Hemen Sen at his shop in Burrabazar. Picture by Pabitra Das
Indian classical musicians are always in the limelight. Yet little is written about the men without whom concerts of instrumental music would be unthinkable. Once the Kanailal brothers used to thrive in Chitpur and Vilayet Khan got his bespoke black sitar from their shop. But they folded up their business years ago.
Two craftsmen, who excelled in the art of making sarods and sitars and other less known musical instruments, namely Hemen Sen and Hiren Roy, operated from their shops on a stretch of Rashbehari Avenue between Deshapriya Park and Triangular Park.
Hiren Roy died a few years ago, and his talented sons have kept his name alive. But at 85, the more business-like Hemen Sen is still going strong, his day beginning around nine every morning and continuing till seven in the evening.
The walls of the tiny shop-cum-workshop where he started working are lined with photographs of Alauddin Khan and his son, Ali Akbar Khan, and that of Amjad Ali Khan and his father, Hafiz Ali Khan, and various other illustrious artistes.
All these great artistes testify to the excellence of his craft, for each instrument is custom-made according to the specifications of musicians. Like its owner, the shop has changed little over the years. His other clients are artistes of the younger generation like Tejendra Narayan, Partha Sarathi and Kamal Mallik.
Hemen also supplies all the instruments in use at Ali Akbar Khan’s institute in California.
Sitars and sarods hang from the ceiling of his little shop which opened more than 60 years ago, and where two craftsmen — Sukumar Naskar and Mahadeb Mahato — have been on his payroll for 30 years. Sen’s two sons, Ratan Kumar and Tapan Kumar, assist him, and so does a teenager named Manjula Mandal, a Muslim girl from Mathurapur near Diamond Harbour whom they found wandering on the street.
The people working under him specialise in turning out various components of string instruments like the tanpura, surabahar and surasingar, besides the sarod and the sitar, but Hemen is the only one among them who can create every part single-handedly.
He stresses this point, adding that there is no point beating about the bush. Nobody else has mastered the art of creating either an entire sarod or a sitar on his own.
At least two-and-a-half months are spent on making the most musical of instruments. He complains that both tun and teak wood of a good quality that are an absolute must for making musical instruments are hard to get these days.
Unlike Hiren Roy, who was a sensitive man and had extended the scope of the sitar, Hemen is down-to-earth and has the ability to make a realistic assessment of his skills and musical talent. Yet Hemen too used to take lessons in playing the sarod from Ustad Ayatali Khan, the brother of Alauddin Khan, and was subsequently tutored in Comilla by one of the ustad’s students. His two gurus also initiated him into the art of making sarod at their own musical instrument shops.
Ayatali Khan, inspired by Alauddin’s ideas, gave shape to the kind of sarod still played by Ali Akbar Khan and musicians of this school. Earlier, the sarod used to be rough hewn. Thanks to Ayatali Khan, who was also a skilled craftsman, the sound box of the sarod became fully round and increased in diameter. Consequently, its “resh” and “meend” lingered on.
Hemen had the business acumen to open shop in Burrabazar when he came to Calcutta in the 1940s. He simultaneously took sitar lessons from Ali Ahmed Khan.
Sitars were more popular when he started his business.
Sarods are carved out of a single block of wood and were more expensive. And being wider and longer in those days, the sarod was less handy. But Calcutta became the mecca of Indian classical music as musicians from East Bengal settled here, and over the years the popularity of the sarod increased.
Hemen has honed his craft by listening carefully to the instructions of the maestros and painstakingly followed their specifications.
He says that while Amjad Ali Khan prefers a teak instrument with eight main pegs, Ali Akbar Khan’s choice falls on tun wood and 10 pegs.
Hemen never claims he is himself a musician but he admits that his association with musicians has helped him create instruments that are flawless, and all he does is to depend on his ear.
He is humble enough to say: “The little that I know about music has stood me in good stead.”
Antonio Stradivarius is famous for perfecting the Cremona type violin. One wonders if Hemen Sen and Hiren Roy will be remembered for taking Indian string instruments to a pitch of perfection never reached before.