Thakurdwar seldom fails to remind one of Mumbai’s now-fading rich
history. The fade is gradual. To comprehend its merciless impact, visit
a tabla-maker who is fighting a lost battle against the readymade culture
One April morning,
I’m standing near Charni Road Station, chewing on bubble gum and
trying not to feel the heat. On the large tree to my right are two nails.
Hanging from one is a small but vivid portrait of gods, in a cheap frame.
Hanging from the other is a sign for Star Pest Control. Behind me are
the stairs of the footbridge to the station. On one of the pillars is
a sheet of paper that reads: “Required Urgently Smart Female Computer
Operator, Work Time 10am to 8pm.”
An old woman squats
on the pavement below the bridge. She obviously has a serious case of
leucoderma, but I really notice her only when she pours a few mugs of
water over a small area of the pavement. What is she doing? She reaches
into a bag behind her and pulls out a cake of soap. Uses that to scrub
the wet pavement. Pulls from the bag a rag, wipes the soapy pavement
dry with it.
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.
For years, I’ve
promised myself a walk through Thakurdwar. This is how it starts.
Walking in from
there, the lanes generally go off at right angles. Should be easy to
keep track of where we are. But they wind about, and we take so many,
that I am soon lost. Sure, it’s Thakurdwar — or maybe Girgaum
or CP Tank — but standing on one street looking up at the building
opposite, it’s 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 where we are is only a turn or two away from a
major street. No, my temporary befuddlement is just a confirmation of
how close and intricate is the web of lanes in this part of Bombay.
Not, too, that the
building I’m looking up at is particularly interesting. (Perhaps
I am subconsciously expecting it to be like the large squat edifice
at a nearby junction that has the intriguing name “Kamalabai N.
Brahmandkar Hall”). Behind me, though, is a small open doorway.
I would hardly have looked at it twice, except now I catch a hint of
movement in the darkened space inside. I look again. The movement is
from a man working on a tabla. Have to go in.
At Work: Ravindra Patankar polishing the tabla with a
Photo Mark A
Sugandha and Ravindra
have only one child, a daughter who is about twenty, and she is
not remotely interested in his work with tablas. He says almost
apologetically, ‘She likes film music’
and in his 50s, sitting cross-legged in the long, narrow room. He’s
applying a black powder on the sound surface of the tabla, to produce
the large round black spot that all tablas have. The powder is in a
little bottle. “It’s called tabla-ka-shai,” he says,
“and it comes from Bhavnagar.” Handing me the bottle, he
goes on: “Here, feel how heavy it is.”
It is heavy. The
bottle is less than half-full, but packs an unexpected heft.
He applies the
powder, then uses a large black stone in a sort of massage motion on
the flat surface, round and round, smoothening and polishing the black
spot. Something about his diligence, his perseverance, reminds me of
the woman, first scrubbing the pavement and then her clothes. And watching
him is a curiously mesmeric experience. After a few minutes I actually
have to shake my head to return to the here and now.
This is Ravindra
V. Patankar, third-generation tabla maker. The room is filled with tablas
and dholaks and pakhawajs (a two-sided instrument similar to the southern
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 tabla he’s working on is made from a bright silver-plated
pot. That kind are the most common in the shop. But there are others
made from gleaming brass, duller copper. There are even a couple of
wooden 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.
a lot of hard work,” Ravindra tells us. “For example, this
one” — he points to the tabla he’s polishing with
the stone — “will take me four hours!” He has a wry
smile as he says this, almost as if he is himself faintly surprised
that this one instrument will need that long. Four hours, only to put
the black Bhavnagar powder on, stick it there with a paste made from
maida, and use that stone to smoothen it.
special stones,” says Ravindra, showing me the gleaming black
thing in his hand. It’s so smooth and shiny, it seems almost alive.
“You don’t get them everywhere.” Oh? So where did
it come from? “I don’t know,” he says. “I have
two that my father bought years ago. They don’t wear out easily,
but if I need a new one, I’ll have to pay Rs 250 or 300.”
striking surface is made from goatskin. The strips that hold it in place,
that must be moved about to tune the instrument, are leather. Where
do these skins come from? “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 essentials. How would a fake skin change the
character of a tabla, I want to ask but forget.
It was Ravindra’s
grandfather, Yashwant Mahadeo Patankar, who first set up shop here on
this Thakurdwar lane, 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. People prided themselves on that interest. On Yashwant’s
death, the shop passed on to Ravindra’s father, Vasant, and later
to Ravindra. In fact, it is now named after his father — “Vasant
Yashwant Patankar & Sons”.
runs the shop with his wife Sugandha. He tells me with some pride, “We
have made a name in this business.”
beside me is a sign that things are changing. Standing amidst all the
percussion instruments is a stately old ... sewing machine. Sugandha
Patankar supplements the family income — the shop’s income
— with tailoring jobs. She has to, because as Ravindra explains:
“It’s no longer possible to make enough money just on the
tabla work. After me, the shop will close down.”
and Ravindra have only one child, a daughter who is about twenty, and
she is not remotely interested in his work with tablas. Not even in
wry smile returns as he answers, almost apologetically: “She likes
Second, what he
calls “readymade” tablas are ruining his business (“barbaad”
or destruction is the word he uses). I’m not sure how you can
“readymake” tablas, but Ravindra says they’re out
there. Few are willing 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!”
Third, over the
last couple of decades, there has been a large-scale dwindling of interest
in music and the arts, particularly in this heartland of Marathi Mumbai.
Many Marathi-speakers have moved out of here. But is that the whole
explanation? I’m reminded of so many others who mourn the fading
away of Marathi literature and film. And not far from here is Sahitya
Sangh Mandir, a cultural institution that staged some of the finest
Marathi theatre for years. You can still see plays here, but is almost
visibly desolate, a shadow of the place it once was.
And now this. Is
it the rise of the Marathi-speaking middle-class, its expanding aspirations,
that has turned it away from its heritage? Or is that reading too much
into this phenomenon?
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 — I found my way out — I approach
the footbridge. The old woman is still there. Clothes done, she sits
on the patch of pavement she had scrubbed clean only hours earlier.
In the blur of commuters who rush past, she’s almost lost.