May 19, 2006

Bang the Drum Slowly

The fourth essay on my Sarai fellowship, exploring the idea of a village in Bombay.

(Previous essays: Twice a Day Paper Route, Watch that Bun-Maska! and Old People's Garden).

Comments, as always, welcome.


Bang the Drum Slowly

Standing on a corner near Charni Road Station one April morning, I'm chewing on a bit of bubble gum and trying not to feel the heat. Hanging from a nail on the large tree to my right is one of those small but colourful portraits of gods. Another nail has a sign advertising Star Pest Control. Behind me are the stairs to the foot overbridge that leads to the station. On one of the pillars supporting the stairs is a sign that says: "Required Urgently Smart Female Computer Operator, Work Time 10 am to 8 pm."

Under the tree is an old woman, squatting on the pavement. She is obviously suffering from a serious case of leucoderma, but that's not really why I notice her. No, I notice her when she pours a few mugs of water over a small area of the pavement. Then she reaches into a bag behind her and pulls out a cake of soap. She uses it to scrub the wet pavement. Then she reaches into the bag for a rag, with which she wipes the soapy pavement dry.

Then she pulls towards her a small pile of dirty clothes that I hadn't noticed before. Squatting there, she washes them, scrubbing them one by one on her patch of pavement that is now soaped clean. Very clean.

My introduction to Thakurdwar.

Walking in from there, the lanes generally go off at right angles, so you'd think it would be easy to keep track of them. But they wind about, and we take so many, that I soon have no idea where we are. I mean, we're in Thakurdwar -- or is it now Girgaum, or CP Tank perhaps? -- but standing on one street looking up at the building opposite, I realize slowly that I cannot retrace in my mind the route we've taken over the last half hour or so, to get here. It surprises me, because I pride myself on my sense of direction. But not here.

Not that I'm worried, and in fact it turns out that where we are is only a turn or two away from a major street through the area. No, my temporary befuddlement is just a confirmation of how close and intricate is the web of lanes in this part of Bombay.

The building opposite is not particularly interesting. (Perhaps I am expecting one like the great edifice at a junction nearby that says, across its top, "Kamalabai N Brahmandkar Hall"). But behind me is a small open doorway that I would not have looked at twice, except now I catch a hint of movement in the darkened space inside. I do look twice, and the movement is from a man working on a tabla.

Have to go in.

He's sitting cross-legged in the long narrow room, a wiry man in his 50s. He's applying a black paste on the sound surface of the tabla, to produce the large round black spot that all tablas have. The paste is made from a black powder he has in a bottle. "It's called tabla-ka-shai, and it comes from Bhavnagar", he says. "Here," and he hands me the bottle, "feel how heavy it is."

And it is. The little bottle is less than half-full, but it's unexpectedly heavy. He applies the powder, then uses a large black stone in a sort of massaging motion on the flat surface, again and again, smoothening and polishing the black spot. Something about his diligence reminds me of the woman, scrubbing the pavement and her clothes. The skin itself once belonged to a goat. The strips that hold it in place, that must be moved about to tune the instrument, are from a cow's hide.

This is Ravindra V Patankar, third-generation tabla maker. The room is filled with tablas and dholaks and pakhwajs (the two-sided drum known in the south as a mridangam). There are so many that I get the uncanny impression that the room is also filled with drumming: is that a sawal-jawab I hear? The one he's working on is made from a bright silver-plated pot, and ones like that are the most common in the shop. Others are made from gleaming brass, duller copper, there are even a couple of wood instruments. Some look new, but many have clearly been heavily used, the best evidence for that coming from the fading, sometimes crumbling black spots. Those have been left for Ravindra to restore.

"It's a lot of hard work," Ravindra tells us. "For example, this one" -- he points to the tabla he's working on -- "will take me four hours!" He smiles wryly, looking faintly surprised himself that he will be that long attending to this one instrument. Four hours, only to put the black Bhavnagar powder on, stick it there with a paste made from maida, and use this stone to smoothen it.

"It's a special stone," says Ravindra, showing me the gleaming black thing in his hand. "You don't get it everywhere." Oh? And where did it come from? "I don't know," he says. "I have two from my father's time. They don't wear out easily, but if I do need a new one, I'll have to pay Rs 250 or 300." And the skins? "Kolhapur or Solapur. We don't buy skins from Gujarat, they are often fakes."

