Lahore’s loss, Delhi’s gain

A line-up of the top customers reveal the high pedigree: from the late Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ali Akbar Khan to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan and even George Harrison of The Beatles. But ask any auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi’s Connaught Place for the shop of Rikhi Ram; he will betray ignorance. You somehow reach there – a shop bang in a locality that is the centre of the national capital – and you might first take it for a museum. So much for the old-world charm of the shop that has seen the brightest and dimmest of times.

The store’s third-generation owner Ajay Ram himself serves at the counter and attends calls from musicians big and small. The first thing that catches your attention are the walls embossed with pictures of the biggest names of Indian classical music.
Pt Rikhi Ram, the founder, belonged to a family of musicians in undivided India’s Lahore. They specialised in making musical instruments, generation after generation. After Partition, they were uprooted and reached Delhi, where Panditji arrived with nothing except his family, his essential belongings – and the rich experience of making instruments. That would later see him through the trauma. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru set up a rehabilitation committee and Rikhi Ram was allotted this shop in Connaught Circus. “My grandfather and my father Bishen Dass Sharma,” recalls Ajay, “had to start from scratch. A new city, new people.those were tough times.”
Rikhi Ram began attending concerts to establish contacts with musicians, assuring them of customised service. Bishen Dass, meanwhile, began working in the maintenance cell of the AIR, bringing him in close contact with all the renowned names of the concert circuit. Musicians, impressed with the knowledge of the father-son duo, soon became their loyal customers. Among them were the likes of Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar.
In the 1960s, George Harrison and fellow Beatles star Paul McCartney’s liking for Indian classical music brought them to Rikhi Ram, from whom they bought the sitar, sarod, tanpura and tabla. “My father (he died three years ago) gave George his first lessons in sitar. So, how demanding can the musicians be while ordering instruments? “Today fusion music is in,” notes Ajay. “When you perform with western instruments, you need to generate a high-volume sound. Hence, the entry of things like electronic sitar, which have to be made as per the musician’s demand. Recently we came out with the smaller travelling sitar, winning wide appreciation.”
Ajay believes classical music is so deep an art that it can’t drown in the tides of time. “Our music, like any other art, has had its ups and downs. It’s like waves in the sea. They rise, fall and rise again. But they never die.”
Ajay recalls brightly the lessons in business learnt from his father. “Firstly, I must thank my father for having taught me the sitar. One cannot serve the musicians without understanding the product you want to serve them. My father instilled in me an amazing sense of sound. I’ve grown up watching him deliberate on the niceties of sound with the legends of classical music over lengthy discussions. Secondly, nothing has been given more priority than quality. A minor flaw here or there and our name will be tainted.”
Quality obviously comes at a price. “People who know music do not argue about the price with us. But beginners to have an issue and express surprise at the rates we demand. I accordingly guide their way to the music shops at Daryaganj in Old Delhi because I do not serve that segment which is not having a basic understanding of classical music. It does not make sense to ask why Rolls Royce is not available at five lakh rupees.”
What about Ajay’s own children? Are they interested in carrying forward the family business? Ajay’s face beams with pride as he answers “My son is taking lessons in sitar and is very much willing to carry forward the legacy of Pt Rikhi Ram. He is a product of that legacy like me. It will be carried forward.”
Two people enter the shop. Ajay stands up to attend to his customers. Perhaps it is this twin commitment to music and customers that brought them name, fame and even the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award for contribution to Indian classical music. Ajay gets busy with the new customers.
The writer blogs at

© Copyright 2008 ExpressBuzz

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