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Elegy for Lankan guitars

2017-12-18 00:32:24
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No Lankan business concern has thought of investing in this guitar making venture -all offers come from abroad

H. A. Dharmasena began making guitars when he was a teenager. Now eighty, he’s still making them. Guitar making definitely runs in the family.   
His son Kithsiri Hathurusinghe dropped the idea of becoming a doctor and joined his father to make guitars. And now, 23-year-old grandson Bhagya Madhushan too, is in the spacious workshop at home, making guitars.   

From their modest home in Kolonnawa, these three-generation guitar-making families make and sell guitars all over the country. But Dharmasena sounds like a disappointed man, talking about lost opportunities and lack of appreciation towards a craftsman working hard to compete with cheap imports from China and India. 

“We can make guitars as good as any in the world,” Dharmasena says.   
“But we need support from the Government, which we have never been given.”   
Things were better before the open economy opened a floodgate to cheap imports in 1978.   
But Dharmasena recalls T. B. Ilangaratne, Minister of Trade for the socialist Government elected in 1970, objecting to a deal offered by an American guitar maker impressed with his home-made guitars.   

"T. B. Ilangaratne, Minister of Trade for the socialist Government elected in 1970, objecting to a deal offered by an American guitar maker impressed with his home-made guitars"

 

Even so, the 60s and 70s were good times comparatively, when Dharmasena had dealers selling his products all over the country. He had assistants and his firm made not only guitars but violins, too.   
“I stopped making violins after cheap Chinese products flooded the market, but I kept this as a souvenir,” Dharmasena said, showing me a beautifully finished sample.   

Though he started making guitars at age 16, the first musical instrument he touched was an English mandolin. But it’s the guitar, which seized his mind and imagination as he became acquainted with a man who repaired guitars.   

Though he never learned to play the instrument, Dharmasena quickly grasped the essentials of making an acoustic guitar.   

Today, half-finished guitars hang in parts of the family workshop. One made by Dharmasena over 40 years ago has returned to the workshop for a repair. Other guitars ranging from an electric bass to a lead guitar lie on tables, as the firm undertakes repairs, too.   

"A popular Music Company made an offer once. But the company wanted us to sign a contract very much in their favour, forcing us to supply guitars at a fixed rate for five years. That was simply too risky "

 

The firm, known as New Tone, has an outlet at Wellawatte, but the sons, as well as a grandson, are content to be in the workshop. One can see that this is their universe.   
Every guitar is hand-made, with a metal mould being used to shape the wood into the familiar bulbous shape of the guitar frame.   

Imported hardwoods are needed for the fingerboard, but the body is made from local woods such as mahogany. Teak, Jak-wood and satinwood are too hard. It takes a single craftsman one week to finish a guitar, and another week to finish the paintwork. Clear weather is needed for the painting as the workshop isn’t humidity-controlled, and applying the gums too, cannot be done when it rains.  Dharmasena is pessimistic about the future, but remains confident that his son and grandson will continue the family tradition.   

"The struggle this guitar maker and his family have waged in the face of adversity and market forces unleashed by changing times is nothing short of heroic"

 

No Lankan business concern has thought of investing in this guitar making venture. All such offers have come from abroad.   

But, due to bad luck and other mitigating factors, nothing has worked for them.   
“Even a popular Music Company made an offer once. But the company wanted us to sign a contract very much in their favour, forcing us to supply guitars at a fixed rate for five years. That was simply too risky, so we turned it down,” Dharmasena said.   

The struggle this guitar maker and his family have waged in the face of adversity and market forces unleashed by changing times is nothing short of heroic. One senses a strong will to persevere against the odds.  

The guitar maker can be contacted 
on 0714011118


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