Starting from Scratch

How Mukunda Biswas pioneered Indian-made guitar brands

Besides his craft skills, what makes Biswas a master luthier is his versatile musical knowledge. He can play the guitar, banjo and dotara. His experiments have resulted in custom string instruments—such as the gobindam and swapno veena. Ranita Roy for the Caravan

About three years ago, as I walked past a musical instrument store in Maharashtra’s Amravati town, I was astonished to find “Signature” guitars, a brand from my hometown of Kolkata, hanging at the shop. I later learnt that these low-priced guitars—usually bought by beginners—had travelled far and had a long history.

The shopkeeper told me that nearly all Indian-made guitars came from Kolkata and were distributed across the country. Back home, Gautam Das, the proprietor of a music store at Bagbazar, confirmed this and suggested that I meet “the man who started it all: Mukunda Biswas.”

Crossing the Ganga, an overcrowded bus took me to Belur in the neighbouring town of Howrah. A short e-rickshaw ride and a walk down a narrow, water-logged lane later, I reached Guitar Research Enterprise, a small factory with a guitar hanging from its blue-white doors. The smell of sawdust, polish and bidi smoke greeted me as I entered the three-room factory with an open courtyard. In one room, brand new guitars hung from racks, while the other two served as workstations.

Dressed in a white kurta, dhoti and cap, with a beard hanging down to his waist, the 82-year-old pioneering luthier was in the innermost room, behind a huge table scattered with various tools. “I have an intuition,” Biswas told me, while using sandpaper to smoothen a mandolin’s fretboard. “Whenever I take an instrument in my hand, I feel how the artist will use it. I can tell what will be right. Nobody taught me that.”