In January 2015, Kavish Seth was travelling the country as part of the Jagriti Yatra, a two-week train journey for young entrepreneurs to meet prospective role models. He was 22 years old, a recent graduate in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, and hoping to forge a career as a musician—although he worried about how restrictive the metropolitan indie scene would be.
Seeking to kill time on the train between Nalanda and Gorakhpur, he pulled out his guitar and started playing. A co-passenger looked at him and said, “Ye kya bahar ka baja rahe ho? Kuchh apna bajao”—Why are you playing a foreign instrument? Play an Indian one.
The Jagriti Yatra helped Seth address his concerns about a music career. Neha Arora, a fellow traveller, offered to work with him to start Zubaan, a collaborative project that brings together independent artists from all over the country. It organises concerts that provide musicians with a platform to perform original compositions and introduce their local culture to varied audiences. Over thirty artists have joined the collective, which has chapters in Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Despite Zubaan’s success, the encounter with the co-passenger on the train stuck with Seth. “I was taken aback by his words, but later felt that he was making sense,” he told me. For a long time, he had wanted to do something original in his life. “I decided to make a new musical instrument.” Over the next year, Seth thought about what this new instrument would be like. He thought about the sounds it would accommodate, the shape it would take, the material he would use and many other minute details.
Seth was apprehensive about learning the instruments used in Indian classical music because of certain misconceptions. “At that time, I used to feel that one plays only ragas on Indian classical instruments and it would take a lot of time,” he said. “The concept was weary and seemed highly difficult and challenging at that point in my life. I thought it was better to avoid it. Also, I thought carrying the sarod or sitar to various places would be a problem. They are so heavy, unlike a guitar.”