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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Pulling strings

The residents of Dhulasimla and Dadpur in Howrah’s Shyampur Block I, have never heard of Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar or Nikhil Banerjee. They get to hear some music only during the annual programme of the local club or during Mansa Puja or jatra pala. For most of the villagers here, marginal farmers or sharecroppers who hardly manage two square meals a day, learning music is a far cry. Yet, as one walks through the brick-laden lanes of the villages, melodious strains of a sitar or sarod, a dilruba or tanpura float in the air. These villages are home to the makers of some of the finest stringed musical instruments that are supplied to the seats of classical music in the country like Lucknow and Delhi.

Except for some Calcutta-based middlemen, very few know of Dhulasimla or Dadpur. This is because the middlemen, who buy the instruments from the villagers and sell them in their workshops in Lalbazar, suppress the fact that they source them from the villages in Howrah. They sell these instruments to the showrooms in Calcutta claiming that they bring them from Lucknow or Delhi to hike up prices.

Such exploitation by middlemen coupled with the absence of skilled workers spell doom for the stringed instrument workshops in Dhulasimla and Dadpur, which are fighting a grim battle for survival. “We just about manage to earn a slim profit by selling instruments to the middlemen. We cannot pay our workers well. So most of them have stopped working for us. Finding a skilled worker is really tough these days,” said Piyuskanti Mandal, the owner of P. K. Mandal & Sons, a workshop in Dhulasimla that makes tanpuras, sitars, dilrubas and other musical instruments.

Besides, as with all other things, the price of materials is skyrocketing every six months. The price of tun (red cedar) wood and dry bottle gourd shells needed for making the body of the sitar, tanpura, sarod or dilruba have spiralled in the last two years leading to higher production costs. Bottle gourds are mostly bought from Pospur in Hooghly bordering Howrah. Most of the farmers who cultivated these large gourds for stringed instruments have stopped doing so in the last three years after failing to make a decent sum. “The farmers now are into growing more profitable crops. The few who cultivate gourds are demanding higher prices. But the workshop owners are not willing to pay such prices,” said Chandranath Chakraborty, a gourd supplier.

Tun or red cedar wood has to be brought from Nimtala in Calcutta. Red cedar trees are grown in the Terai region of the Himalayas and in Haryana. Wood is brought from these regions to the godowns in Nimtala. Apart from the hike in price of wood, the cost of transporting it from Calcutta is killing the workshop owners. They believe that if the stringed instrument industry had thrived in Dhulasimla and Dadpur, tun wood suppliers would have set up their godowns near their workshops thus cutting down on transportation costs.

Besides, taking the finished goods to the middlemen in Calcutta is also very difficult from the remote villages of Howrah. “These instruments are very delicate. The part made of gourd is very fragile. So we have to take them to Bagnan station in trolleyvans and then put them on trains. But we have to be very careful while carrying them,” said Mandal. He alleged that Government Railway Police (GRP) and Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel extort money from them at the platform.

In spite of all these troubles, the instrument makers believe that they can still run the workshops profitably if they have direct access to the market. “If we can sell directly to the showrooms, we will make a good profit. The middlemen exploit us ruthlessly,” said the owner of a workshop who did not want to be identified.

The middlemen stick their own labels on the instruments and do not allow the labels of the workshops in Dhulasimla and Dadpur so that the Calcutta-based showrooms have no access to them.

The expertise of making stringed instruments was brought to these villages by one Tarapada Halder, a household name in Dhulasimla and Dadpur. He learnt the trade from a instrument workshop in Lucknow nearly 25 years back. He then set up a workshop at his home and taught his fellow villagers the art.

“Tarapada Halder was a great stringed instrument maker. Those who run workshops today are students of Halder,” said Sisir, Tarapada’s nephew. Unfortunately, Halder’s younger son Dilip stopped making the instruments a couple of years back after failing to make a decent living.