A sitar player takes her seat on the soft white mattress laid on a platform placed centre stage. With fingers lightly strumming the strings, the soft chords set up the calm atmosphere for the recital to follow. The star of the show, the sitar, shines in all its magnificence, polished to a beauty after a long journey from a pumpkin grown in the damp soils of Miraj, a city in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, to the stage. While modern technology has made it easier to create musical instruments today, one can only imagine the efforts Faridsaheb Mirajkar would have taken in the 1850s as he engaged with sadhus in forests, trading brass pots in exchange for the perfect pumpkins, to make his sitars.
Following his lead and staying true to his legacy, the Mirajkar family continues to manufacture musical instruments even today. Sajid Mirajkar, the seventh generation of the family handles the business currently.
Based in Pune’s Budhwar Peth, Yusuf Mirajkar’s Musical was established in 1931 by Omarsaheb Mirajkar, Sajid’s grandfather. The family has another shop, I S Mirajkar’s Musical Shop, managed by Sajid’s uncle in Pune. Their tradition of manufacturing instruments goes back to the 1850s, after the family migrated from Bijapur to Miraj near Sangli.
From weaponry to music
An artisan family once involved in making weaponry, the Mirajkars in the 1850s were summoned by the Patwardhan nobles of Sangli, who were custodians of the Miraj fort, to perfect the dome of Khaja Shamna Mira’s tomb. Disappointed with all the previous artisans, Faridsaheb Mirajkar’s impeccable skills impressed Patwardhan. “The Patwardhan family was impressed with our craftsmanship and gave us a land grant in Miraj so we can set up residence there,” says Sajid.
As conflicts in the region started to reduce, the demand for weapons also saw a gradual decline, which in turn affected Faridsaheb Mirajkar’s earnings. The Patwardhans were appreciators of art and regularly invited artists from across India for performances. The instruments used often required some basic repair work and Faridsaheb, being a regular attendee in all these recitals, quickly picked up on the basics. Slowly, with Patwardhan’s encouragement, Faridsaheb also started to manufacture instruments that were, until then, dispatched to Calcutta for any basic servicing, taking almost six months for the instruments to be returned.
From Miraj to Pune
“Prabhat Studios was the reason why we first stepped in Pune and V Shantaram (filmmaker and producer) bought us our first shop in Budhwar Peth,” says Sajid. Omarsaheb Mirajkar set up business in Kolhapur and supplied instruments to Prabhat Studios for the background music that accompanied the silent films then. As the movies witnessed a technological revolution in India and slowly began incorporating sound in the video itself, live background music became redundant. But Shantaram still felt the need to retain Omarsaheb’s services, foreseeing a future requirement in his movies. And as Prabhat Studios shifted to Pune, he bought them a shop space.
Ever since, the Mirajkar shop has been a favourite destination of the city’s maestros. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi shared a familial bond with Sajid’s father, Yusuf. “I still remember the initial days of Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav (an acclaimed musical festival in Pune that thousands attend every year). The fest had close to no financial backing. We, as kids, were deputed to collect carpets from households to seat the audience,” Sajid reminisces.
Classical musician Kishori Amonkar, sitar maestro Shahid Parvez Khan and sitarist Ustad Usman Khan are among the few who used to frequent the shop. “There was a common notion among musicians earlier that only the Calcutta sitars are the trusted ones. Ustad Usman Khan designed a sitar with my father and broke this notion as these sitars became world famous,” he says.
Making instruments, then and now
Making instruments requires a deep understanding of music and melody. “When we first started making instruments, getting the perfect pumpkin in Miraj to make the ‘tambora’ was very difficult,” says Sajid. Trading steel pitchers with sadhus for the perfect pumpkins that grew in the forest was a trick of the trade then.
The techniques have become advanced but the guaranteed finesse in musical instruments still stays true. “You require a primary understanding of music (swaradnyan — ‘swara’ or musical notations and ‘dnyan’ or knowledge) to manufacture these instruments. Right from choosing the right quality of wood, to perfecting the mixture for ink applied to the tabla, tuning is the most important while manufacturing instruments,” Sajid says.
After the introduction of harmonium in India around the late 18th century, the process of tuning instruments has become simpler with chord notations. “Earlier a person used to physically sit and sing before a person who was adjusting the tambora to set the tone right and get the correct ‘Saa’ (the first notation in Indian classical music) or natural ‘swara’,” says Sajid.
Warkaris and Mirajkar
“We have been making instruments for the warkaris for as long as I can remember. We manufacture the veena (string instrument), pakhawaj (percussion), ektara (one-string instrument) and harmonium for the warkaris. We keep at least 20 pieces of each instrument ready 2 months prior to when the ‘waari’ (pilgrimage) reaches Pune,” says Sajid.
This work has never been for profit, he adds. “Warkaris have walked into the shop at 2 am to get instruments repaired and have never been sent back disappointed. For us, the religion is not important, what is (important) is the ultimate goal to reach parameshwar (supreme being). As the warkaris are chanting the Lord’s name, assisting them with whatever necessary, makes me feel like I have a small contribution in this great effort of uniting with the Lord,” he says.