Photo Feature: The Men Who Make the Gourd Sing

A look at the artisans of Miraj in Maharashtra, known the world over for their skills in transforming the humble pumpkin into the tanpura – a musical instrument integral to performance practices in India.

Dastagir Sitarmaker, son of Sharafat Abdul Majid Sitarmaker, a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, is carrying forward the tradition of instrument-making. Here he is seen working at his residence which doubles as his workspace. Seated nearby is his mother. Credit: Ankit Agarwal

As one entered the hall hosting the exhibition ‘Framing the Living Traditions’ (April 21-May 2, 2017), curated by Aditya Arya, at Delhi’s India International Centre, one’s gaze fell upon an area festooned with large sized gourds, much like a toran adorning the entrance of a house. On the floor were two hollowed-out gourds, inside which was kept a small speaker that filled up the gallery with the sonorous sound of the tanpura. How else do you evoke the essence of a living tradition – the pact between the texture of the material that goes into the making of the instrument and the texture of the sound (drone) of the instrument, which helps the vocalist find her or his flight of melody.

An artisan’s shelf, a shrine to painstaking dedication. Credit: Ankit Agarwal

The musician transported to another world has been a favourite subject of photographers. But Ankit Agrawal, a journalist, photographer and a student of dhrupad, has been fascinated by the transformation of the humble gourd into a tanpura by artisans who literally have music in their fingers.

After an initial foray into photographing artists on and off the stage, Agrawal was drawn to the idea of documenting the processes of instrument making and the lives of the craftsmen who make them. He had just started researching the craft as practiced by artisans in Delhi when he was chosen as one of five young photographers to receive a Neel Dongre Grant for Excellence in Photography, to document a living tradition of India. He chose to document the process of tanpura making in Miraj (Maharashtra), reputed for its craftsmen who make the tanpura and other stringed instruments that are used in Indian classical music.

Over several visits stretching to a fortnight, Agrawal developed an intimate bond with the artisans, became a part of their lives. And Naeem Sitarmaker (Sitarmaker is an honorific used by them all), Mubarak Sitarmaker, Dastagir Sitarmaker, Altaf Sitarmaker and Hamza Sitarmaker, among others, have become a part of his life. From the photographs of the craftsmen engrossed in their work, it seemed as if they were oblivious to the camera. There are close to 20 odd families practising the craft.

The very first print, near the gallery entrance, was a shelf with two wooden doors, bathed in blue paint, holding the implements of the artisan. It brought to mind a wooden shrine.

More than anything, the images reaffirmed the truth that many of us seem to forget, namely that the high realm of classical music is grounded in down-to-earth materiality; it arises from the earthly reality of labour. It emerges from the fields where gourds grow under the watchful gaze of inquisitive goats, the cramped spaces where unsung artisans go about their everyday life of fashioning the tanpura as an accompaniment to some maestro, the humdrum domestic ambience within which the tanpuras are painted. The music that touches the sky is rooted in the rhythms of everyday life. Thereafter, the journey unfolded through a series of textures that the images evoked – be it the gourd’s gnarled surface or its transformation into a smoothened hollowed-out vessel for music, the grainy wood shavings that made way for the emerging shape of the dandi (the long and slender fingerboard), and the texture of the skin of a seasoned musician plucking the strings.

We bring you some images from Agrawal’s journey of documenting a living tradition, and his concept note on the tanpura. The photo feature includes pictures that were not part of the exhibition.


Indian musical instruments are remarkable for their beauty and their variety of form. As seen in the paintings at Ajanta, they have remained largely unchanged in the last 2,000 years.

Among all the classical musical instruments, the tanpura – or tambura as it is called in south India – is special because it crosses the divide between Hindustani and Carnatic music, between dhrupad and khayal, vocal and instrumental, and classical and folk music. This drone instrument is considered the foundation of Indian music, and vocalists and instrumentalists adjust their pitch according to it. In fact, every student of Indian classical music is expected to learn to strum and tune it.

