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