It is after an hour long rickety bus ride from Esplanade, Kolkata that I reach Belur, the last stop. Famous for Swami Vivekanand’s shrine – Belur Math, situated almost fifteen kilometers away from the heart of Kolkata along the banks of Hooghly, it is considered one of the holiest pilgrimages for Swamiji’s followers, the other being Kanyakumari. However, I am there for another reason. Away from the limelight and the hustle and bustle of the city, deep inside the inner alleys, there lives a man, aged 72, who has been living his passion for the last fifty years. I am there to meet him.
Jahaj Bari, literally meaning house of a ship, is a locality in the interior of Belur, around a mile’s walk from Math road. The walk reveals that the place has no connection whatsoever with its vivid name; though it paints a beautiful picture of lush green fields in front of your eyes and surprises you with its absolute lull that lets you hear your own rhythm off the road. If you are lucky, you might hear some music, courtesy small garages housing guitar engineers. Yes, engineers, not by degree, but by passion for creation.
After ten minutes of struggle in making my callow Bangla understood among the locals, I finally locate the place I have been searching for – Guitar Research Center. Out of a dozen people I asked for directions, only one of them knew where the research center was. He heartily laughed out, saying, “Oh, you mean Mr. Biswas’ center. Say that na, dada! Nobody knows it by Guitar Research Center.”
I reach an old house; countless guitars on the veranda near the entrance assure me that my struggle has paid off. I look around. There is a board which says Mukund Biswas in large font followed by Guitar Research Center in smaller letters. I enter and see an old man, endowed with a snow-white Santa-like beard that cleverly hides his wrinkles and perfectly complements his white dhoti-kurta. He greets me with a curious smile as if urging me to speak. I greet him with a namaste and shake hands. He has already been informed about my arrival by one of his regular customers, Arkaprabha – my friend from Delhi, whose description of Mr. Biswas, “He is an incarnate of Vishwakarma, a magician, who can create literally anything. You and I, we would play a guitar that’s slightly off-key, forever, but he can sense the abnormality even if the stem bends by one degree!” inspired me to come and meet him.
“What brings you here? Nobody ever comes just to talk to this old man here,” Mr. Biswas asks in his Bengali English. His voice is tender, almost fatherly. Though his eyes are resting on me, his hands dexterously continue the work that I had intruded upon a moment ago – that of putting glue on small pieces of meticulously crafted wood sticks, to be later stuck to the inner wall of an acoustic guitar. He politely directs me to sit on a stool garnished with sawdust; it takes him a couple of minutes to finish his task.
I look around. It’s shabbier than a bachelor’s dorm, with instruments – wretched, dilapidated and ignored – waiting desperately for his healing touch on one side and a few gorgeous, appealing and fresh ones on the other, as if waiting to be auctioned off. There are two other people in the room, his assistant and a local musician, Mr. Biswas’s customer. They look warily at me, probably because I’m snapping photographs of whatever I lay my eyes on – Mr. Biswas, guitars, mandolins, sticks, plies, saws, strings, glue, and not to forget, saw dust.
Mr. Biswas finally takes a break and asks, “So, your friend told me that you are travelling and writing a book. How can I fit in it?” I tell him about my interest in guitars and how curious I’d always been to know about how a guitar is manufactured. I ask him about his journey with the soulful instrument and he begins his enchanting tale.
“I was introduced to guitars in my early 20s when one Mr. Pal opened up a music shop in Kolkata, which initially used to sell imported guitars. Being creatively inclined, I trained as a guitar repairman. After two years, I developed my skills to such an extent that I could build a guitar from scratch, from wood to what you see in front of you – a complete acoustic guitar.
“Appreciative of my talent, three friends approached me to start a guitar company with the prime intention of making indigenous guitars to cater to India’s middle class. The Spanish guitar was just catching pace back then. We started India’s first successful commercial indigenous guitar brand – Hobner.”
“Wow. You started it! I always thought it was a foreign company. How did you come up with this name?” I ask, stunned.
