Melody man of Kashmir3 min read . Updated: 04 Jan 2016, 02:04 PM IST
Meet the last member of a family still practising its 200-year-old occupation of crafting musical instruments
Sitting inside a dingy room on the second floor of his grandfather’s house that overlooks the river Jhelum in the old city of Srinagar, Ghulam Mohammad Zaz, 72, is busy giving final touches to a handcrafted Kashmiri santoor—an order for a client in New Delhi. On the centrepiece of the santoor, he has etched out an impression of Lord Ganesha, a special request from the client.
For 50 years, Zaz has been carving melodious traditional Kashmiri musical instruments. He builds about a dozen instruments—sitar, rabab, sarangi, santoor, tanpura, nai (flute), saaz-e-Kashmir—at his century-old family workshop in the old city of Srinagar. Some of the traditional instruments like tawoos and swarnai that he can make are not even played today. They all sound as good as they look.
Zaz comes from a long line of musical instrument makers. “Growing up, all I knew was about these instruments. Our family has been making these instruments for over 200 years," he says proudly.
He learnt the craft from his grandfather and father, who would take him along to the workshop as a little boy. However, it was only after the death of his grandfather that he joined the family trade. At 21, he built his first instrument, a sarangi, for one of their regular customers. It turned out that he was skilled at crafting instruments. “I was always magnetically pulled towards the craft. I became very efficient, maybe because it’s in our blood."
Zaz works all by himself in a small room on the first floor of the workshop that was set up by his great-grandfather, Khazer Mohammad. The building has never been renovated, and some of the tools he uses have been passed down generations. It takes him a little over a month to carve an instrument, though he prefers to take longer.
He uses mulberry wood to make his instruments. “It is very important to choose the right wood. It has to be seasoned for the right tonal quality," he explains. He picks up the wood from Delina village in Baramulla district in north Kashmir himself. Each block of wood costs around ₹ 3,000 and he requires two to make an instrument.
Zaz carves out each part of the instrument separately before putting them all together. Then he polishes and paints the piece. He has never used a ruler in his life. “I remember how my grandfather used to do it and I just repeat the process. All the designs are in my head and everything comes naturally to me. If I try to change anything, it’ll lose sur (melody)," he says.
Instruments made by Zaz fetch him anywhere between ₹ 5,000-20,000—the reason for this low price is that increasingly, orders come not through customers, but middlemen. Although he doesn’t play any of the instruments he crafts, his ability to make the finest traditional musical instruments has earned him fame around the world. “Sometimes, I would get an order from Germany or England," he says.
His greatest achievement, he says, was when his handcrafted santoors were played by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Pandit Bhajan Sopori, both virtuosos in the field. Their pictures hang on his workshop wall.
While Zaz is proud of his craft, he has decided not to pass on the knowledge. The dying demand for such traditional instruments among music lovers of the next generation and the hard labour involved have played a part in his decision. “These instruments are part of the Sufiyana heritage of the valley. But today, youngsters listen to a different kind of music. They are completely unaware of our traditional music, which has been part of our culture for centuries."
Zaz says it’s come to such a pass partly due to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley, and the change in attitude towards traditional Kashmiri music among people. He sees the departure of Kashmiri Pandits as a big loss not only for his business, but to Kashmir. “The Kashmiri Pandit community was more inclined towards this art. Most of my customers used to be Pandits. Even in my grandfather’s time it was the same."
“This is my first order in months," he says, steadily using a hammer on a santoor. “How I can ask someone to do this when I sometimes feel like quitting myself? The last 20 years have been really tough." For this piece, Zaz will be paid ₹ 20,000.
To put this in perspective, santoor instruments used by professionals usually cost upwards of ₹ 25,000, according to Ashish Bhargava, co-owner of Bhargava’s Musik Pvt. Ltd, one of Mumbai’s most famous dealers in musical instruments. It can go up to lakhs of rupees, depending on the material used.
“I’ll probably make something in the winter months and wait for it to sell," Zaz says.