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The time-honoured craft of indian instrument making is being lost as more lucrative professions become available to the younger generation. Pete lockett takes a look at the time consuming practice of hand-making drums and meets Harjit Singh Shah, one of the men trying to ensure that this unique and highly skilled process does not disappear.

One of the amazing things about classical Indian music is the fact that it has been changed very little over the centuries by passing trends and fashions. This is so not only for the musical system, but also for the instruments' design and manufacture.  Age old techniques demanding great skill and patience are still being used in an age where machines are dominant.

 Even so, the intricate craftsmanship is beginning to die out. The instrument maker is often struggling to earn a good living, and as time ensues, families with long lineages of craftsmen behind them are turning away from the craft as Younger generations go into more commercial lines. Sad as it is, it’s inevitable just so long as the criterion is maximum profit for minimum pay out. What motivation would someone have to work for months building an Instrument that it took them years to learn how to make when they can do business studies and treble their money?

In India and the UK there is one man who is very aware of this problem and has devoted his life to upkeeping the standards of the old, traditional ways of making Indian instruments, and to seeing to it that the craftsmen are paid well enough to want to continue. Harjit Singh Shah is based in London but has a large factory and manufacturing plant for Indian instruments in Delhi and Utra Pradesh in India. For 24 generations his family have been involved in the music business in India. Having studied the finer details of instrument making with some of the top exponents of the craft in India, Harjit set up his business, JAS Musicals.

ind dms 4-5001 copy.jpg (72992 bytes)Traditionally very few machines are used in making Indian instruments, most of the processes being carried out by hand.  I’m going to look at the manufacture of a large dhol drum, from when it was a tree until its arrival on the shop shelf.  One necessary appliance is the lathe used in the turning of the drum shells. From the chopping and sawing of the tree right down to the carving and skin making, the rest of the job is done entirely by hand.

The dhol is a double-ended barrel shaped drum held around the neck and played with two sticks, one thin cane stick and a larger bent wooden stick for the bass end. Traditionally both heads would be made from goat skin laced together over the shell by one piece of rope which would be threaded through the edge of both skins. Like many Indian double-ended drums, one head is tuned to generate the bass tones while the other head is tuned to generate the treble tones. For this purpose one skin is made slightly thicker than the other.

Sizes range from 12” to 27” deep, sometimes even 30”. The treble end ranges from between 12” to 14”, but the most favoured head size is 13” The bass end is usually slightly bigger than the treble end.  The shell of a dhol is made from one piece of wood, ideally a hardwood such as shesham, which is similar to teak. The harder the wood the sharper and clearer the sound.

In India, all the tree chopping is done by the government who hold massive tree auctions attended by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Over the last four years the Prices have risen by at least three times. The trees are bought unseasoned; it must look like Sloane Square after The Chelsea Flower Show’.

Harjit is one instrument maker who always attends the auctions in person to choose the right wood. He then gets it delivered to his seasoning plant outside a small village in Utra Pradesh where the tree is left whole in the open air for One year, This part of the country, besides being beautifully scenic, also has very uncompromising seasons and therefore gives the wood a thorough seasoning. It can get as cold as 2 ~3 degrees C, and as hot as 490C. This, coupled with the rainy season, gives it exposure to many changes in climate.

After seasoning, the tree is taken to the second factory in Naraina in Delhi, Central India. It’s then sawn into smaller Cross sections by hand by two individuals and a saw that would make Rolf Harris wince. This is a very long winded and backbreaking job, but not half as backbreaking as the next stage: carving the block of’ wood into a general drum shape with a big axe called a kulhari . This part of’ the process can take up to two days.indian drums photo 1001 copy.jpg (38777 bytes)

Next comes the only part of the process involving machines. The drum-shaped solid block is placed on a lathe; at this point, the shell has a smaller block cut from its centre with a sharp metal instrument. This smaller version then gets put onto another lathe and has an even smaller block cut from its centre.  The result is three identical blocks which become dhol, dholak and small tabla respectively, each being smaller than the next one like a set of Russian dolls. The lathe is then modified to be able to hold the shells for the next part of the process. This is shown in Fig. 2. The outsides are given their final shaping on the lathe and all the decorative carvings are added. These shells are then seasoned for another six months, although this time under a shelter, protected from the sun and rain.

Following this important second seasoning, the shells are hand-picked. Not all shells will have survived the process without developing small cracks or splits. These shells are disposed of, only the best getting accepted for the final part of the operation. The shells each receive a final seasoning mixture applied to the inside. This paste (or masaIa) of soil proteins is applied and allowed some time to soak in fully. This final seasoning adds warmth and depth to the final tone of the drum. Following this, the shells receive their coat of varnish and polish depending on what finish is required. There is a big demand these days for unpolished drums — if the drum has been well seasoned this can be particularly attractive.

Each shell then has goat skin heads made. Each head is made specifically for each drum because in the second seasoning, depending on the heat, the shells can shrink slightly. The heads have bamboo hoops around which the skin is dried. Holes are made at regular intervals around the edge near the bamboo rim, and the skins are laced together over the shell and tensioned. If the drums are to be exported then I’m assured by the people at JAS that all fine tuning changes are done at their destination. The climatic changes would be too great for such finely tuned instruments to survive.

The modern day trend with the Dhol is to have a plastic skin on the treble end, tensioned by metal tuning rods.  The rope for the bass skin then fits around the lug boxes of the tension bolts so you still get the traditional rope on the outside of the shell.  I personally prefer the goat skin on both ends.

This is important with drums but is a vital necessity with instruments such as the sitar. (By the way, did you know that originally the sitar’s sound box was made from a pumpkin, and that the instrument, neck and all, was entirely hollow, while all the frets were moveable on the fret board and held on with bits of string. Amazing).

After all this time consuming manufacture, the drums are packed into containers in Delhi and then transported by rail to the Indian coast where they begin their sea voyage to Europe. Packing the drums well for a journey like this is almost as important as the attention paid to the manufacturing process. Damaged equipment would be of little use to anybody. Harjit makes special journeys to India to supervise the packing process. Only about five percent of the goods get damaged in transit — usually the more fragile items such as Sitars and Sarods.

Any feedback, please contact me at

If you are ever in Lahore-Pakistan, go check out Papu Saien who plays mosty Thursday nights at the Shaj Mahal sufi temple at around 10-30pm for two hours.  One of the most truly amazing dhol players ever, with great portions of the tabla solo repetoire down on the drum, villumbit teen tal, jhap tal, you name it.  Worth a special trip to PK I would say.

Also, check out Johnny Kalsi and the Dhol foundation.  Top stuff, believe me.

- Pete

CDs of Pete's work are now available from his site