For instrumentalists, life is unimaginable without their instruments but equally so without the makers of those instruments. And yet, autobiographies and biographies of musicians rarely go into the details of interactions between instrumentalists and instrument makers. While we may read about the instrumentalists’ musical proclivities and their perceptions of sound, tone, technique, and style that evolved in the process of building instruments, there is virtually no record of the thoughts of instrument makers on either these or other extra-musical aspects.
There have been academic dissertations focussing on the work of instrument-makers and the art and craft of instrument-making. Barring exceptions such as T.M. Krishna’s book Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers (2020), much more needs to be done to document the work of instrument makers and understand their musical universe.
As a tabla player, I have interacted with several tabla-makers over the decades. But the most enduring and enriching of these dialogues was the one I had with Vishnu Sutar, an eminent tabla maker who passed away on July 10, 2022, at the age of 80.
It was in the early 1970s that I first met Vishnuji, a couple of years after I had begun my lessons in tabla as a boy of six. Back then, my engagement with Hindustani music was restricted to my guru Pandit Nikhil Ghosh’s home and his music school in Mumbai. At that age, I was unable to understand the proficiency and perfection that Vishnuji brought to his work although I had begun playing tablas made by him. However, as the years passed, I was able to appreciate the finer details of all that went into music-making and this included a greater awareness of the tabla-making process. I will forever be indebted to Vishnuji for acquainting me with the latter.
Vishnuji hailed from a family of hereditary carpenters at Sanbur in the Patan taluka of Maharashtra. Born in 1942, he grew up in the tumultuous times of India’s freedom movement although his life, like that of others in his social and economic strata, was full of twists and turns that were far removed from the hurly-burly of political life and nation-building.
Years of apprenticeship
At the age of a year and half, Vishnuji moved to Mumbai along with his mother Krishnabai and elder brother Dattatreya. He began to work as an apprentice in tabla shops at the age of 11 or 12 and learnt the art and craft of tabla-making solely by observing his seniors.
Recalling his days as an apprentice, he would mention how poorly he was paid and yet how he had tried his best to understand and internalise the complex procedure of tabla-making. Significantly, there is no standardisation of the tabla-making process till date. While there are several steps that are universally accepted, different tabla-makers have their preferred methods. It is in this situation that Vishnuji absorbed all that he could while observing his seniors, honed his skills, and went on to develop his own distinct style of tabla-making.
As an apprentice, Vishnuji repaired the tablas of leading percussionists such as Shamsuddin Khan, Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, Amir Hussein Khan, Ghulam Rasool Khan and Nikhil Ghosh. Later, he established himself as an independent craftsman and also repaired tablas for music institutions such as Vallabh Sangeet Vidyalaya and Sangeet Mahabharati. He also supplied tablas to leading instrument dealers Haribhau Vishwanath, D.S. Ramsingh and Bhargava Musik among others, and to artistes working for Hindi cinema such as music directors Laxmikant and Pyarelal, singers Mohammad Rafi and Mahendra Kapoor, and percussionist Cawas Lord.
A widely acclaimed craftsman in Mumbai, Vishnuji’s expertise in the art of tabla-making was much sought after by performers overseas. While the mainstay of his work was tabla-making, he also crafted other percussion instruments like the pakhawaj, the dholki, the dhol, and the dholak.
He was willing to experiment with new material and was open to accepting fresh challenges. I still remember the time when my mother asked if he could make me a glass dagga or bayan, the bass drum of the tabla. Vishnuji mulled over the matter for some days and then brought home a transparent dagga made entirely of glass. I could not really use it in performance since it was so fragile, but Vishnuji had kept up his part of the deal.
Over the years, Vishnuji evolved a unique style of making tablas. The dayan or treble drum of the tabla usually has a limited pitch range within which it can be tuned but Vishnuji’s dayans had a heightened resonance and a bright rounded tone.
Tuned to every pitch
Once, Vishnuji showed me a tabla that he had tuned to every pitch across the octave. He could accomplish this feat because he was particular about the choice of goatskin that he used for the pudi or the skin-top that covered the dayan and he applied the layers of syahi or the black spot in the centre of the skin-top with a high degree of precision to create the appropriate pitch for each tabla.
He went to great lengths to procure good raw materials, and over an extended period, determined the exact shape and dimensions for the tabla pair. It was the same for all the other instruments that he crafted. His sense of perfection could be seen in the meticulousness with which he levelled the thickness of the skin-top and the braided buffalo hide that was used to fasten the skin-top to the body of the instrument.
Similarly, the uppermost layer of skin was carefully cut without any sophisticated tools that would have otherwise enabled measuring it to a circular shape. Thus, Vishnuji was not just concerned about creating instruments that produced good sound, but was also painstaking in his efforts at crafting attractive instruments.
Worth the price
He was aware that the instruments made by him were much sought-after and mentioned this with great pride. Although many performers felt that he charged inordinately hefty amounts for his instruments, he was determined to demand what he felt he deserved. This often led to loss of work, but he refused to compromise on his fees.
Instruments crafted by him will face the challenges of passing time, and many of his tablas have remained intact over decades across the globe. While his decades of service were not recognised by either the Sangeet Natak Akademi or the government, he was conferred the Manohar Muley Instrument Makers’ Award in Mumbai for 1998.
Vishnuji moved to settle in the pilgrimage town of Alandi in Maharashtra some years ago and that is where he passed away.
“Vishnuji was conferred the Manohar Muley Instrument Makers’ Award in 1998.”
One can only hope that the contributions of instrument makers like Vishnu Sutar are documented and recognised appropriately by public and private institutions in the years to come. This will help the music-loving audience to better appreciate the perspectives of instrument makers, the methodologies they follow to keep pace with changing musical needs, how they often act as catalysts in the music-making process, and their collaborations with musicians.
Musicians, too, need to acknowledge that the involvement of instrument makers is integral to any changes they may visualise in instruments. It is imperative that this partnership is acknowledged rather than musicians laying sole proprietorial claim to innovations in instruments, unless of course, they have crafted the instruments themselves. Above all, instrument makers should be in a position to demand the price that they believe is commensurate with their efforts. If such changes do not happen on an immediate basis, we will not have another generation of such brilliant instrument makers.
Aneesh Pradhan is a Mumbai-based tabla player, composer, and author.