A guitar that’s also a drum? These young musicians are redesigning instruments
Under-30s across the country are tinkering to make their tools louder, lighter, more versatile — and more fusion-friendly.Updated: Aug 26, 2018 09:48 IST
Noori can sing the sweet notes of the sarod, mimic guitar riffs and invoke the deep, sensuous tones of the Afghani rubab. And Kavish Seth, a 26-year-old Mumbai-based singer-songwriter-composer, treasures her.
Born two years ago, it’s a hybrid 14-stringed instrument shaped like a guitar, but with a wood frame covered in goat skin to produce percussive sounds like those of a djembe.
“The idea was to bridge the gap between East and West,” says Kavish, who has named the instrument after his girlfriend at the time. “Noori can be played with a full band arrangement or in a solo performance.”
As India’s young, independent musicians experiment with fusion, perform solo with Indian instruments, and find themselves strumming and singing in venues that range from noisy clubs to open-air amphitheatres, they’re fiddling with traditional instruments to make them more versatile or louder, easier to calibrate or carry. They’re not just playing around either; they’re applying for patents, receiving grants, even selling their signature creations to other musicians.
The last five years, then, have seen the birth of the poornaveena (a hybrid of the Saraswati and rudra veenas, with elements of the guitar and sitar), created by a 27-year-old from Karnataka; a carbon fibre chitravina designed by a young man from Chennai in collaboration with an American instrument-maker; and a two-holed cajon (a box-like drum that traditionally has a single hole) created by a Kolkattan who has already sold 18 pieces.
The idea for Kavish’s Noori was sparked on the 2014 Jagriti Yatra, a 15-day train journey where an NGO gets youngsters together with entrepreneurs. “I was headed to Gorakhpur and began playing [an original composition called] ‘Galat salat’ on my guitar,” he recalls. “A co-passenger said, ‘Why are you playing a foreign instrument? Play an Indian one’. I realised he had a point.”
Last month, Noori starred in a concert with Kavish’s mother, singer Kavita Seth (who sang ‘Iktara’ in the 2009 film, Wake Up Sid). Noori will also feature in Kavish’s compositions for an upcoming musical web series called Pehli Pehel.
The birth of the chitravina stemmed from more practical concerns. The 21-stringed fretless lute used in Carnatic music is traditionally too soft to be heard without a contact mic. So Akshay Vaidyanathan, 27, fashioned a version from carbon fibre, taking its weight down from 6.5 kg to 3.2 kg, making it more durable and raising the volume of the sound it could produce.
“Mics change the sound of the instrument,” Vaidyanathan says. “Carbon fibre helps the strings resonate better.” The chitravina has been played, with no mic, at eight chamber concerts and private events in Mumbai and Pune over the past year.
Meanwhile, Poornaprajna Kulkarni, 27, has integrated the Saraswati and rudra veena and added elements of the guitar and sitar to create his Poornaveena. The artiste from Karnataka now based in Delhi began his musical career with the Saraswati veena. “But it’s largely used in Carnatic music and restricts my repertoire. With this version, I can also perform Hindustani and Dhrupad music,” he says.
Musicians have been hybridising instruments for centuries, says Suneera Kasliwal, dean of the faculty of music and fine arts at Delhi University and an instrumentalist herself.
The century-old orchestral group, Maihar Band, formed by the legendary musician Ustad Allauddin Khan and now supported by the Madhya Pradesh government’s department of culture, also plays hybrid instruments. Their concerts feature a sitar-banjo and nal tarang, an instrument made with gun barrels fitted to a xylophone-like frame.
“If younger musicians are creating their own versions of instruments, it means they’re interested in classical music,” says Kasliwal. “It’s a healthy sign.”
YouTube has made it easier to learn about different instruments, the artistes say. However, creating a whole new one poses many challenges. In most cases, the artistes conceptualise and design the instruments, then reach out to experts for help with construction and carpentry work.
Vaidyanathan took a two-year break and made two trips to Asheville in North Carolina to collaborate with Harry Saffer, an instrument-maker who specialises in the use of carbon fibre. “My family thought I was crazy to just take off like that,” he says.
It took Kulkarni three years of experimenting to develop the Poornaveenaa – the size and exact alignment of strings and frets, the right way to hold it, and the right posture during performance. “Where the veena is placed horizontally on the stage, I hold this instrument inclined to prevent its sound from being muted,” says Kulkarni.
Change is necessary for music to evolve, observes percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, known for playing the Indian classical tabla repertoire on the African djembe. “These young musicians are looking at new avenues to define classical music. That’s wonderful as long as the aesthetics of the music remain uncompromised. For instance, if you are performing a particular raag, make sure you stick to its basics. If you do mix other raag into it, the transition should be smooth.”
Seth is currently awaiting a patent for Noori, made in collaboration with Delhi-based senior instrument-maker Nizamuddin Niyazi. He has also received a one-year grant from the India Foundation for the Arts to refine the instrument – he’ll create a moveable fretboard, make the soundboard round and tuneable, and explore options in lighter wood.
In Kolkata, 29-year-old Avirup Das’s modified Peruvian cajon is already on the shelves. His friend, Anirban Bhattacharya, who runs a music instrument company, manufactures the instrument using Das’ design and has been selling it online and offline as Buntys Percussion Series Cajon, for Rs 8,000. He’s sold 18 pieces over the past year.
Das has also played this instrument with the folk fusion band Fakira. “Back then, only a couple of percussionists were playing it in Kolkata,” he says. “Now, it’s become more popular because the instrument in both its forms is light, portable and works well in the acoustic set-up.”