MUMBAI — Every year, as the month of June dawns, Sagar Kerluskar starts drawing up plans for his “annual pilgrimage”. He applies for a five-day leave at the local business where he works as a manager, books his bus tickets and makes a phone call to Mumbai’s DG Tabla Merchants. After that, the 38-year-old surveys the 150-odd pieces of musical instruments lying in the community hall of the neighbourhood. Picking out the ones that lie damaged, he undertakes the overnight bus journey from Raigad to Mumbai, a friend in tow. This seemingly dull routine is one Kerluskar looks forward to the most as he sets in motion preparations ahead of the Ganapati festival for Warkari dhol tasha pathak (Marathi for troupe). “Once the instruments have been repaired and tuned, we begin practising for the festival, the 55-odd musicians, meeting every evening after work for an hour or two,” Kerluskar explains.
This year, with the pandemic raging and the restrictions on travel and public gatherings in place, Kerluskar feels tied down. “None of us had imagined we will see a time when Maharashtra will not celebrate its biggest festival,” he adds. For Lalbaug’s DG Tabla Merchants, which has witnessed Bal Gangadhar Tilak lay the foundations of the sarvajanik Ganeshotsav in Colonial Mumbai over 125 years ago, this year’s tepid celebrations are an anomaly they are still struggling to register. “My great grandfather Govardhandas started the business nearly 150 years ago. He was employed in one of the textile mills when Tilak started the tradition of the sarvajanik Ganapati among mill workers. As a family that has traditionally been in the business of making musical instruments, we have ever since been closely associated with the festival,” says Mehul Chauhan, the fourth generation owner of the business.
“None of us had imagined we will see a time when Maharashtra will not celebrate its biggest festival.”
An eerie calm
After the three-month nationwide lockdown caused a complete shutdown of the city’s businesses, a calm seems to have permanently replaced Mumbai’s chaos. The maidan that is home to Mumbai’s famous Lalbaugcha Raja sits empty. On its periphery, the Chivda Galli shops look forlorn, the handful of shoppers as if ripped of adrenaline. With little work, shopkeepers toy with their mobile phones, some simply watch the passing traffic.
On the street across from the maidan, Damodardas Govardhadas Tabla Merchant is witnessing activity in bouts. Patrons arrive with their damaged bongos, duffs, tabla or other musical instruments, looking to have them fixed. Others are there to buy a new piece altogether. Seated on a raised platform, amid a variety of percussion instruments, Mehul attends to most of them personally, answering their queries. In a neighbourhood that houses several such shops, his is the only with a steady stream of visitors. But Mehul is unimpressed. “Usually, these ten days of Ganapati are the busiest. People queue up for hours sometimes as they browse the various musical instruments, mostly looking at percussion drums that are used in Ganesh aarti,” he explains.
Monsoons in Maharashtra are a harbinger of business for DG Tabla Merchants, the most popular store for Indian percussion instruments in Mumbai. The 36-year-old owner, who took over the business from his father Suresh two years ago, allowing him to retire, says that most of their loyal patrons visit them between the months of June and August. “The villages and towns in the Konkan region are best connected with cities via the interstate bus network. From the month of June, people start bringing their instruments for repair. They book their tickets according to our delivery dates. A dholki typically takes four days to fix while a pakhawaj may take up to eight or 10. In the interim, they stay with their families or friends in Mumbai, marvelling at the big city life,” explains Mehul, who has watched his grandfather Damodardas and then his dad fall into this annual routine.
“For Lalbaug’s DG Tabla Merchants, this year’s tepid celebrations are an anomaly they are still struggling to register.”
A family legacy
The boom in Bombay’s textile trade in the late 19th century lured thousands from across the country with the promise of a job and steady income. Among those who bought into the dream was Govardhandas Dabgar. A member of the dabgar community, traditionally involved in the making of percussion instruments, he migrated from his village near the Gujarat-Rajasthan border to settle in Mumbai’s Lalbaug sometime in the 1870s. “Perhaps it was the limited scope of trade or the discrimination he intended to escape, being from a caste that works with raw hide, my great grandfather left the life he knew to start over in this city,” says Mehul, recounting the stories he has heard from his father.
