The House of the Other Mr. Biswas

Harsh Snehanshu goes to a Kolkata suburb to meet the revered septuagenarian guitar-maker.

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 here 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 here 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 derives it’s vivid name from a house that’s shaped like a ship. Other than lush green fields and narrow concrete roads, there aren’t any vehicles around. All I can hear in the absolute silence is my own rhythm off the road. Half a kilometer into the tapering road, my steps slow down. Banyan-clad dark scrawny men are hunched up against the little sunlight falling on their doors, tightening the bolts of rundown guitars. Occasional clinks unsettle the sleeping stillness.

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 the Guitar Research Center.’

An old house awaits me; countless guitars on the verandah near the entrance assure me that my struggle has paid off. I enter the house and see an old man with Santa beard that cleverly hides his wrinkles and perfectly complements his white dhoti-kurta. He has 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!’ has inspired me to come here. He greets me with a curious smile. We shake hands.

‘What brings you here? Nobody ever comes just to talk to this old man,’ Mr. Biswas asks in his Bengali English. His voice is tender, grandfatherly. 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 directs me to sit on a stool prettified 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 writing a travel-book. How can I fit in it?’ I tell him about my interest in guitars and my curiosity about the process of manufacturing it. I prod him to reveal more about his journey with the instrument.

‘I was introduced to guitars in my early twenties when one Mr. Pal opened up a music shop in Kolkata, which initially used to sell imported guitars. 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 getting popular 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?’

‘It’s a straight-and-smart copy from Hofner, the world famous brand, that’s what you confused it with. 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.

Meanwhile, his assistant brings in a guitar to him. Taking it on his lap, he strums an intricate riff on it for a while and analyses it’s 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.

‘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 those very 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, bearing my own signature.’ He proudly points out his finger at his signature embossed on the varnished redwood. 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 it’s creator’s signature as it’s 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, guitarists know me by name. It helps to have my own name as my brand. It saves any extra marketing expense.’ 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 creation. 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, churning 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 fret-board; 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.



Guitar skeletons, to-be-finished, at his humble guitar factory

‘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.

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, 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. It’s always about catching the right tune.’ 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 honours.’

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 that ‘right tune’ that Mr. Biswas strummed a while ago. It is the tune that hovers in the silent air of Jahaj Bari. Upon reaching 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?



M. Biswas, the brand that bears his signature

Harsh Snehanshu is an author, a pan-India traveller and a Young India Fellow. His articles have appeared in The Caravan, The Hindu, Forbes, Tehelka among others. His fifth book, Mango Chutney, an anthology of short-stories that he's edited, is going to be out on stands on 14th August, 2014.

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