Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

From Timber to Tenor

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Every year when the flow in the Hunza River rises with the summer thaw, Qudratullah Baig prowls its banks below his native village of Nasirabad in Hunza. He seeks timber washed down from orchards and forests higher up the valley. In his mid fifties, he can tell the difference between mulberry, the preferred timber, and apricot or almond – all hardwoods good for the stringed musical instruments he crafts in his living room.

A very fine rasp as seen here is used to give the smooth finish to the instruments and their fittings
A naturally gifted singer and musician, Qudratullah taught himself to play the chharda (local version of the rubab) at an early age. Unable to afford the purchase of his own, he played borrowed instruments until the day at a family function where he was asked to perform. Thinking the chharda was being gifted him, he was devastated when, at the end of his performance, it was taken away. He resolved never again to play another man’s musical instrument.

Qudratullah plays a chharda
crafted by his own hand:
‘When I put in the strings and strummed
 it for the first time,
the sound was better than
I had heard on some other pieces.’
It is not for nothing that he
is acknowledged as the maestro
Acquiring a piece of apricot timber he asked about for it to be turned into a chharda, but in the late 1960s, there were few artisans interested in the work. The reason for this neglect was unknown to Qudratullah at that time.

Traditionally musical instruments were made by professional musicians belonging to the Dom caste. Once much sought after for birth and wedding celebrations, their importance ebbed in the changing social-cultural milieu of the 20th century. Traditionally at the lower end of the caste system, they were all but marginalised by the second half of the last century. Indeed, by the early 1970s many Dom families had given up their profession, some even moving away to escape the by now derogatory label.

Inevitably, there arose a dearth of makers of musical instruments in Hunza when young Qudratullah needed his chharda made. With tools pinched from his carpenter brother’s workshop, he worked on his piece for more than a month. ‘When I put in the strings and strummed it for the first time, the sound was better than I had heard on some other pieces,’ he says.

For the next decade or so while his peers played their childish games, he spent his after school hours working on other instruments to build up his own collection. A two decade stint with the army enforced a hiatus in this activity. But since his release, Qudratullah has applied himself to perfecting his one-man home-based production unit.

From top left: Afghan rubab as produced in Hunza, Chitrali sitar, a modified zhighini, pair of chhardas (next to the box and atop it), and at right an unfinished rubab
Meanwhile, the late 1980s saw a revival of interest in traditional music among educated Hunza youngsters who were essentially not from the Dom caste. This was a time when local musical instruments were hard to come by, those that remained were in possession of the few families that still followed their age old practice of professional musicians. In order to overcome the shortage of instruments, the youngsters set about improvising with modern adaptations: stainless steel cooking pot for the body of a stringed instrument, synthetic leather instead of real for percussion pieces.

In the mid 1990s, a Karimabad (Hunza) based NGO brought about a revival of many of the disappearing crafts of the area. Though it had support and technical input from educated local musicians, now hard to come by instruments, failed to make the deserved come back. The reason was disinterest among traditional craftsmen. Nevertheless, a few artisans began working on power-driven lathes to create instruments once entirely hand-crafted. Those who play them, assert these instruments lack the finesse of traditional pieces and that their sound lacks quality.

A little lower down the valley from Karimabad, Qudratullah, now back from the army, was once again at work with his simple adze, rasps and knives. Painstakingly seeking out the right timber, he brings it home to work it with saw and rasp, giving it the desired shape centimetre by centimetre. His thickly calloused palms and fingers show that the hardwood is not easy to work with the primitive tools. Qudratullah says the process of hollowing the timber by hand to produce the sound box is particularly arduous. This is mainly because of the precision of the body’s internal measurements that produce correct resonance.


Celebrated as the master craftsman, Qudratullah creates everything from the local version of the Peshawari rubab to the Chitrali sitar to the zhighini (local violin) and the chharda he had once so ached to own. He says he has also produced the surnai (clarinet) in his time. This last he no longer makes for he now finds it hard to work the hand operated drill with the necessary precision. Though an electric machine would help produce the surnai in large enough quantities to satisfy a commercial demand, he knows it cannot be done because of the indifferent power supply in his village.

Clients who play his instruments acknowledge Qudratullah as the master craftsman. The only competition he had is now fading in the ninth decade of his life, too feeble to work and pass on his craft to an apprentice should there be one. Qudratullah still has a couple of decades of work left in him. But while he continues to work long hours in his living room, he has only been able to pass on his skill to a nephew. There are no other takers.

And why should there be? The typical chharda takes ten days each of ten to twelve working hours to be created from a log of timber. It sells for a mere Rs 10,000 which is not even the price of the blisters he gets on his hands carving its sound box. Perish the notion that it will feed him and his family. For him it is now purely a labour of love; of passion for music. With his rare smile he admits he sometimes does a hatchet job speedily producing a substandard piece for an undiscerning customer. But that is rare.

The craftsman’s tools with finished and unfinished instruments and tuning pegs crafted by these very tools
As Qudratullah Baig enters the evening of his time, he is uncertain if his nephew will continue the practice after he is gone. That will only be dictated by the youngster’s interest in the art: if he wishes to make good music, he will perforce have to create his own instruments. If not, the skill will go unused and atrophy. Then the people of Hunza will play their music on imported instruments forever altering its tenor.

Qudrutullah can be contacted at 0346-811-5655

Previous: Silence in Kosh KalatThat Riot of ColourGrit of Stone, Stewards of the Ring, Turn of the Wheel, Toil of the Loom

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days