Carving Tunes into Wood: A Flute Maker's Story

Features Issue 110 Jan, 2011
Text by Nandita Rana / Photo: ECS Media

Festivals such as Indra Jatra, Macchindranath Jatra and Bhote Jatra are the most important events where bands of traditional musicians rally with their tunes, flutes being one of the major components. Try asking traditional groups of musicians where they get their flutes from, and there is little doubt they will refer to this little abode in Patan – Bajra’s home.

To the south of Mangal Bazaar chowk, the streets are laden with pots. Pots and crockery of all shapes and sizes, pots for every occasion and pots both modern and traditional. It’s amazing how every shop in the street is laden with nothing but utensils, kitchenware after kitchenware, hung in shops, displayed on the floor or neatly stacked on their many racks. A particular alley, however, in the maze of this busy ‘potland’, is famous for Shilpakars. And what are Shilpakars famous for? Their exquisite works of artistry. The same resonates in their quaint neighborhood, with beautifully crafted metal and woodworks, shop after shop, glistening in the afternoon sun, which falls through the traditional roofs.

Lifetime devotion
Venturing further into this bewildering thoroughfare, however, you might just discover a distinct artistry in a chowk, literally foyer - something entirely different coming from Bajra Bahadur Shilpakar’s corner. The tuning of wooden flutes that he keeps doting on night and day is a welcome change in the monotony. Reaching this particular chowk, a friendly voice attracts our attention. Looking up at the crafted wooden window to our right, Indra Bahadur Shilpakar, Bajra’s younger brother gives a welcoming smile and ushers us in. In his traditional living room the walls are covered with framed certificates and photographs – achievements for a lifetime devotion to flute making.

For the two brothers, their home is where some of the best wooden flutes in Nepal are crafted and sold, even before hitting the market. Their loyal clients coming from all over the country and even internationally overshadow the need of a showroom. Try asking traditional groups of musicians in the ‘Bhajan’ communities of Bhaktapur where they get their flutes from, and there is little doubt they will refer to this little abode in Patan – Bajra’s home. “I have people coming from all over Nepal,” says Shilpakar. “Most of them are musicians, as far as from Palpa in the west, Biratnagar and Hetauda in the east and nearby places including Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and even Kavre.”

Carrying the torch

He carries the legacy of his forefathers, all of whom were expert flute makers, and is identified for his consistency in this particular genre of craftsmanship. Even for those who do not recognize his name, they know where to find this particular Shilpakar in Patan, or the flute doctor! “A few days ago I had a visitor from California researching on flutes. And on his visit to Bhaktapur, he said an older generation flute player suggested that he should meet me,” recalls Shilpakar with a dramatic expression on his face. “He came all the way, travelling from Afghanistan, India and finally to Nepal. He wanted to show me this indigenous flute he’d brought from Afghanistan, which was nothing like I’d ever seen before, and the sound it made – ah, simply wonderful.”

From history, we have heard many stories about heroes and the entrancing melodies of their flutes. Lord Krishna in the Hindu legends, for example, epitomizes this character, attracting animals and humans alike, when playing his famous flute. Shilpakar too cannot help but agree to the command that a simple wind instrument can possess. “We play the Khoncha Khi tune during Indrajatra and Ghodejatra. Traditional musicians go from one neighborhood to another playing this tune,” says Bajra. “And it is amazing to see how well the dogs react to this music. They start crying when the flutes are played and actually follow the procession, but rarely do people realize this. Just imagine, if it could affect a humble creature, what about the gods? The power of music must surely please the divine.” For a believer like himself, his flutes are prized in most of the bhajan groups, or bands of musicians who play religious songs/hymns in temples, prevalent especially in the Newar communities of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu. It is Bajra who is summoned for any kind of upgrading or maintenance of their instruments.

Bajra Bahadur Shilpakar playing music on one of his muralis

An important instrument
Festivals such as Indra Jatra, Macchindranath Jatra and Bhote Jatra are the most important events where bands of traditional musicians rally with their tunes, flutes being one of the major components. Lifetime events such as the celebration of new birth, Nwaran – naming ceremony, wedding and death are other such occasions. Panchey baja or a combination of five instruments is played during major celebrations. “Five is considered an important number ritualistically, and murali, a special kind of flute, is one of the major instruments in panchey baja.”

Meanwhile, Bajra’s brother Indra brings a big bag full of different varieties of flutes. Bajra selects and starts playing the murali. The sound is alerting and loud, but the tune is something beyond comparison to anything heard before. On asking if the flute makers play their own instruments, he smiles and says, “We just don’t have the time! But we do have a general idea. Notation and scaling is important for us to tune the instruments.”

There is no count to the number of flutes he has made in his professional lifespan, which is currently 30 years and running. He learned by watching his father and grandfather design the instruments and started making flutes by himself when he was just 11 years old. Bajra has worked on 50 different varieties, which is a good number considering we are talking about just a flute.

“Variations within a certain category of flute can be plenty. A slight difference in the length, shape and thickness can totally change how a particular flute sounds.” He shows one of the Japanese flutes he has been working on, Shaku-hachi. “Traditionally, these flutes were made from bamboo roots. The problem with bamboo is that none is of the same thickness, thus creating different sounds from all the flutes.” So, one of Bajra’s specializations is to recreate most traditional varieties into solid wooden flutes, designed with exquisite engraving.

Bajra Bahadur has been making flutes(muralis) for well nigh 30 years now

A skilled affair
As polished as the final product may seem, working on wood with bare hands is an entirely different story. “Wood is comparatively cheaper in Nepal than it is in foreign countries. But this scenario here is changing with time.” He adds, “Flute making takes time. Sometimes you get it done within a day or two and sometimes it may take even weeks.” Bajra’s flutes are traditional in all regards, starting right from manual seasoning to handcrafting the entire body – it’s a lot of hard work. “We could use seasoning machines but it comes to be more expensive than what the wood costs us!” The Shilpakars stack up logs for months, in a way that they get plenty of sunlight while at the same time, protecting them from rain and moisture.

Carving out a fine piece of art from tattered timber is something fit only for the dexterous - and Bajra Bahadur Shilpakar is its maven. Echoed in every whistle of the wooden flutes are his efforts, transformed into nothing but pure melody. Flute making is not just a profession for this artist but a nexus where his prowess, passion and traditions meet.

For the inherent flute maker of more than four generations, Shilpakar says, “No, I don’t have students or people coming to learn techniques of traditional flute making from me. It takes persistence and the young are not interested anymore. My children are my apprentices and I’m sure they will carry this family legacy after me.”

Bajra Bahadur Shilpakar can be contacted at Bajra Wooden Flute, Jombahal – 18, Lalitpur, Tel: 5531068/ Mobile: 9841367156