaf Sitarmaker, director of the ‘Saraswati Tantu Instrumental Center’ in Miraj.

He says that even foreign artists in the music field are battling the COVID-19 pandemic for many months, so there is no demand for instruments and strings from abroad as well as within the country. At the same time, even the money for instruments already purchased have also not been paid for by many music artists.

The string instruments made in Miraj enjoy a great reputation globally and the cost of each instrument typically runs into many hundred thousand rupees. Despite being expensive, business was always good due to high demand from musicians and music bands in India with even Indian maestros like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan getting their equipment custom made from Miraj.

The past decades saw a boom in export of musical instruments, mostly to countries like US, Japan, China and all over Europe. Many local artisans are even invited overseas by foreign musicians to repair these instruments. As a result the artisans of Miraj were always well paid and the business itself is highly lucrative for manufacturers and traders.

The history of making musical instruments in Miraj goes back to the patronage provided for singers and musicians by the region’s ruling Patwardhan dynasty in the late 18th century. Miraj soon became a reputed centre for Hindustani classical music, and is believed to have influenced the development of the Kirana gharana, with many great exponents, like Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, settling down in the town. The town is also associated with the work of doyens of classical music like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Sawai Gandharva, and Hirabai.

The credit for innovating and producing instruments of high quality, however, goes to the Muslim Shikalgar community, who were originally  metalsmiths specialising in repairing arms and armour, but who later switched to making string instruments used in Indian classical music. Faridsaheb Sitarmaker, from the early part of the 19th century, is considered to be the founding father of the local musical instrument industry and many of his techniques are still used for making the handcrafted sitars and sarods of Miraj. The town’s artisans also make high quality harmoniums, tablas and an assortment of other percussion instruments.

Apart from a fall in demand Miraj’s musical instruments, the craftsmen have also been hampered by the curbs on the movement of goods across the country due to the COVID-induced lockdowns.

“Due to the limited operation of the railways at present, fibre and other materials required for making strings of musical instruments are also not accessible to artisans in Miraj,” says Ramesh Joshi, a businessman involved with the trade. At the same time, instruments already dispatched for export overseas have been stuck at airports for long periods and deliveries have been delayed.

“The number of instruments exported from Miraj used to be in the thousands. But, now a large quantity of musical instruments have accumulated in local warehouses,” says Joshi.

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The pandemic has also disrupted the market for musical instruments within Maharashtra itself. Since April last year, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, all kinds of music festivals, fairs and cultural programmes were cancelled. Maharashtra has been the worst-hit state in the country and has logged more than 5.92 million cases and over 114,000 deaths. Businesses across sectors have been badly affected over the last year both in urban and rural areas.

Unfortunately, the crisis is also forcing local artisans to look for other occupations to make a living. With the government lending little support to the sector, public agencies and even patrons of music say they may be left with little choice soon.

Courtesy: Covid Response Watch

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