Broken Strings, © Danilo Calilung/Corbis,
© Danilo Calilung/Corbis

A musical instrument to a musician (instrumentalist) is what a cricket bat is to a batsman, what a painting brush is to a painter and many more.  But, musical instruments differ from other instruments of art in that they rarely have a shelf life.  A cricket bat may celebrate some centuries (runs) with a good batsman, but it usually survives for a couple of playing seasons.  Someday, it has to rest in his collection.  Similarly, a painting brush may be with an artist for a decade or two.  It may last for as long as the artist feels good working with it.  Where as a musical instrument can survive for hundreds of years and is passed on from teachers to students and from them to their students and so on.

If a student receives/inherits a musical instrument from his/her teacher, it is considered an ultimate, prized possession.  The student would do anything to keep it in good working condition.  For a student, the fact that his/her teacher had used that instrument to create music is a tremendous feeling.  If the teacher happens to be not alive, then the teacher’s instrument comes closest to doing what a teacher can do.  In some way (I don’t know how) such a musical instrument can remember the masters who were in touch with it  and hence can guide future users through their performances.  Perhaps, to put it more scientifically, a student believes that s/he can perform well when playing that instrument and hence does so.  I wouldn’t mind believing the former! 🙂

However, situations do arise where in an old instrument needs to be repaired and sometimes to such extents that apart from the main body of it everything else will be replaced with newer parts.  Musicians understand this as an inevitable exercise to continue the journey with their inherited legacy.  If they don’t undertake those measures, the instrument is certain to become a museum piece within no time.  Some time ago, I had to  give one of my uncle’s Mridanga for a major make-over.  He had inherited it from his teacher and its right-hand muchchige (skin cover) had become very old.  Both of them are not alive today and it was indeed a difficult decision to make.

Musical instruments come with varied thresholds of sensitivities.  Some are more abuse-hardy than others.   Some are very delicate (E.g., Ghata, VeeNaa) and even the best in the business find them hard to maintain.  Some teachers do not allow even their most promising students to handle the instruments they have inherited from their teachers.  A student has to earn a chance to assist his/her teacher in handling them (reminds me of a recent chocolate advertisement).

Occasionally, musicians do have to suffer shocks because of accidental breakdowns (Weather and other natural causes) in their instruments. It is undesirable and hurtful.  Musicians some how manage to cope with it.

Some times, even after ensuring special-extra care, they are damaged by other people who do not fully appreciate the value and significance of them.  So, when an instrument that is seemingly over-protected is damaged due to an unknown human negligence, what can be a reasonable response from the musician at loss?

Recently, an exquisite Sarod that belonged to the Indian Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, was damaged due to mishandling by an airliner’s baggage division.  A distraught Ustad Khan is reported to have felt as though his heart was bleeding when he saw his damaged instrument. However, he also said that he would continue to fly with the same airliner in the future and believes that there will be improvement.  Not many can appreciate the weight and intensity of those words.  The sight of any broken musical instrument is an anathema for a musician.   It has to be said that Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s measured response speaks highly of him.

You may have watched this music video. The artiste here represents what would be an expected response to a similar situation.

Watch it here…United Breaks Guitars

2 thoughts on “Broken Strings”

  1. Is it a coincidence that I just met a lady who attended the very concert of Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan in Mumbai? She said he showed the broken pieces to the audience and said “I cannot play today but my wife is bringing my other Sarod from Kolkata and if it reaches in time, I will play tomorrow” and he indeed played the next day! It shows how much responsibility he takes to make sure the audience who waited for him do not feel bad! When a student receives an instruments from his/her master, it is not just a privilege, but also a great responsibility and it is not easy to live up to your teacher’s expectations that he/she trusted you with their “precious”! My teacher has a “tamboori” from his teacher which he keeps like treasure in a glass showcase! I can understand the great feeling associated with receiving something like that, but I also dread the thought of having to take such good care of something!

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