Practice & perfection make his duitara sing

Self-taught duitara maker Risingbor Kurkalang talks about his works & preserving Khasi tradition

It took Risingbor Kurkalang some time to settle down with his duitara. The Padma Shri awardee has a collection of this stringed instrument, some of which are improvised. But he wanted to find the right version for the occasion. Perfection is everything for this young musical instrument maker.

The day was bright and the wind was cold at Laitkyrhong in Mawkynrew sub-division of East Khasi Hills. The front yard of Kurkalang’s house was flooding with sunlight. The duitara maker settled on a murrah with his instrument and started playing.


“I am not a real singer. I learned from years of practice,” said Kurkalang after the performance.

Kurkalang was chosen for the award in the Art (Folk Music) category. The 44-year-old self-taught duitara maker said when he first heard about the award in the village, he did not believe it. Later, he saw the announcement on social media. The district administrative officials too confirmed the news. “I got a call from Delhi. The BDO also called me and confirmed it. I was invited to the Republic Day programme at Polo Ground in Shillong but I could not attend owing to a family tragedy,” said Kurkalang, who lives with his four sisters and their children.

Photo by MM

For Kurkalang, ‘perfection is no trifle’, and every creation of his shows the dedication of the artist. “More than the quantity, I focus on the quality of each piece. I take utmost care to make each instrument as I have to ensure that the sound that it produces is mellifluous,” he said as he took the visitors around his workshop on the premises of the house. It takes him months to finish an instrument as precision is followed at each stage of the making.

“Every stringed instrument has to be made with soft wood so that the sound vibration is perfect. That is why I use wood from trees like jackfruit. In fact, jackfruit wood is the best,” he explained as he showed the half-done instruments and the pieces of wood stacked inside the workshop.

Kurkalang uses French polish, a high-quality finishing technique developed in the early 19th century, to make his creations perfect. The technique is tedious and requires more time and labour than the commonly used spray finishing technique. His 23-year-old nephew, Bestarroy Kurkalang, helps him in the workshop.

There is a separate room inside the house where Kurkalang displays the finished instruments. Among those was a hand-made electronic violin that the artist said was difficult to make. There were traditional duitara and its improvised versions too. He also makes guitars. Bestarroy said some clients come with specific requests and ask the artist to improvise a particular type of instrument.

Kurkalang has participated in numerous festivals both at home and outside. He has travelled to almost all states in the North East as well as other parts of the country. Last year, he was scheduled to attend a programme in Dubai but had to miss it as his mother passed away.

In 2017, a Welsh singer-songwriter and folk musician, Gareth Bonello, who goes by the stage name The Gentle Good, visited his workshop to know more about his craftsmanship and Khasi music. Bonello not only purchased a duitara from Kurkalang but also made a music video, Saithain Ki Sur (weaving of sound).

“Gareth visited me once and bought a duitara and asked me to make more instruments. He visited again after six months. He loved the duitara that I made from jackfruit wood,” Kurkalang remembered.

The duitara maker wants to travel to Wales and other parts of the world to promote Khasi music and make everyone aware of the wide collection of Khasi musical instruments.

Kurkalang also wants to open a music school along the lines of one at Wahkhen in Pynursla. This, he said, would help in preserving the Khasi musical tradition. “Also, our village is known for handicrafts and there are many talented craftsmen. This should also be preserved. Let’s hope for the best,” he said as he put the duitara he was playing back in place in the display room.

~ Team Meghalaya Monitor

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