HOW TO BRING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT FROM INDIA – PART II

The other instrument that I got back with me on the same trip was a tanpura. Yes, a full sized female tanpura for vocal riyaaz!

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I usually practice with the iTanpura app but wanted to experience the real thing. The tanpura is quite a unique instrument. It doesn’t play melodies. It is an extremely pleasant sounding drone that helps the vocalist to maintain their pitch. And because it is hand made, it is also a work of art.

I had read and heard that tanpuras made in Miraj were the best. They are supposed to be the gold standard as far as tanpuras go. In terms of selecting where to buy it from, I did the same homework that I did for the harmonium. I chose the store that I did because they confirmed that they had the female Miraj tanpura in stock.

Once at the store, they brought out two tanpuras – one from Miraj, and another from Calcutta. The sound from both was equally awesome. But the Calcutta tanpura was the more beautiful of the two. The carving was intricate and detailed.

I decided to get that instead of the Miraj one. I also got it tuned to kaali chaar, just like I did with the harmonium.

I must mention that the store was quite surprised that I wanted to buy a tanpura. When I first arrived, they asked me if I wanted  an electronic tanpura. I seemed puzzled by that question. I could buy an electronic tanpura anywhere with a few mouse clicks. Why would I travel all the way for that? They then clarified that hardly anyone uses a real tanpura now. The sale of traditional instruments is on the decline in India overall, but even among the few buyers, the digital tanpura is much more popular because of the convenience and the cost factor. The families that have made the tanpura for generations are either branching out to other instruments, or are abandoning the skill altogether. It was sad to hear this.

A tanpura is a big instrument. There is no way to bring it as a cabin luggage in an aircraft (unless you  buy a seat for your instrument). It has to be checked in. And that’s what made me nervous. I had heard plenty of horror stories.

The folks in the store didn’t think it was a problem at all. They showed me a fiberglass case (also known as a flight case) which is used for transporting musical instruments. It is shaped like a tanpura but can probably be used for other string instruments. It has a hollow cavity where the instrument is placed. The case seemed strong and sturdy, and I bought it as well.

The store wrapped the tanpura, put it in the case and filled any gaps with packing material.

I also bought a resting pillow for the tanpura and that went in there as well to provide additional cushioning, along with some books and two sets of strings.

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They closed it and affixed a “Handle with care” sticker on it. On an earlier phone call, the airline had told me that this sticker didn’t guarantee the safety of the instrument, and that I would be transporting it completely at my own risk. So this was more cosmetic than functional.

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The lid is secured with two fasteners, and two seat belt style straps. There is also a number lock but the store recommended I keep it unlocked.

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The case is bulky but can be easily maneuvered by a single individual.  It has two wheels on the broader side.

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There are 3 handles – one each on the top, side, and in the center.

Bringing it from the store to our Airbnb in Bombay was somewhat of a struggle. We called an Uber XL but ended up with a regular sized car. We managed to squeeze in the case on the front seat next to the driver, but it blocked the driver from shifting gears. We had to move it around so that the gears were accessible. Our driver was very helpful and helped us nestle it snugly.

Luckily, on our way to the airport, we got the right car category and the case fitted in the trunk with plenty of room to spare.

At the airport, the person checking us in didn’t even bat an eyelid. He simply told us that it would go as an oversize luggage on a conveyer belt different from the one for regular luggage (whew!). Another employee came and wheeled it away. And that was it. No fuss, no questions, no extra fees or penalty, nothing. It was quite anti-climactic after all the anxiety I had about what I would do in case they refused to take it.

Now it was up to the travel gods. After check-in, I didn’t see my tanpura until I reached my destination city. Oversize baggage is delivered in a separate area adjacent to the the regular conveyer belts.  We saw it even before we could locate our suitcases on the belt. There it was, standing upright, my prized possession.

We breezed through customs and other formalities. It was uneventful. It seemed like I had been paranoid for no reason and airlines were perfectly capable of transporting musical instruments, and it was the most normal thing in the world of travel.

Bringing it home was easy with an Uber XL. It arrived home safely. It did get out of tune, but that was a minor inconvenience. Other than that, the tanpura made it across the globe in one piece.

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So yes, it can be done. You can bring musical instruments from India on an international flight. I brought not one, but two on the same flight! You can carry them with you in the cabin, and you can also check them in. I won’t deny that I had some anxiety if they would survive the ordeal, but they did, and I am now the proud owner of two beautiful melodious instruments. Happy to answer any questions about the process.

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HOW TO BRING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT FROM INDIA – PART II

How to bring a musical instrument from India – Part I

I first played the harmonium in the sixth or seventh grade. One of our neighbors, who I affectionately addressed as maamaa, was a devotional singer and quite well known and famous in the small villages around Kanpur. He offered to teach me the harmonium when in town (he was usually traveling with his troupe for performances and competitions). And so for those few days a month, he became my first music guru. The only peti I ever played was the one he let me borrow. He is no more, but the love for the peti that he imparted to me, is as strong as ever.  My instruction was extremely adhoc, lasted for a very short duration, and mostly consisted of learning to play popular Bollywood melodies, starting with the non-filmi bhajan om jai jagdish hare. There was no written notation, and I learnt to play by the ear.