“It’s a straight-and-smart copy from Hofner, the world famous brand, that’s why you confused it with a foreign company. You must have seen locally made kit-kit chocolate, intentionally misspelled, packed in similar wrappers as kit-kat to sell as a cheap substitute. The story here is similar,” he chuckles, with no pretence but hard-hitting honesty.
Meanwhile, his assistant brings in a guitar and taking it on his lap, he strums an intricate riff on it for a while and intently analyzes its sound. I’m amused seeing a dhoti clad old-man play the guitar. Mr. Biswas reprimands his assistant for having tightened the bolts a little too tight, making the instrument go off key. The winter sunlight enters the room and reveals itself as a subtle aura behind Mr. Biswas, making him look like Lord Vishwakarma for real. I ask him what happened next.
“Not everything has been right in this old man’s life. This company with friends didn’t go as well as I had hoped. People, due to my workmanship, bought guitars primarily because of my name. This sparked jealousy amongst people. I left the company and started another brand – Signature, which became really popular.”
“Was that started by you, too?” I’m astonished. My first guitar was a Signature, designed by none other than the person in front of me, with those very masterly hands that I shook a while ago.
“Yes, but even that created problems for me. Now my son, having separated along with Signature, manufactures and distributes it. I started my own brand – M. Biswas, which bears my own signature.” He proudly points out his finger at his signature embossed on the varnished red-wood. There is even a picture of him with a hologram stuck on it inside the circular hole to prevent piracy. I am surprised, for I cannot fathom how a brand with its creator’s signature as its brand-name could compete with an already established brand.
“Do people buy your brand? Would not having a professional brand name help?”
“For over two decades, people have been asking for my guitars. Out here in Bengal at least, people know me by name. It helps to have my own name as my brand. It saves any extra marketing expense. For me, my name is my signature.” He giggles like a child. I am not entirely convinced, but still nod.
“Can I?” I take his permission and try my hand at one of his own creations. It’s utterly mellow. Mr. Biswas takes me on a tour of the by lane, which houses his factory where there are numerous workers working in an informal assembly-line like arrangement, churn guitar after guitar. The newly shaped wood freshly glued to make the body of the guitar is put out in the sunlight to dry. There is a room where workmen perpetually rub sandpaper on the fretboard; in another, three carpenters cut plies to later form the interior of a jumbo guitar; three young men position lustrous strings on the wooden guitar skeletons; there is an open space containing unfinished, unpainted, bare wooden bodies stacked together; and one small room housing over hundreds of colorful, ready-to-be-shipped guitars.
“Many renowned musicians like mandolin doyen S. Mazumdar are my customers. They ask me to make customized instruments for them. My brother, who lives a few kilometers from here, makes Mohan Veena(s) for Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, He’s the only maker in the entire world,” he says. There is pride as well as humility in his voice.
I ask him about the number of guitars he makes per year and he innocently refuses to throw light on it, fearing being quoted in the media and attracting the attention of the IT department. Instead, he changes the topic by jovially sharing with me a story of his friend who ran a guitar brand called Concord, without a trademark, which later got trademarked by a company based in the US. This friend came to him for advice and he suggested a new name, a rather better one – Conchord, containing the essence of a guitar in it. Ever since, Conchord has done better than the previous Concord.
“You know Harsh, if you ask me, I would tell you that business doesn’t appeal to me as much as the joy of making a guitar does. I don’t feel like a businessman.”
“That’s because you aren’t one, sir. You are an engineer instead, you engineer sound for artists.” He smiles.
We are standing on the road. His beard glows in the sunlight. Encountering a passing juice-seller, he buys us two glasses of orange juice. I offer to pay. He asks me not to, saying, “When I come to Delhi, do the honors.”
I touch his feet, wish him good health and prance back towards Math road, surprised to find a familiar tune floating inside my head. It is the tune that Mr. Biswas strummed a while ago. It is the tune that hovers in the silent air of Jahaj Bari. As soon as I reach Math road, I befriend a local. I ask him whether he knows where Guitar Research Center is. “No,” he says.
When I tell him that I am in Belur to meet Mr. Biswas, it doesn’t take him a moment even to direct me to the house of Mr. Biswas. Why would he need Signature when his name itself is his signature?