Sangli (Maharashtra): 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 have been the source of livelihood for many here for over a century and a half.
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 bear the burden of household expenses every month.
“The town and its markets used to be crowded with music lovers around the year. Now there only the siren of ambulances is 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.
“Exporters associated with this business have lost millions of rupees in lost orders. The crisis has hit the livelihood of thousands of musical instrument artisans and brought the production of musical 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 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 ran into many hundred thousand rupees. Despite being expensive, business was always good due to high demand from musicians and music bands in India with Indian maestros like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan getting their equipment custom-made from Miraj.
In recent decades, the town also had booming exports of its instruments to musicians the 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 was 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 eighteenth 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 famous singers and music teachers like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Sawai Gandharva, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande 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 nineteenth 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 instrument makers have also been hampered by impact of the lockdowns on movement of goods around the country.
“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 delayed.
“The number of instruments exported from Miraj used to be in the thousands. But, now a large quantities of musical instruments are accumulating in local warehouses” says Joshi.
The pandemic has also disrupted the market for musical instruments within Maharashtra itself too. Since April last year, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, all kinds of music festivals, fairs and cultural programs have almost stopped. Maharashtra has been the worst hit state in India by both the first and second waves of Covid-19 with more than 5.92 million cases and ove 114,000 deaths. Businesses across sectors have been badly affected over the last year in both the urban and rural areas.
Unfortunately the crisis is also forcing local artisans to look for other occupations to make a living. With little support to this sector coming from the state government, public agencies and even patrons of music they may be left with little choice soon.
Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Corona pandemic.