Somehow the thought of owning a peti never crossed my mind while I lived in India. As I grew older, the electronic keyboard seemed more modern and the practical thing to own. However, in the last few years, as I developed an appreciation for Hindustani classical music, my love for the peti experienced a reawakening. This is of course ironic, because a classical purist would scoff at the harmonium and label it as a western instrument (which it is).

Obtaining a peti in the US is no easy task, though it is much easier now than before. Last month, I made a trip to India and one of the important goals of the trip was to bring back a harmonium. How I was going to do this, I had no idea. But as they say, when there’s a will, etc.

Homework: Since Bombay was going to my take off point from India, I focused on that city. But every Indian city would have a similar shop which true music lovers should be able to point to. I emailed two stores using the email address on their websites:  http://www.haribhau.com/ (based in Girgaon) and  http://www.haribhauvishwanath.com/ (based in Dadar).  I inquired about models available, and the feasibility of bringing them with me on my flight out of India. They both responded to my emails and confirmed that they had harmoniums in stock that I would be able to purchase immediately. Depending on my requirements, the instrument could either be carried in-hand as a cabin baggage or checked-in.

Purchase: I decided to make my purchase from the Girgaon store. Once I reached India, I called them again to confirm availability and store hours.

In Bombay, a day before our outbound flight, Hobbes and I took an Uber to the store. The drop off location was a short walk away, which we were able to navigate easily with the help of Google Maps. In the store, I checked out the various models available. I ended up getting this one. This is a “basic” harmonium and does not have a scale changer or coupler functionality. If you are curious what these terms mean, and whether you need them, check out this excellent guide. The fancier, the more sophisticated models come with lots of functionality, and are very pretty.  On my piece, I got the following customizations done. I got it tuned to kaali chaar (which is my natural sam). I had the drones altered to sa, ma, pa, and dha. This model is available in two variations – I got the one with the C-E keys. I was able to pay with a US credit card.

Transportation: For me, one non-negotiable requirement was the ability for the instrument to qualify as a cabin bag. I had a cabin weight allowance of 8 kg per item. While this piece was slightly over that limit, it was the lightest model available that would meet all my needs and could be folded into a suitcase with a handle.

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The top lid is detachable and is removed when playing.

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The stops and drones.

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Bellows.

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The enclosure also came equipped with a number lock.

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The store put packing material in all four corners to make sure the harmonium wouldn’t unfold.

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They then put it in a black cloth bag with a zipper and a cut out for the handle.

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At the end of it all, it looked like any other cabin bag. You couldn’t guess that there was a harmonium inside.

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It went through airport security scanners at Bombay and Frankfurt just fine, with no questions asked. Once in the aircraft, it easily slid into the overhead compartment.

The only discomfort was carrying it around in the airports. I wish that it had wheels so it could be rolled instead of carried. My carry on suitcase (my second cabin bag) was a tad smaller so I couldn’t fit it in, but if you have an empty carry-on bag which can accommodate it,  that would make it much easier to lug around. Hobbes was the perfect gentleman and carried it through all the airports. It arrived home with me, perfectly tuned, and without any blemishes!

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P.S. This is the first part of a post I wrote to help anyone who might be wondering how to bring a musical instrument from India to another country. I was in the same situation and couldn’t find any thing on the web that addressed this topic fully. Hoping my post will assure music lovers around the world that this can indeed be done. To be continued.

How to bring a musical instrument from India – Part I

Nakal ki akal

So what if it’s a copy? I’ve never been happier to discover an “inspired” song. All I care about is that I get to hear this awesome tune in Mehdi Saheb’s amazing voice. Listen to the antara to figure out the original. Lata’s rendition has always been one of my all time favorite songs. If you’ve ever wondered how this would sound in an equally awesome male voice, this is it! Keep your musical righteousness aside for a few minutes, ignore the lyrics, the visuals, and let your ears delight in the voice of the genius jinke gale mein bhagwaan bolte hain.

Nakal ki akal

Moh moh ke dhaage

I never expected this to be an Anu Malik creation. I just don’t associate him with this kind of sound. Lesson learnt, with pleasure. I’m glad he picked a classically trained singer for this. Monali’s voice is sweet and strong at the same time. There is a Papon version too, but to my ears, this song sounds better in the female voice. The humming in the beginning is so calm and not rushed at all.  Hai rom rom ek tara gives you a hint that this is going to be quite different from those typical 90s Anu numbers.

The antaras are where the vocal somersaults really take off.  Tu hoga zara paagal, tune mujhko hai chuna. I feel like a child who’s been let loose in a playground without adult supervision, going up and down the slides. The melody takes unexpected turns. Kaise tune ankaha – now I am on the see saws, sometimes high, sometimes low. Then it’s back to the slide. The third time around tu hoga zara paagal comes around, I am sitting at the bottom of the slide, catching my breath, trying to decide, what to get on next. The unexpected variation in how the line ends surprises you. I imagine the composer chuckling to himself.

Tu din sa hai. More antics. Delightful ones. And then slowly the antara merges into the mukhda and I am back to being the shy kid standing by myself.

The words are all right but I found myself longing for some Gulzar-esque poetry. The lyrics didn’t move me as much as the music did. Oh well, you can’t have it all.  If this is how Anu Malik’s creations are going to sound from now on, I won’t be complaining.

P.S. This two year old movie is a delightful watch. Not just for this song, but also for overall execution. And, if you grew up in middle class North India, you will identify many things that will bring a nostalgic smile to your lips.

Moh moh ke dhaage