Meet the sonic doctors

Meet the sonic doctors

restorers

Meet the sonic doctors

The piano and the violin have been hailed as the king and queen of Western classical music. Those sensitive, near-century-old instruments that have found home in India need to be treated with care lest they sound disgruntled. While there are many mature hands in the country that tune these instruments to sync with the player, two young men have dedicated their professional lives to restoring and tuning them.

Ismail Joffer (35), based in Chennai, travels across India, more to the southern regions of the country, to restore and maintain pianos. Babu P (33) in Bengaluru does the same with violins, especially of the mature variety. Watch these young men restore the instruments and you become aware that Ismail and Babu are both engineers and artistes at once. Catering to the moodiness of these instruments, which change according to weather fluctuations, came as a calling to these restorers who have spent a large part of their childhood understanding the clarity of every musical semitone.

Passing on skills

Ismail, who belongs to the third generation of a family of piano-tuners, recalls watching his father Azim Joffer and uncle Niyamath Joffer tending to hammers and nails and restoring grand pianos — like the C Bechstein, Ronisch, Bluthner, Schiedmayer, C Otto Berlin, Challen, Chappell, John Broadwood and Hopkinson, among a host of German and English makes — to tonal perfection.

“My grandpa, Murtuza Hussain, began his career during the British rule at the music store Musée Musical in Chennai. The British referred to him as Joffer for some reason. So the name became our surnames and the name of our music store in Chennai. Thereafter, my grandpa’s brother-in-law learnt the art of tuning from him and in turn passed on the  skill to my father, Azim Joffer,” reminisces Ismail. “My father first went to Bengaluru to restore the Pipe Organ at St John’s Church, and later began tuning instruments for Aruna Sunderlal’s Bangalore School of Music. My uncle and my dad continued to work together until my father passed away in 1994 at the age of 47. Soon after I completed my matriculation I joined my uncle and have, till date, along with my cousin Faiz, strived to carry forward the skill of tuning pianos, which have fascinated me since my childhood.”

Babu’s fascination for the violin began when he was 17 years old, and he remembers having spent every evening after school in his uncle Arunachallappa Shankar’s music store in Bengaluru. “I would often fall asleep in the store after an evening of exploring the intricacies of fixing violins. My uncle and his son, Ganesh, were impressed with my fascination for the instrument. They got me tools from abroad and encouraged me to carry forward my passion,” says Babu.

It has been a good journey for Babu with vidwans like Mysore Nagaraj, Mysore Manjunath and Raghuram appreciating his deftness with the instrument. “These vidwans would leave their old violins in our store, which I would take to an elderly man to have fixed. But he always delayed the repair, at which point I started putting my mind to this skill and learnt to restore the queens by practice. I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting a violin repair expert from Spain and another professional from the US, both of whom have given me valuable tips on restoration. These instruments are as unique as the individuals who play them. So, each violin I’ve restored has served as a lesson for me,” explains Babu.

Success stories

Thanks to their seamless involvement with the instruments, today, both Ismail and Babu are trusted exponents in the art and science of restoring pianos and violins respectively. “Among the most complicated pianos I’ve restored is the C Bechstein 1890 Grand in Bangalore Club. It required complete restoration, down to the wiring, and the Club gave us the freedom to do our work. It later organised a concert and also gave us a vote of thanks for restoring the instrument, which was practically in junk condition when we took it up.”

Ismail and his cousin currently maintain around 900 pianos in Bengaluru alone, in homes and in music schools, imparting their magic on mature as well as modern piano brands. Babu is sought after by many musicians in south India. “Once,” recalls Babu, “Mysore Nagaraj gave me a bow worth Rs 80,000 to string. I did not touch it for one week, after which I took a chance and restored it in an hour. He called after 10 days to tell me that not a single horse hair had come out of the bow. I felt extremely happy.”

And so the royalty continue to regale connoisseurs, musicians and students in our country as Ismail and Babu religiously worship every instrument they lay their hands on.

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