Rash Behari Avenue in Kolkata boasts a 76-year-old iconic musical instrument shop, Hemen & Co.
Through the years, it has been frequented by the likes of Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, Vilayat Khan, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and George Harrison of The Beatles.
The story began almost seven decades ago, when a 13-year-old Hemen Chandra Sen moved to Kolkata from East Bengal (Bangladesh).
His keen interest in music soon earned him the prized tutelage of Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar Gharana, as well as the guidance of Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, father of Ustad Bahadur Khan.
While in a class with Allauddin Khan one day, Hemen accidentally broke his sitar. He could not afford to get it repaired so instead, he did it on his own.
“When Allauddin Khan saw the repaired sitar as good as new, he was extremely impressed,” shares Ratan, Hemen’s son.
He adds that Allauddin Khan encouraged his father to take up this business seriously, as there weren’t many who understood instruments so well to transform them into their original condition.
“He even gave all his damaged Maihar instruments to my father for repair. This was the beginning and many musical geniuses began to come to him for all their repair needs,” Ratan shares.
This eventually led to the genesis of Hemen & Co. in 1947. The shop has since been creating and repairing instruments like tanpura, sitar, tabla, harmonium, flute, sarod, and guitar.
“All our instruments are handcrafted and can survive a lifetime,” Ratan notes, adding that the sitar is primarily constructed out of a specific kind of gourd that is too bitter to eat.
Grown in parts of Maharashtra and the Nadia district of West Bengal, the gourd is green in colour, but the inner parts decompose once soaked in water.
“After that, these decayed contents are scooped out, keeping the shell intact. These shells are then sent to us. We only buy the thickest shells as they are heavy and sturdy,” says Ratan.
The wood used in making the sitar, tanpura and sarod is sourced from Assam.
“We usually go for tul or Burma teak,” Ratan notes, adding that while Burma teak has a good temper and produces a powerful sound, tul wood is softer.
“Vilayat Khan used to prefer the Burma teak sitar, which was completely black as he concentrated more on taan. Ravi Shankar preferred a sitar made of tul and adorned with minute decorations, ideal for alaap.” he adds.
Hemen’s brilliant work earned him the Hafiz Ali Khan Award for lifetime achievements, at the hands of the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003.
After his death in 2010, Tapan and Ratan took over the family business.
“My father did not build a mere company, he built a global family of musicians, and we are carrying it forward,” Ratan says.