A sitar player takes a seat on the soft white mattress placed on a platform placed in the center of the stage. With the fingers lightly strumming the strings, the soft chords created the calm atmosphere of the recital to follow. The star of the show, the sitar, shines in all its glory, polished to its beauty after a long journey from a pumpkin grown in the moist soils of Miraj, a town in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, to the stage. While modern technology has facilitated the creation of musical instruments today, one can only imagine the efforts Faridsaheb Mirajkar would have made in the 1850s as he engaged with sadhus in the forests, exchanging brass pots for perfect pumpkins, to make his sitars.
Following his example and true to his heritage, the Mirajkar family continues to make musical instruments to this day. Sajid Mirajkar, the seventh generation of the family currently manages the company.
Based in Budhwar Peth of Pune, Yusuf Mirajkar’s Musical was established in 1931 by Omarsaheb Mirajkar, Sajid’s grandfather. The family owns another store, IS Mirajkar’s Musical Shop, run by Sajid’s uncle in Pune. Their tradition of instrument making dates back to the 1850s, after the family migrated from Bijapur to Miraj near Sangli.
From weaponry to music
A family of artisans once involved in the manufacture of weapons, the Mirajkars in the 1850s were summoned by the noble Patwardhans of Sangli, who were the keepers of Fort Miraj, to perfect the dome of the tomb of Khaja Shamna Mira. Disappointed by all previous artisans, Faridsaheb Mirajkar’s impeccable skills impressed Patwardhan. “The Patwardhan family were impressed with our craftsmanship and granted us a land grant in Miraj so that we could establish our residence there,” says Sajid.
As the conflicts in the region began to wane, the demand for arms also saw a gradual decline, which in turn affected Faridsaheb Mirajkar’s income. The Patwardhans were art lovers and regularly invited artists from all over India for performances. The instruments used often needed basic repair work and Faridsaheb, being a regular attendee at all these recitals, quickly picked up the basics. Slowly, with Patwardhan’s encouragement, Faridsaheb also began manufacturing instruments which were, until then, shipped to Calcutta for any basic maintenance, taking almost six months for the instruments to be returned.
From Miraj to Pune
“Prabhat Studios is the reason we first entered Pune and V Shantaram (director and producer) bought us our first store in Budhwar Peth,” says Sajid. Omarsaheb Mirajkar settled in Kolhapur and provided instruments to Prabhat Studios for the background music that then accompanied silent films. As movies witnessed a technological revolution in India and slowly began to incorporate sound into 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 films. And when Prabhat Studios moved to Pune, it bought store space from them.
Since then, the Mirajkar boutique has been the favorite destination of the city’s maestros. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi shared a family connection with Sajid’s father, Yusuf. “I still remember the early days of Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav (an acclaimed music festival in Pune attended by thousands of people every year). The festival had virtually no financial support. As children, we were responsible for collecting carpets from homes to seat the audience,” Sajid recalls.
Classical musician Kishori Amonkar, sitar maestro Shahid Parvez Khan and sitarist Ustad Usman Khan are among the few to frequent the shop. “There was a common idea among musicians earlier that only Calcutta sitars are the ones to trust. Ustad Usman Khan designed a sitar with my father and broke that idea when these sitars became world famous,” he says.
Making Instruments, Yesterday and Today
Instrument making requires a deep understanding of music and melody. “When we first started making instruments, it was very difficult to get Miraj the perfect pumpkin to make the ‘tambora’,” says Sajid. Trading steel jugs with sadhus for perfect pumpkins growing in the forest was then a sleight of hand.
Techniques have become advanced but the finesse guaranteed in musical instruments still holds true. “You need a basic understanding of music (swaradnyan — ‘swara’ or musical notations and ‘dnyan’ or knowledge) to make these instruments. From choosing the right quality of wood to perfecting the ink mixture applied to the tabla, tuning is most important when making instruments,” says Sajid.
After the introduction of the harmonium in India towards the end of the 18th century, the process of tuning instruments became simpler with chord notations. “Previously, a person used to physically sit and sing in front of a person who would adjust the tambora to set the tone and get the right ‘Saa’ (the first notation of Indian classical music) or ‘swara’ natural,” says Sajid.
Warkaris and Mirajkar
“We’ve been making instruments for warkaris for as long as I can remember. We make veena (string instrument), pakhawaj (percussion), ektara (one string instrument) and harmonium for warkaris. We keep at least 20 pieces of each instrument ready 2 months before the ‘waari’ (pilgrimage) reaches Pune,” Sajid explains.
This work has never been lucrative, he adds. “Warkaris came into the store at 2am to have the instruments repaired and was never sent away disappointed. For us, religion is not important, what is (important) is the ultimate goal of attaining parameshwar (supreme being). As the warkaris chant the name of the Lord, helping them with whatever is needed makes me feel like I have a small contribution in this great effort to unite with the Lord,” he said.