In communally strained times, even the customary appears remarkable. For at least two centuries, Pilibhit’s proudest product has been the bamboo flute, inseparably associated with the Hindu god Krishna. And it has been handcrafted, almost wholly, by Muslim artisans.
After Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory speech, it is easy to clutch at these flutes as heart-warming affirmations of India’s secular fabric, or as some form of marvellous syncretism. Pilibhit’s flute makers themselves find it utterly unremarkable. They would rather talk about the deep decay of a cottage industry that once produced, by a 1991 estimate, 95% of India’s flutes, instruments that were exported even to the US and Europe.
Down a narrow alley off Kotwali Road, near Pilibhit’s Jama Masjid, Mohammad Usman sits in a makeshift, enclosed verandah outside a house, making flutes. Surrounded by stacks of cut bamboo stalks, Usman barely looks up as he whittles away patiently, holding each one under his foot and working the wood with his rusted file.
Standing over Usman and watching him work is his relative, Mohammad Ilyas Siraj Ahmed, a white-bearded man in his 70s. Ahmed says he has been making flutes since his boyhood, as his father did before him. "At one point, I can tell you, there were 15,000 or 20,000 people in the flute-manufacturing trade in Pilibhit," he says. "Now, there probably aren’t more than 10 or 12 families still at it. The industry is dying."
Some of Pilibhit’s few remaining craftsmen work for Nabi and Sons, the town’s only flute-making family to have emerged as a corporate entity—one that has supplied flutes to acclaimed musicians such as Ronu Majumdar and Hariprasad Chaurasia. "Our family has been making flutes for 200 years," says Gulzar Nabi, the firm’s representative in New Delhi. "But business has been awful."
Deeply pessimistic about the future of the trade, Nabi moved to another profession, leaving the Pilibhit operations of the business to his five brothers. "We used to make thousands of flutes a month," he says. "Now, a flute maker makes perhaps 500, or maybe more during festivals like Diwali and Dusshera." Classical flutes can sell for as much as Rs2,000 apiece, but the more common flute, played like a recorder and sold as toys at fairs, can only be priced at Rs2-3.
Pilibhit’s flute makers can, in minutes, produce a litany of reasons that led to their downfall. Some, such as the entry of plastic toy flutes manufactured in China, are understandable. Others, such as the Indian Railways’ gradual elimination of its narrow-gauge lines, require further explanation.
Since independence, Pilibhit has been sourcing its bamboo from Barak Valley in Assam. "Earlier, there was an unbroken narrow-gauge line running from Silchar, in Assam, via Bihar, and into Pilibhit," Ahmed says. On this line, 60-strong bundles of bamboo, each stalk 10ft long, would make their way to Pilibhit.
Then, around 15 years ago, sections of that line were removed. "Now, the bamboo has to travel on narrow gauge from Silchar to Jiribum, then shift onto a broad-gauge line to travel to Bareilly, the nearest big town, and then reloaded onto narrow gauge to come into Pilibhit."
After these repeated transfers, much of the bamboo arrives in Pilibhit broken and useless and, as Ahmed points out, the volumes he orders are so small that he cannot have them delivered by truck. "Even by rail, the freight rates have gone up so much in the last 10 years, but we can only price our flutes so high," he says. "Who will pay more than Rs4 or Rs5 for a toy flute?"
The exodus from the flute-making trade has also been prompted by its surprisingly hazardous nature. After years of having breathed toxic smoke from holes being burned into the bamboo, one craftsman named Mumtaz Ahmed developed a persistent bronchitis that forced him to quit. Like many other former flute makers, he now drives a cycle-rickshaw, but the palpable heaving of his concave chest suggests that the bronchitis has still not left him.
Siraj Ahmed points to his flute maker, Usman, and draws attention to the nails on his hands and feet, blackened and blistered beyond recognition. "That comes from working with the wood polish we use (another toxic substance) and from just injuring yourself with tools over the years," Ahmed says. Some flute makers now wear cheap rubber balloons on their fingers; Usman, his digits already ravaged, continues to work without even that makeshift protection.
Making a flute, Nabi says, is both painstaking and painful, but the industry and its artisans are worthy of being saved. "Long before Varun Gandhi, Pilibhit’s name shone, thanks to its flutes," he says. "It’s unfortunate that we’ll now be known less because of our flutes and more because of him."