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Lords of the Strings



IN TUNE WITH TIMES: Rikhi Ram with his son Ajay at their showroom in New Delhi.

IT IS a bright sunny day at Delhi's busy Connaught Place and unruffled from the hush outside it's work as usual for Bishan Daas Sharma and his son Ajay at Rikhi Ram musical instruments shop. The man in seventies is telling the foreign customer how to tune the sitar while Ajay is busy packing the instrument. Just then a man with his son drops in to buy strings of tanpura and is astonished to see the pictures of stalwarts of music being placed meticulously on the shop walls.

All of a sudden, his eyes get stuck on a picture and a huge smile covers his face as he finds his great grand uncle and father's pictures there. This is no ordinary customer; he is music director Jatin of the Jatin-Lalit duo. However, this is all in a day's work for the shop that has been visited by the likes of the legendary George Harrison, sultan of ghazals Mehdi Hassan and sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar to name a few.

Early days

Meet the Sharmas who over the years have mastered the craft of making string instruments, something that Bishan Dass's father Rikhi Ram started in Anarkali Bazar in Lahore. "Our shop in Lahore was frequented by Pandit Onkar Nath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb. I was lucky enough to have learnt the nuances of these instruments from these maestros," recalls Bishan Daas.

A maestro in his own right Bishan Daas, whose family crossed the border in 1947, himself learnt to play the instruments from none other than Pandit Ravi Shankar and today, not just the maestro but also his daughter Anoushka only plays the sitar made by his shishya. And, they aren't the only ones. The family has earned the distinction of making the instruments for maestros and their users include like Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt to name some.

"Our production is limited and we cater to select clientele that luckily includes the big names. We take pain in making our instruments and the sitar is made of cedar wood commonly known as Tun that we season for three years in our own inventory," tells Ajay who to his credit has Masters in Business Management as well as mastery on sitar.

Professor Premadasa Hegoda, the Founder and President of Japan-Lanka Cultural Exchange Society and a sitar exponent bears testimony to Ajay's statement. "I have been a regular to their shop for the last 38 years and I say without hesitation that they give the maestros what they want and how they want. Their class and precision are unmatchable."

Next generation

And it was the vision of this man for whom nothing matters more then such words of praise that Bishan Daas made sure that the legacy of his family doesn't end with him. He persuaded his sons Ajay and Sanjay to take up the family business. "I asked my sons to join me in the family business and they readily agreed," says this man who has been honoured by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and is an honorary examiner of Ph.D in Music at Delhi University.

"All that he said was there would be many business executives and professionals but only a few who can really make these instruments. And this did the trick," tells Ajay.

Today, the man just guides his sons and helps them out if they get stuck somewhere. "The best thing about him is to make spontaneous decisions on how to handle any fault. And this is what takes me by surprise," says Ajay for his father who responds, "And he is a great learner, very obedient. I am sure my sons are going to take this craft way ahead than I can think. My grand children are also learning music and I am sure they too will follow the family's tradition."

Surely, it's going to be that way because when Pandit Ravi Shankar writes, "I derive immense pleasure and satisfaction in playing the sitar that you made" we know they are marching in the right direction.

By AVINASH KALLA

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