Sitarmakers inspect every gourd before buying them from the farmer. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Going by the seminal texts on performing arts – such as the Natya Shastra, the Sangitaratnakara – as well as scholarly commentaries on these works, the concept of the drone has always remained integral to performance practices. Purandardasa (16th century), the pitamaha of Carnatic music, highlighted the importance of the tanpura thus – Tamburi meetidawah bhavabdhi dhatidhawah (one who plays the tambura has journeyed beyond the ocean of worldly existence) – and composed it in raga Sindhubhairavi. The tambura also finds mention in Sangam era texts such as the Tolkappiyam and Silappadikaram.

Due to unpredictable harvests, Sitarmakers always maintain a stock. They hang the gourds close to the ceiling all over the house. This is how it looks from below! Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Mubarak Sitarmaker at his workplace which also happens to be his residence: The gourds are chosen and cut according to the instrument to be made. For the tanpura, a gourd is cut vertically and a third of it is removed. It is cleaned and soaked in water for 8-10 hours so that the shell becomes soft. Then the gullu (neck) is fixed. The gourd is also cut to adjust the gullu and tabli (the faceplate). The gullu, tabli and dandi (fingerboard) are made of tun, lal deodar, and red cedar wood mostly sourced from Karnataka. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

My photographs at the exhibition are a visual documentation of the instrument-making process – from the fields of Pandharpur where the gourds (tumba) are farmed, to the artisans of Miraj who make the tanpura. Both places are in Maharashtra. Other important places known for making of the tanpura are Thanjavur, Rampur and Banaras.

The fingerboard requires a great deal of chiselling. The artisan in the picture, Mirasaheb, earns about Rs. 800 per tanpura, which is usually priced from Rs 16,000 upwards. The fingerboard is a hollow semi-circular piece of wood covered with a flat piece of wood glued to it. Chiselling takes almost a day. Both pieces of wood are glued and tied together for a day. It is important to use seasoned timber or the instrument may bend due to the tension caused by the strings. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Once the fingerboard is ready, it is glued to the neck, screwed tightly, and kept for a day. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Once the skeleton of the tanpura is ready, it is sent for embellishments, which takes a few days. Working in a cramped space shorn of any facilities, Munna’s deft hands create exquisite embellishments. First, a plastic strip is glued on to the wooden surface. Over it the craftsmen painstakingly create designs on the faceplate, the neck and along the fingerboard with the help of needlework. Fevicol is mixed with colours available in the market. For the shade of black, coal powder is used. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

In the last century or so, Miraj overshadowed other centres owing to several factors. It had access to good quality raw material and was close to centres of music in western and southern India. The fact that Miraj boasts a railway junction has also played an important role in its growth as a centre for instrument making and repairing.

Giving final touches to the skeleton of the tanpura before it is rigorously polished. As can be seen, the wooden embellishments on the gourd are usually made in the shape of betel leaves which are considered auspicious. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Once the tanpura is painted and polished, the paint over the embellishments is scratched out so that the design becomes visible. Here Dastagir can be seen rescuing the designs from being painted over. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Naeem Sitarmaker (not fully visible) approaches the last step of putting the strings (tar) and the bridge (jawari), called tar-jawari. With great precision holes are cut on the fingerboard and tailpiece (langot), and the bridge (the raised white surface) is adjusted according to the pitch. For better frequency, threads and tuning beads (manke) are used in addition to high quality strings. Following the implementation of the Environment Protection Act (1972), ivory has been replaced with camel bone for making the bridge, tailpiece and tuning beads. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Furthermore, with Khwaja Meerasaheb’s dargah nearby and because of the availability of patronage, a favourable climate and a proximity to centres of classical music like Dharwad, Pune and Mumbai, many artists settled in Miraj.

In an ill-lit, chaotic workspace Altaf prepares to string the tanpura, which helps the vocalist find her or his perfect pitch. Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Instrument making in Miraj, in fact, began by accident in the 1850s. Commanded by Patwardhan Sarkar – the king of Sangli – Faridsaheb Shikalgar repaired the instrument of a visiting musician. The results of Faridsaheb’s success can be seen today.

  • Rohini

    Beautiful! Thank you for this!