The tanpura as a prop?

The use of musical instruments as decorative props in the Mumbai international airport says a lot about our attitude towards instrumentalists


A pakhawaj and sitar lying unattended at the Mumbai airport’s Terminal 2.
A pakhawaj and sitar lying unattended at the Mumbai airport’s Terminal 2.

We are living in times of seemingly extraordinary sensitivity, when even the most innocent of remarks or statements can hurt the sentiments of people and blow up into larger than life controversies. And yet, not too many people seemed hurt, perturbed or even the least bit agitated at the sight of a pakhawaj and a sitar lying bereft and unattended on the cold, bare floor of the GVK Lounge at Terminal 2 of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport when I was there on 21 September.

The instruments, placed in front of an opulent pichhvai painting, formed part of the decor of one section of the lounge, positioned without a care for the fact that passers-by could possibly topple the sitar, albeit accidentally, with the slightest nudge, or even brush past the pakhawaj with their footwear as they hurried towards their boarding gates. In another part of the lounge, a tanpura was placed like a sentinel near a figure of Ravana, the demon king, but this time fortunately it was placed on a chumbal, or the padded ring used for tablas. In between the figure of Ravana and the tanpura were two colourfully draped low stools, with pre-tied turban headgear on each.

A tanpura was placed like a sentinel near a figure of Ravana at Terminal 2, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai
A tanpura was placed like a sentinel near a figure of Ravana at Terminal 2, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai

The choice of artefacts, items and instruments in this seemingly random installation is, frankly, inexplicable.

The GVK Jaya He museum at the Mumbai airport is undoubtedly a space full of some of the most beautiful installations and artworks in a public space, and as a frequent traveller I find there is always more to see and savour each time I go past one or the other section of the airport. Which is possibly why these new additions seemed out of place.

Musical instruments are held sacred by musicians who play them, and are worshipped by students on special occasions like Saraswati puja. They also have associations with deities in Hindu mythology and the mridangam in particular is often referred to as a divine instrument or deva vadyam. Muslim musicians often tie a sacred thread obtained from a shrine on their instruments as a tabarruk, or blessing. But apart from the religious associations, leaving a beautiful handcrafted instrument carelessly on the floor, for people to kick or shove past, reflects a total lack of respect and complete apathy both for the instrument and for music, as well as for Indian culture and traditions.

I confess to experiencing some initial hesitation in mentioning this unfortunate use of instruments as ethnic decor in the airport lounge in Music Matters, largely out of fear that some hapless decorator could come under fire, if at all anyone pays heed to the point that has been raised. But then an even more horrific image hit me—that of the sitar and tanpura pegs being used to hang trinkets and other items from! That was enough for me to decide that it had to be mentioned, in the hope that someone at the mammoth, constantly buzzing Mumbai airport might perhaps take note and reposition the instruments in a more respectful way.

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

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