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Features |  16 Jan 2010 12:11 |  By chiragsutar

Recurring theme - musicians inured to mishandling of instruments

MUMBAI: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan may have been the unfortunate victim of an indifferent airline's mismanagement of luggage, but he's definitely not alone.

His misadventure, in fact, finds resonance among several in the music fraternity who travel by air for concerts and performances.

It isn't just the mid level musicians who have borne the brunt of ignominy and the travails of their priced instruments getting the rough treatment. Luminaries like Pandit Ravi Shankar and even Ustad Allah Rakha Khan have gone through a tough time of discovering their instruments being broken or badly damaged after being mishandled by an airline once in their lifetimes. Though Ustad Amjad Ali Khan found his Ganga, the sarod he used for 32 years, badly cracked on the eve of his performance in Mumbai this week, he isn't filing any complaint with national carrier Air India, the unrepentant airline that he was traveling with. All the gentle genius has done is issued an appeal to the said airline to be more careful and gentle.

But this was not the first time that the sarod maestro has been confronted with such a situation. "This has happened with me in 1984 when I was traveling in the US, I never really thought this will ever happen again - I was quite shocked to find my instrument in that state," recalled the sarod maestro in a conversation with on Friday.

Although he maintains an armoury of seven to eight sarods, the one that got damaged was also one of his favourites, crafted by a Kolkata based renowned luthier, Hemen Babu (Hemendra Chandra Sen), who passed away just a few days ago.

But aren't the instruments insured? "I never thought this will happen, and even if it was insured, nothing can really compensate my instrument," he laments.

The story is the same with other musicians who say they become 'helpless' once their instrument is checked in with the airlines. "We can only pray that we get it back in proper condition," says sitar player Chirag Katti, who recently came back from a month long US tour. Recalling one of his own run-ins with airlines, he says, "Once the keys of my sitar broke, but fortunately, it happened when I was traveling back home from Japan - if it was before some concert, I would have been in trouble!"

But not everybody is as lucky. Guitarist and rabab player Chintoo Singh who plays with the likes of ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh, says three of his guitars have got badly damaged due to lax handling at  airports. "It's not the question of buying a new instrument, the loss is more because a musician loses an instrument that he has been practising on for years – a new instrument takes time to get broken in, and for me to get used to its sound."

Electric sitar inventor Niladri Kumar had to face a situation when he was forced to perform in the US with a cracked sitar, "I discovered my sitar had developed a crack, fortunately it was nothing big, being in the US, I got hold of a good adhesive and fixed it," he quips.

There are many examples when musicians travel with their hearts in their mouth once their instruments are checked in. Some, like Kailasa's bassist Naresh Kamath, even go to the length of fighting with the airline authorities for the safety of his instrument. "I never take any chance with my instrument, I always prefer to carry it with me on the flight, and if the airline won't allow it, I tell them they'll have to pay if anything happens to the instrument," he says.

However, Kamath says that airlines should make provisions for musicians like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, reinforcing the fact that once the instrument is damaged, the loss becomes irreparable.

"The instruments that most classical musicians play are custom made, and made according to specifications by the musician - it's not something one can buy from a shop. The people who handle the baggage feel that if an instrument is in a hard case, nothing can happen to it, and that one can throw it around like any other piece of luggage - they forget that it has to be carried in the hand," says Kamath.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan says, "Internationally, the system is different. The instrument is checked in, and then the owner picks it up from a separate counter meant for oversized and fragile goods - in India, you'll find all kinds of luggage put on the conveyor belt,... he adds.

But be it international or national carriers, the story of Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt proves that no airline is really foolproof. The Grammy winning musician's Mohan Veena was mishandled on a San Francisco - Mumbai flight in November 2009. Bhatt had played with the same instrument on the Grammy award-winning album - A Meeting By the River, and it was something he was emotionally attached to since the last 28 years, but like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, he too didn't press the airline for damages, I didn't have the time to go through that long process of claiming damages. And what could they offer as compensation? Even if they gave me Rs 1,00,000, they wouldn't be able to get me the sound,... he was quoted as saying at the time.

Meanwhile, sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan told that his sarod will now be repaired by his Kolkata based luthier Hemen Babu's two sons.