Tunes of a bygone era

Shriya Mohan | Updated on October 04, 2019

Drum roll: Abdul Aziz restores each of the vintage pieces in his collection to working condition   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

In a dusty storehouse in a bylane of Jaipur, Abdul Aziz preserves his rich collection of heritage musical instruments against several odds

It was difficult to walk around in Abdul Aziz’s home without stepping on something that made music. The rooms heaved with musical instruments of all kinds: Tanpura, sitar, sarangi, sarod and tabla among others filled every available inch of space; drums hung out of windows and even the bathroom wall was lined with tambourines. His family, jostling for space with the instruments, finally cajoled Aziz into buying a small place, not far from home, to set up his shop-cum-museum two decades ago.

Today, Aziz is the proud custodian of over 1,000 musical instruments. The shop — Rajasthan music art and instrument — is a short drive from Jaipur’s famous Jal Mahal or lake palace.

“Collecting musical instruments has been a family tradition,” explains Aziz. His father, Abul Gaffar, and his uncle Abdul Sattar passed down to him their own learning from their parents and grandparents — the value of anything that produces a musical note.


Aziz also plays the nagara (Rajasthani kettle drum) everyday at the city palace just like his father and his grandfather before him played it for the erstwhile royal family. Today, long after the end of monarchy and the Jaipur kingdom’s merger with the Indian Union in 1949, Aziz continues his family’s traditional occupation of playing at the palace. His uncle Sattar is known to have played the nagara with the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

Aziz also plays the nagara at religious events for a living, besides renting out instruments from his collection. Many of his heritage instruments have featured in blockbuster Bollywood films such as Aamir Khan’s PK, Bajirao Mastani starring Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, and the Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai starrer Jodhaa Akbar. While Aziz is not averse to selling any of the instruments, he says discerning buyers are hard to come by.

“Everybody wants them [the instruments] cheap. Nobody understands the worth of these pieces of history,” says Aziz. The collection, indeed, is a mind-boggling one. A range of veenas, including the kinnari veena, vichitra veena and rudra veena, finds space there. Also on display are several kinds of sarangi such as the Sindhi sarangi, jogi sarangi and kalavati sarangi.

He has all manner of Rajasthani wind instruments, right from those that were used to deliver war cries to the ones that were played to welcome guests. The meenar turais, karnal and Mughal turais — conical, heavy brass instruments — are no less than five feet tall each and produce an urgent, high-pitched trumpet sound. A variety of tanpuras vie for attention — including those designed diffferently for female and male players, flat and gold-coated ones, and a few with peg boxes shaped like the mouth of an alligator or the curve of a peacock’s head. Then there are the richly decorated pieces such as veenas and sitars with gold-plated motifs, nagaras hand-painted in miniature Mughal style, and daflis — a tambourine — hand-painted with elaborate henna patterns.

An intriguing section in his collection is a range of tribal musical instruments, many of which he does not know by name but which he safekeeps with equal passion. He whips out a bamboo stick, the kind used to herd cattle, and produces a gentle whistling sound with every flick of it. Then there is the glazed ceramic flute shaped like a bird and his favourite Tibetan singing bowls, which resonate with a mellifluous hum when rapped with a mallet.

Aziz speaks of his instruments as if they were children he fostered. He maintains, repairs and restores each one of them to working condition. “I learnt from my elders through dikhya sikhya parikhya (listening and watching),” he says. This perhaps explains how he can repair every instrument, even though he cannot play all of them. When the Pink City’s Albert Hall Museum, Rajasthan’s oldest, wanted to repair the heritage instruments in its collection in 2008, the Vasundhare Raje government of the time reached out to Aziz. “I fixed all 400 of them,” he says.

With the passage of time, however, 52-year-old Aziz today struggles to remember how he came upon each instrument and where. “These are all Indian instruments that were handed down to me. I picked up several from my travels to Indore, Gwalior, Chhattisgarh and other places,” he says, unable to recall the specific details of their origin. “If I knew the historic details of the instruments I own, ab tak kahan pahunch jaate (I would’ve made it far in life),” Aziz says.

The upkeep of this invaluable collection is proving to be more than he can handle on his own. The thick coating of dust that covers most of the heritage instruments speaks for itself.

“Government officials come to see my collection and say it is wonderful. But when I ask for a permanent place to exhibit them, they walk away. These instruments will be buried in dust if they aren’t preserved properly,” Aziz says.

(Abul Aziz has a stall showcasing some of his heritage pieces at the India Music Summit on at the Fairmont in Jaipur till October 6.)

Shriya Mohan

Published on October 04, 2019

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