Death of A Musical Note

Over a rusted nail in the mud wall above the windowsill hangs a century-old peacock shaped musical instrument called tawoos. The dried-up texture of its surface plays the notes of loss. While the flowing waters of Jhelum could be seen rejuvenating the city outside, inside this workshop, centuries-old art is breathing its last.

Worn out tools are scattered all around the place. Ghulam Mohammad Zaz sits in one corner with a Santoor in his hand. “It is making noise,” he says, as he again peeps through his undersized glasses on his nose to concentrate on his job. Listening to every string and adjusting each key, Zaz may find out the problem in minutes. Or it may take a day. Whatever the time span, he is the only expert who can set the Santoor right. If he can listen to the beats, he can speak to the music too.  Zaz is the only living santoor maker in the valley.

This rundown shop hidden inside a cluster of houses, however, is not only the last memory of an art-form at the verge of extinction, it’s a reminder of a history too. Seventeen decades back, Ghulam Mohammad Zaz’s ancestor, a man whose name no one remembers, set up a workshop on the banks of Jhelum in Zaina Kadal where musical instruments would be made. His son, Khazir Mohammad learnt the art from him and in turn taught his son Gul Ju. Through successive generations, the art passed to Rahmaan Ju, in whose time the business flourished and made the family famous all over mainland India. Leading musicians would instruments made in this workshop. Rehmaan Ju’s only son, Abdul Ahad took over the business after his father’s death. Now the time had come for passing the inherited business to the seventh successive generation. While Ahad’s elder son Abdul Majeed preferred a government job, his younger son Ghulam Mohammad Zaz was trained by his father.

Today Zaz is 65 and the only skilled person of his craft left in Kashmir. He works in the same room, with the same worn out tools that his ancestors used. Unlike his forefathers, however, he cannot pass it to anyone. No one has come to him for learning. And he has no son.
“I have three daughters and my brother has no children. There is no one who can take over after me. I am the only santoor making person in Kashmir,” asserts Zaz. “And I think I would be the last.”

Zaz makes Kashmiri Sitar, Indian Sitar, Rabab, Saarangi, Santoor and Tanpura. Many instruments Zaz knows how to manufacture are not even played today. “There are many other instruments. I don’t want to mention. Nobody will understand. I have buried this art in my heart. It will be buried with me,” says Zaz, while adjusting the strings of a santoor.

Above his head, several framed pictures of leading Indian musicians are handing on the wall. “This is Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma playing my santoor. This one is Bhajan Sopori,” says Zaz. He is proud of it. His silence tells.

While the photos tell the story of his fame, deep inside Zaz is a pained man. He is happy with the name this craft has given him, yet he has complaints to make, “Businesses cannot run on mere acclamations. Applauds do not satisfy belly,” says Zaz.

It takes at least one month to make an instrument. Mulberry wood is mostly used but the timber should be seasoned to give fine tonal quality. Another type of wood called vireen was earlier used, but now it is not available. The strings are made of different material for different instruments. In instrument Saazi Kashmir, strings are made of silk. In Santoor and Saitaar, they are made of steel. And for Rabab, processed animal intestines especially of sheep are used.

At first, different parts of the instrument are carved out of wood using ordinary tools. After properly shaped, they are then fitted together. Then comes time of ornamentation in which polishing and painting is done. Earlier instruments would be decorated by fixing flowers on them. The flowers would be made of ivory and the horns of some wild animals. With a ban on hunting, either substitutes made of plastic are used or paint is applied for the same. Instrument the once ready, Zaz sells it for a price anywhere between five thousand to twenty thousand rupees.

Zaz claims that expertise is not all that goes into making of a musical instrument. “One needs to have a pure soul,” the lone expert claims. But he contends that purity of soul no longer exists. “Those who make instruments are equally ignorant like those who play.”

A mere look at the wood tells Zaz about the quality of tones it can produce, though he does not know how to play instruments. “Just by looking at a tree, I can make out which part of it can give me tonal instrument.  It doesn’t require any principle but a vision,” Says Zaz. “My mind is my measuring scale,” he murmurs as if revealing a secret.

Zaz believes that conflict in Kashmir is the most important reasons for the death of his art. “The migration of Kashmiri Pandits was a major set back. They were more ingrained in culture than Muslims. Then the reduction of the tourist number was yet another jolt,” Zaz claims
The only people Zaz caters to are either foreign customers or tourists.

Zaz doesn’t want to comment on the role of government, “They should know their job as I know mine. Who am I to teach them? Let them attain bigger names, my elders have done that job for me,” he says

When asked what message he wants to give, Zaz says, “Nothing. I will do my job and leave.”


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