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We The People: The Last Maestro Of Srinagar’s Stringed Instruments

83-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Zaz is the last working craftsman in eight generations of Srinagar’s famous craftsmen who make santoors, sitars and rababs.

We The People: The Last Maestro Of Srinagar’s Stringed Instruments
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On the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar’s old city lies a 300-year-old structure, where Ghulam Mohammad Zaz has been handcrafting strin­ged musical instruments for more than seven deca­des. In a small room on the first floor, whose mud walls, besmerched with soot and showing cracks here and there, Zaz has been bequeathing life into musical instruments since he was just 12.   

Zaz learnt his art by accident. In 1953, the 12-year-old child had fallen sick with typhus fever and was taken to the famous Kashmiri Pandit doctor Gaash Laal, who after assessing Zaz’s health, had told his parents that he couldn’t continue his studies as his body wouldn’t be able to withstand the rigour. So, when Zaz recovered, his uncle took him in as an apprentice in the workshop that was being run by his ancestors for eight generations.

Zaz, like his ancestors, makes an array of stringed instruments like santoors, sitars and rababs that embellish Kashmir’s traditional Sufiyana music, as well as Hin­dustani classical.   

Zaz’s masterpieces have been used by globally acclaimed Kashmiri musicians like Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the sant­oor maestro who passed away in May this year. Sharma has received several national and international awards, including the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan.   

“Pandit Jee was an ascetic of melodies,” says the octogena­rian Zaz adding, “there was no match to his playing. Nobody could stand up to him in competition.”  

Zaz’s santoors have been used by acclaimed Kashmiri players like Pandit Shivkumar Sharma—who passed away in May this year—and pandit Bhajan Sopori.

For Zaz, Sharma was not just a client. The two had over time developed a fond relationship and they would meet whenever Pandit Jee was in town. “Pandit Jee adored my craft, and thr­o­ugh him, I got scores of clients who ordered santoors,” Zaz tells Outlook.   

“I would ask my clients as to who recomme­n­ded them to me, and without a thought, they would say: ‘Pandit Jee’,” he adds. Besides Sha­rma, Zaz has also made santoors for another Kashmiri legend Bhajan Sopori, who breathed his last on June 2 this year.  

Zaz believes that the intrusion of modern and Western forms of music into Kashmir’s cultural fabric has muffled indigenous forms of music, owing to which, he feels, the number of local orders for musical instruments he makes has fallen significa­n­tly. So most of the orders he now gets are from European and Gulf countries, and some Indian metros.  

“Nobody pays heed to our traditional and cultural forms anymore,” he rues. “Especially the youth do not want to listen to traditional music.”  
Zaz was just 21 when he built his first instrument on his own, a sarangi for a regular customer. Now in his 83rd year, he is the last of those practicing the centuries-old art. He has three daughters, all of whom have chosen different car­e­er paths, leaving no one to take his art forward. But Zaz fe­els no remorse. He tells Outlook, “This trade has given me a livelih­ood. I’m content and will do the job till my last breath.”  

You can gauge Zaz’s waning health from his pale hands, a web of blue veins spread across them, his fingers swollen, and coarse nails which are nicely trimmed, clean, yet without any shi­ne. He speaks eloquently, with long pauses, and he often pau­ses just to catch a breath. His gait is slow, but despite the eighty years having tak­en a toll on his body, he doesn’t slouch, and his back stands as erect as a Russian poplar. In the past several years Zaz has been struggling with his wellbeing, “however”, his daughter tells Outlook, “he never abandoned work”.  

“He’s always determined,” she says.  

The most recent setback came to Zaz during the second wave of the Covid pandemic, when he contracted the dreaded virus that made him bedbound for months. “It stole my strength, but I defeated it. Here I am, working again!” he quips triumphantly. But, the virus has nevertheless changed his body completely.

“If I exert too much, I run out of breath and feel a strange weariness. Winter made it worse, I could feel the harm in my lungs,” Zaz says, adding, “this virus [Covid-19] is ruthless”. Despite his growing weakness, Zaz leaves his house early in the morning for the workshop and works, though not as industriously as he would before.

“How can I stop working? I have been in this art for decades. This is in my blood,” Zaz says, adding, “This is all I am meant for.”

(This appeared in the print edition as "Last Maestro")

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