There is a reason why the kamanchas on view at Manganiyar performances have a charming antiquity about them. They often come stained, patched up, with bits of inlay work missing—all signs that they are in regular use. But they are, almost without exception, also very old.
This is where Shankara Ram Suthar’s story as master kamancha-maker begins. In the early eighties, academics—and musicians—found that no one was making kamanchas any more. They imported a batch of about 16 from Pakistan, where artisans evidently had a bit if stock, and these made their way to collectors and musicians. But with no local craftsmen, there was a problem.
Like the one Sakar Khan had. Sakarji, the greatest living exponent of the instrument (Amarrass will release an album of sessions with him soon), discovered that the mango wood belly of his kamancha had developed a crack. But with no artisans making the instrument, there was no one competent to carry out repairs either. Shankara Ram Suthar, the carpenter by trade and caste, lived near Sakarji in the little village of Hamira, Jaisalmer. The instrument was taken to Suthar, who, knowing it belonged to a master, carried out the repairs meticulously. Sakarji’s kamancha was good to play again.
The fact that the carpenter’s work had passed muster with the redoubtable Sakar Khan drew other musicians to Suthar. He carried out repairs for them, but there seemed to be few fresh orders. This, despite the efforts of government officials sensitive to the fact that the art of making kamanchas was dying: Suthar produced some excellent prototypes for them, but that was about it. If you were just making kamanchas, you were not making a living.
Suthar fell back on carpentry. He would travel to Pune to make furniture for a contractor, as half-made instruments languished in his little workshop in Hamira. He still does what he has to to earn a living, but we are happy to report that he has received fresh orders through the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts. A discerning British collector of stringed instruments (and pensioner), received his kamancha last month and said he was delighted. A second piece will shortly be on its way to the United States. And a third one makes its way to Germany this summer. We are, we hope, seeing the beginnings of a renewal of interest in this unique instrument. (below: our first kamancha sold!)
The kamanchas that are produced in Hamira are special not just because of the high level of craftsmanship that goes into making them. They are also the product of a secular collaboration. The Suthar crafts the wooden portions of the instrument - the sound box, the bow, the neck and so on, but his Hindu religious beliefs forbid him from working with animal hide or gut. Once the skeleton is finished, the Muslim Manganiyars take over, attaching the hide, adding the gut strings and, of course, tuning the instrument to ensure it is perfect. When Sakar Khan is within earshot, nothing less will do.
Shankara Ram Suthar's speciality: Kamancha. This is the instrument that is at the heart of the Manganiyars's music. And the Suthar is the finest maker of it. All he needs is a block of wood of his choosing. To order this unique instrument, write to us or order online: