Last generation of Santoor makers fading out into abyss

Facing a shrinking customer base and changed societal preferences, the traditional tune-maker of Old City is on the brink of losing his melody. His imminent inclusion in the long list of faded native artisans looks like another cultural collapse in the valley.

Ghulam Mohammad Zaz sits in his brightly-lit workspace, finding it an excruciating task to file the wooden edges of an unfinished Santoor robustly. With his fourth score age, the strength has waned in his emaciated fingers. But his will has remained the same, despite knowing the harsh verity that this is the last chapter of the legacy of eight generations.

The room has derelict mud-plastered walls—smeared with soot, here and there, with the straps of cardboard covering the cracks to prevent the intrusion of insects and unwanted light. All the sun which is needed, finds its way through the two small windowpanes, each lying on the opposite side of the other.

Zaz’s meditatively quiet workplace is profusely occupied by screwdrivers, spanners, pliers, old tin box-lets, little cans, a short stool meant for letting the visitors to sit on, a Rabab, an old Santoor, and a few frames hanging on the walls, with old black and white photographs, dust and dirt streaking across them.

This workspace is on the second-storey of the 300-year-old structure, which is as queer as most of the houses of the old city — a mere room modestly stacked upon the another, without any architectural ingenuity, like a pile of books, connected with a dark staircase which is too narrow to allow to pass the second person at once.

The room, where the octogenarian maestro has been making the string musical instruments, has Jhelum on its one side and Zaina Kadal market on the other, the famous Sufi shrine of Khanqah-e-Maula lying across the river.

Struck with a serious episode of Typhus fever in his childhood, Zaz had to leave his studies on the advice of a doctor ‘Gaash Laal’ and join the workshop as an apprentice of his grandfather, father, and uncle.

“This room, during the Dogra regime, used to be as vibrant and decorated as a flower bed. Now the ambiance has gone bleak, as you can see,” says Zaz, while pointing towards the decrepit walls. The art of making instruments has been sprawling down for eight generations and unfortunately, there’s no descendant to which Zaz can now bequeath the legacy. “I do not have any remorse,” he says, with a thoughtful face.

“My children are well-settled; some are practicing medicine abroad.” Had the slightest idea dawned upon him, as to who would take this trade forward, he would be very happy, but “as of now,” he says, “no one has shown any interest.”

Before the 1990s, Zaz would get a lot of orders from locals, but now he’s only able to finish 5 Santoors a year. This attenuation in productivity is partly because of his progressing age and whimsical moods, but chiefly because the underlying demand has sharply been declining. “Indigenous Muslims are a bit conservative about a lot of things, owing to which a lot of trades have lost their hay days, and this trade is one of them,” he laments. “It’s on the precipice of extinction, and that’s why I receive the major chunk of orders from outside the valley.”

Zaz can make an array of instruments like Sarangi, Santoor and Rabaab, but his expertise lies in the making of the stringed Santoor. Artists like Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bajhan Sopori have used the instruments Zaz has made.

“My soul lies in the strings, my heart knows their tune,” the Santoor maestro says. “I know the notes. Although I cannot play, but I am content with what I am doing.”


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