A smooth stone, real skins and black powder from Bhavnagar: if you want to set up a tabla business, these are the essentials.

It was Ravindra's grandfather, Yashwant Mahadeo Patankar, who first set up shop here, over a hundred years ago. Business was good for a long time, because there was an abiding interest in classical music -- in the arts, generally -- in this particularly Marathi neighbourhood. On Yashwant's death, the shop passed to Ravindra's father, Vasant, and later to Ravindra. In fact, it is named after his father -- "Vasant Yashwant Patankar & Sons". As he tells me with some pride: "we have a name in this business." Today, Ravindra runs the shop with his wife Sugandha.

But in there is the first sign that things are changing. Tucked amidst the cornucopia of percussion instruments is a stately old ... sewing machine. Sugandha Patankar supplements the family income -- the shop's income -- with tailoring jobs. "It's no longer possible," explains Ravindra, "to make enough money just on the tabla work. After me, the shop will close down."


Three reasons.

One, Sugandha and Ravindra have only one child, a daughter about twenty, and she is not remotely interested in his tabla business. Not even in classical music?

His wry smile back, Ravindra responds almost apologetically: "She likes film music."

Two, what he calls "readymade" tablas are ruining his business ("barbaad" or "destruction" is the word he uses). Few want to pay for the careful handmade quality of his tablas. "My father taught us never to spoil our name by caring about money," says Ravindra, "but these days people only look at money, they don't care about our name!"

Three, there's been a serious dwindling of interest in music and the arts over the last couple of decades, particularly in this Marathi heartland. Many Marathi speakers have moved out of here, but is that the whole explanation? I don't know, but I'm reminded of so many others who mourn the fading away of Marathi literature, theatre, film ... and now this.

"Yeh kala hai," Ravindra says about his work. "It's an art. And after I'm gone, there will be nobody to do it."

On my way out of Thakurdwar a few hours later -- oh yes, I found my way out -- I climb the stairs to Charni Road station. Smart Female Computer Operators are still Required Urgently, I note irrelevantly. The old woman is still there too. Clothes done, she sits on the patch of pavement she had scrubbed clean. In the blur of commuters who rush past, she's almost lost.


Bombay Addict said...

"mourn the fading away of Marathi literature, theatre, film ... " how true and how sad.

Are you back finally from Goa are still peripatetic ?

Dilip D'Souza said...

BAddict, back from Goa a few days ago! Just catching up, will call.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you Neela. It's been very interesting walking around -- as a certain Bombay Addict will testify too -- parts of this city as part of this project that's really just a pleasure. Hope to be doing more very soon.

Anonymous said...

Good Series
I have 2 suggestions - Can you expand this and compile it into a book about the city?
It is a joy to see certain lesser known aspects about our city. People will see the city in adifferent light rather than always tagging it to the mafia and Bollywood (I do not like this term though).
Some other pieces to work on:
- The garment manufacturers in Loweer Parel
- The small scale units in the suburbs of Kandivali etc
- A piece on Thane the cousin of Bombay

Please do not refer to all and sundry people claiming to be experts -(your piece on Dongri). It spoils the feel of the piece. Concentrate on the sights and sounds of the place

Shruthi said...

Beautiful piece. I love the Tabla, but never bothered to find out how it was made! Thank you!
Btw, the Pakhawaj and the Mridangam do bear a strong resemblance, but there are differences in their construction, and a very obvious difference in the sound each one produces. That is, "Pakhawaj" and "Mridangam" are not two names for the same instrument.
I don't comment here often, but I enjoy reading your blog. I liked the series on Goa, and I wait with bated breath for your examples of Indianisms :)

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Shruthi, and you're right about the Pakhawaj and mridangam. I should have said they resemble each other, but are not the same instrument. Which reminds me, have you noticed the similarity between the dulcimer in the West and our santoor?

You wait with bad breath for my examples of Indianisms? Hmm. May I suggest Pepsodent, works for me ... oh, that's "bated"? So sorry.

Anonymous said...


Can you please tell me the difference between pakhawaj and mridangam.

I am very confused in both as the shopkeeper from whome i purchased mridangam doesn't know himself if it is mridangam or pakhawaj.
Thanks for your time and help.


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