The Telegraph e-Paper
The Telegraph
 

Music-making shells

Its not without reason that “shader lau...” is the most popular folk song in parts of rural Bengal, including Howrah. “Lau” or bottle gourd, as the folk song goes, turns a man into a vagrant as he eats its base and its top and uses the rest of the vegetable to make a dugdugi, a musical instrument, and goes out singing in search of the divine.

But the lau is used not just to make dugdugis but also classical music instruments like the sitar, tanpura, sarod, dilruba or agnibina. And traders, who sell these instruments, queued up at villages in Howrah’s Udaynarayanpur, bordering the Hooghly district, to buy bottle gourd shells, an important component of these instruments.

Today, however, farmers of Udaynarayanpur, faced with adversities, have stopped growing the variety of bottle gourds that are used to make these instruments. “The gourd used in making tanpura, sitar and other stringed instruments is Pusa Summer Prolific Round type of gourd. This variety can grow upto 10 to 15 kilogram. But some companies, marketing vegetable seeds, distribute many high breed varieties that have a higher yield and are bigger in size. The farmers prefer to grow these high breed varieties,” said Kushadhaj Bag, district horticulture officer.

Traders of musical instruments with showrooms and workshops in Lalbazar, Bhawanipur, Paikpara and other places in Calcutta, used to get their supply of gourd shells from the villages of Howrah and Hooghly. However, waning interest in classical music leading to lesser demand for such traditional stringed instruments, massive attack of pests, growing cost of cultivation and sometimes unfavourable climatic conditions forced farmers to stop growing these gigantic bottle gourds in the last several seasons.

Though a handful of farmers in Hooghly still cultivate them, the farmers in Howrah have altogether stopped growing the gourds. “Even five years back, bada lau as it is locally called, was cultivated in large numbers on the banks of the Damodar in Howrah district.

But for the last few years, the farmers have stopped growing gourds on the face of attack of pests and growing cost of cultivation. They have now moved on to more profitable crops like potatoes, mustard seeds, sunflower seeds and other cash crops,” said Manabendra Panja, a resident of Udaynarayanpur.

The bottle gourds, each weighing 25 to 40kg and 20 to 30 inches in diameter, make perfect shells for tanpura, sitar, sarod, and dilruba. “Gourd shells of different size and diameters are needed for different types of stringed instruments. While big sized gourd shells are used for tanpura, smaller sized shells are used for sarod and dilruba,” said Tarit Singh, a farmer of Poshpur in Hooghly, who grew gigantic bottle gourds in two bighas of land this year.

Seeds of the gourd are sown in the last week of October and reaped in the first week of April. During this period, the gourds are allowed to ripen in the field. Then they are cut at the top, the seeds scooped out and the shells are kept in water for more than two weeks before drying them in the sun. As the gourds grow in size and become heavy, farmers build raised platforms with jute sticks and bamboo on which they rest. “Many farmers stopped building the raised platforms to cut costs because the entire crop can be damaged by insects,” said Gopal Singh, a farmer. He said that sometimes rain in December and January can also damage the gourd.

Tamal Ghosh, district agriculture officer, said, “Insects like ladybird beetle, thrips and fruit fly extensively damage bottle gourds. The intensity of the attack increases after rain in December and January. The use of right kind of insecticides can stop the damage.” It is here that the farmers are seeking help from the government.

According to them, growing gourds and selling their shells can still be profitable if the state government comes forward to help them fight the insects.

At least 500 pieces of bottle gourd can be reaped from one bigha of land. Sometimes, the number can touch 1,000. The entire process from sowing the seeds, to growing and turning them into hard shells to be used for making classical instruments are done by the farmers themselves.

“We even deliver the gourd shells to the workshops in Calcutta, Dunlop, Dadpur and Dhulasimla. Even five years back, people from Lucknow and Delhi visited our village to buy gourd shells. They booked rakes in Shalimar station to carry them to their workshops,” said Nayan Singh, 75, a farmer of Poshpur in Hooghly.

According to him, his father Bhim Singh learnt to grow “bada lau” from one Gaur Jana nearly 50 years back. Gradually, many farmers of Howrah and Hooghly started growing them considering the high margin of profit. But he failed to say from where the seeds were brought. “I do not know from where late Gaur Jana bought the seeds. But he first supplied the seeds to my father and since then, we started making seeds on our own,” he said.

Apart from insect attack, what deters the farmers is the dwindling demand for traditional stringed instruments.

“For the last ten years the demand for classical musical instruments has come down drastically because people these days are no longer interested in learning classical music,” said Ajay Roy, the owner of Music Maker, who has a stringed instrument workshop in Dhulasimla in Shyampur.

So what’s the alternative to bottle gourds? Sumanta Das, who runs an instrument workshop in Howrah’s Dadpur village, said, “So far we have failed to find any alternative to gourd shells for making stringed instruments like sitar, tanpura and sarod. For proper tuning of these instruments, gourd shells are a must. We tried using fibre shells but it failed.”

So, then, as long as there is classical music and musicians, bada lau must grow or else the music will stop.