Keeping the beat: From stringing guitars to mending music

Misal Khan’s shop fills the air with melodies as old instruments get new lease of life


Misal Khan is hopeful about the industry’s future. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD IQBAL/EXPRESS

PESHAWAR: The broken strings of a guitar, a harmonium and a cracked tabla stuffed in the corner of the shop just need some attention from Misal Khan. Once the instruments have been fixed, the 40-year-old’s repair shop will be alive with the sound of music.

Misal is among the three artists who still pursue the family profession of repairing old musical instruments and uniting them with curious fingers. He owns one of the oldest musical instrument repair shop that is shifted from Dabgari to Jahangir Pura. There are few highly skilled workers left who are willing to use their expertise to repair musical instruments.

His business was dealt a critical blow when their shop was uprooted from Dabgari, during the tenure of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Fanatics burnt the building down reducing valuable equipment and many old and new instruments to ashes.

“Fear prevailed in those days,” the 40-year-old told The Express Tribune, recalling the incident with troubled nostalgia. “We were told that if we visit our shop and we would be killed. Then they burned the shop and all the workers and artists were scattered.”

He talked while repairing a harmonium that was left at his shop by an artist who never returned for it as there was nowhere he could play in the city.

A difficult and dangerous situation developed in the province after the MMA government and musicians were targeted. Although the times have now changed and the situation has improved, the craftsmen have little work left.

This small shop offers a welcoming space for musicians. The artists are encouraged to engage and become part of the unique processes of repairing instruments. It is one-stop shop for all repairs and restorations for both fretted and percussion instruments.

“We have fair rates, and steadfast, quality craftsmanship,” Misal said. “This intimate approach to the art of instrument restoration allows customers to feel confident and they remain in the loop at all times.”

However, he added, few people come to the shop as the electronic instruments have replaced classical instruments.

Professional artists seldom visit Misal’s shop but young people who are fond of the rabab and piano and tabla do turn up. The business is surviving solely because of these young enthusiasts.

“The affection of educated youngsters from good families shows that our indigenous music has a very bright future, though a very bitter past,” he added.

Waning stature

Umer Sarwar, who died four months ago, at the age of 90, established the original shop at Dabgari. Later, few of his artists shifted to Jahangir Pura and continued the work in spite of attacks from extremist groups.

Sarwar learned the skill from Ustad Nawab Ali Khan a classical artist from the Patiala family. He was associated with the court of Nawab of Dir for 22 years and later on permanently settled down in the Peshawar. He had lived through the golden era when musician accorded respect in the city.

“The music orchestra is now dying,” he said. “In the past, there used to be more than a dozen instruments in it, the number has now reduced to six or seven instruments.”

Some of the instruments – such as benjo, sarinda and surna – have now disappeared from Pashto music all together.

According to Miraj, he learned to repair musical instruments from his father during his 25 years of association with this shop. However, it saddens him that he could not excel in playing all these instruments, unlike his father who had great command over them. The few artists who are associated with these instruments are in the final stages of their lives. However, Misal remains optimistic.

“Good time will come, people will come to adopt their art and culture,” he said, with a sparkle in his eyes. “They will soon be curious about the music which is indigenous to this society.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2016.

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