While working in the mills, Govardhandas was introduced to the Warkari sect and their rich tradition of bhakti music. Mehul believes that a companionship with the community’s musicians must have compelled his great grandfather to resume his skills at working with instruments. And about two decades later, when Lokmanya Tilak introduced the idea of sarvajanik Ganeshotsav among mill workers as a means of subverting the British Law against huge religious gatherings, Govardhandas probably found himself in demand since the processions were accompanied by musicians, who played dholkis, taal manjeeras and pakhawaj.
These bonds, forged almost 150 years ago, still serve the family. Most of their old clients are members of the Warkari community that chiefly uses the dholki and pakhawaj for kirtans. Apart from their annual religious yatra, called the wari, the Warkaris also have daily kirtans during the 10-day Ganapati festival. “Wadala Ram Mandir, attached with Cottoncha Raja mandal, has been a patron of DG Tabla merchants ever since it was founded 82 years ago. They are the best at what they do. It requires skill to repair instruments that are over 50 years old and make them seem like new,” says 45-year-old Jagdish Khandagale, one of seven Cottoncha Raja trustees.
The store also attracts a large number of dhol tasha players who purchase dhols a couple of months before the festival. In Mumbai, due to lack of space, many such pathaks can be seen practising under the flyovers in the evening hours or on weekends even as peak hour traffic trudges past. “The last few years have especially witnessed a renewed interest among the youth and the number of pathaks in the city have substantially increased,” Mehul points out. Many youngsters, both women and men, attend the practice sessions after a long day at college or work in order to be part of pathaks that play for the big mandals on the final day of visarjan. “Since the performances bring the processions alive and attract bigger crowds, pathaks have become competitive,” he adds.
“Since the performances bring the processions alive and attract bigger crowds, pathaks have become competitive.”
Behind the 10x10 sq ft space that serves as the shop, a spare room with a mezzanine doubles as storage and workshop. There, 64-year-old Pramila Jadhav is hard at work applying the tuning paste or shai/syahi on a tabla. She mixes a black powder ― stone ground fine ― with natural glue and applies it in layers. As each layer dries out, she evens it out and taps the base. “The way it sounds will tell me if the instrument is ready,” says Jadhav, who has been working with DG Tabla Merchant for 45 years. Her daughter, who has accompanied Pramila to work since the age of one, is also employed with them. “Mehul and I grew up together right here, in this shop, which was also the Chauhan family’s home until a few years ago,” says 35-year-old Deepali, seated next to her mother on the floor.
When Govardhandas started the business in Mumbai, he would serve his work shift and use his spare time to repair and make the percussion instruments. It was in the 1910s, once Damodardas joined him, that they set up a shop in the Elphinstone neighbourhood. “We moved to the current location only in 1956. We managed to buy a room across the corridor and decided to set up a workshop in that space. Over the years, the family has managed to build a strong patronage, which includes tabla maestro Zakir Husain and noted pakhawaj player Pratap Patil.
Over the years, as business gained momentum, the family also purchased a store for Western musical instruments. Located right next door, it is called Om Ganesh Musicals. “Every year during Ganapati, we keep a stock of 200-300 dhols in that store, which sells out quickly. This year, with the pathaks gone silent, we have not bothered.”
“Mehul and I grew up together right here, in this shop, which was also the Chauhan family’s home until a few years ago.”
The coronavirus impact
After the lockdown was announced, the family was unable to open the shop until June. By then, the leather used in making these instruments had gathered moisture. Of the usual staff of nine, only Pramila and Deepali are still in Mumbai and able to return to work. “During the season, we usually have the shop open for 15 hours whereas the workshop runs 24X7 on certain days. Since the store overlooks the Lalbaugcha Raja maidan, the whole neighbourhood is decked up and abuzz. The sights and sounds are festive and we all laugh, eat, chitchat while working. On the last day, we get together and watch the visarjan. But this year, it feels like the festival isn’t here yet. There are hardly any people or work,” rues Pramila, as she sets aside the tabla to pick up a pakhawaj.
In the backdrop, Deepali’s 10-year-old son Shubham is prancing about in the shop, helping the staff. But Mehul feels the young boy, a natural percussionist, should stop wasting his time and learn an instrument. “I will send him for classes as soon as this pandemic is over.” A lover of Maharashtrian folk and classical music, the owner feels he missed the opportunity to learn. “You can either make these instruments or play them because they both require saadhana; that’s our fate. And I chose mine too early in life. I hope Shubham and my own son do it differently.”