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Santoor making – on the verge of extinction

Today Ghulam Mohammad Zaz is the only Santoor maker left in Kashmir
BROKEN STRINGS – NAUSHEEN NASEER (for Greater Kashmir)

Ghulam Mohammad Zaz sits on a mat surrounded by his countless tools—chisels, hammers, screwdrivers, handsaws and knives—in a tiny, decrepit room that serves as his workshop on the banks of Jhelum. Besides tools, his workshop, a small square room, is also cluttered with wooden planks and bricks. The room is steeped in history.
The narrow staircase leading up to the room creaks every time you step on it. Thick layers of soot cover the decaying walls and ceiling of the room. Almost everything in this second-story workshop is tinged with sawdust. Tiny bits of it float around and then quickly disappear out of thin air. The horns of a sheep, which are used to make various musical instruments, rest atop a stool in one corner.
A few centuries ago, when Zaz’s ancestor set up the workshop where Zaz still works to make santoors, he had no idea that the craft would be passed onto his future generations. Zaz is the eighth generation of santoor-makers in this family.
“My ancestors started making santoors more than 200 years ago. The techniques and skills were handed down from one generation of santoor-makers to the next. And today I am the only santoor-maker left in Kashmir,” says Zaz who is in his early seventies. He says he has been putting together the pieces of santoors ever since he can remember.
As he speaks, his gaze quickly flits to the santoor hanging precariously by a hook on the wall. “That santoor over there is 90 years old and so is that one,” he says pointing to another santoor made of mulberry wood and wrapped carefully in a transparent polythene sheet. A faded label on top of it displays the makers’ name – “Rahman Joo Zaz & Sons.”
The Kashmiri santoor is a hundred stringed musical instrument made out of walnut and played with wooden mallets called kalams. It has 25 bridges, each carrying four steel strings for a total of 100 strings (unlike its Indian and Persian counterparts, which has 87 and 72 strings respectively). It produces a deep resonating sound, which is considered perfect for the slow Kashmiri classical and folk music.
It takes Zaz around two months to make a santoor. The walnut wood must be at least 10-20 years old. Only then can the instrument survive for a long time. “If you handle it well, the santoor can last more than 200 years,” he says.
Zaz works without using the most important tool in any woodworker’s closet – the tape measure. “I measure with my eyes,” he laughs. “I just take up my pencil and guess which measurement would produce the tune I want.”
When all the measurements are done and the santoor is ready, Zaz sells it. He says it fetches him over Rs 15,000.
Besides Santoor, he also makes Rabab, Sarangi, Sitar, Saz-e-kashmir and Tawoos. His workshop is full of them. An old sitar lies propped up against the wall, still unfinished. “I will start working on it only when I get an order.” He picks up the Rabab, a short-necked lute made of mulberry wood attached with wires that are made from animal guts, lying beside him, and tries to play it. “I don’t know how to play these instruments and neither did my ancestors. We just know how to make them,” he laughs.
On the wall behind him are framed pictures of Indian Santoor maestros, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who first introduced the Santoor to Indian classical music, and Pandit Bhajan Sopori. “Shiv Kumar Sharma, his father and Bhajan Sopori used to order santoors from my family,” says Zaz. Even today the maestros recommend the santoor Zaz makes to people and musicians in India and elsewhere who then come looking for him.
But he misses his most frequent customers—the Pandits, who used to buy many Santoors from him but have stopped coming now. And business is not as good as it used to be. Even though orders from some local tourists and foreigners keep coming, it is not the same anymore.
There is another problem too. Zaz’s three daughters got themselves educated instead of learning and taking up the craft, and he has no son to run the business. His brother has a job and nobody has come forward to learn the craft from Zaz. “The government should have done something about it,” he says. “Now I’m old and don’t have the energy to teach others.”
Zaz says he owes a lot to this craft that he inherited from his forefathers. “It has given me everything in life and I am happy with what I have,” he says as he locks the door of the same workshop where his forefathers used to make santoors, and walks to his house nearby.

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