An Urban [music] Legend in the City of Joy
In a world of glass buildings, wooden flooring and perfectly lit showrooms, you may not pay to pay attention to a shop that has little or no visual charm to it. We’re living in a time where a generation of jaded consumers quickly judge a book by its cover.
Here’s a small pointer for the few eclectic music lovers, who still walk planet earth. Walk down Rash Bihari Avenue in Calcutta [or Kolkata], and you’ll come across Hemen & Co, sellers of Indian classical instruments
Hemen & Co. is a 73-year-old shop that should be on the music lover’s trivia travel bucket list. The old walls inside, dusty and with peeling paint, have welcomed legends such as Pt. Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Ian Anderson who used to frequent the shop in the days gone by. This dilapidated shop has produced sitars, sarods, violins, guitars and more for legendary musicians all over the world.
Hemen & Co. located on the busy Rashbehari Avenue was set up by the late Hemendra Chandra Sen before the Independence in 1946.
Hemendra Chandra Sen, then a young man, apparently couldn’t afford to hire a professional to fix his sitar when it broke one day, so he repaired it himself. Hemen’s guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan, noting that the boy did a commendable job, hired him to fix all of his instruments as well as those of his’ Maihar Band’ because he was so impressed with his abilities. Soon, “Hemen & Co” was established, and over time, it developed an almost legendary status.
Ratan Kumar Sen and his brother Tapan are now the co-owners of this store. They started helping their father, Hemendra Sen, as boys and took over the business after his death in 2010.
“Musicians come to us for instruments, and they depend on us for tuning, if something goes wrong, so naturally, to make a perfect instrument, you need to know music,” says Ratan. He says that his father Hemant Babu and the world famous Pandit Ravi Shankar were both Ustad Allaudin Khan’s disciples, and that they were good friends.
In 1986, Ravi Shankar brought along another soon to be legend, the Beatle George Harrison to the shop, and that was where George picked up his sitar. In fact Hemen & Cos sitars and instruments took pride of place at many international concerts and recording studios. The galaxy of clients, Hemen worked with include Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
From Ravi Shankar’s specific Kharaj Pancham Sitar to the dilruba, a variant of the esraj, used memorably in ‘Within You Without You’ on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Ian Anderson’s bamboo flutes, Hemen and Co. have made a global impact from their humble existence.
For his accomplishments and contribution to Indian classical music over the years, Hemendra Sen received many awards, two of the most distinguished being the Hafiz Ali Khan Award and the Vidyarthi Samman Award.
Hemen Babu’s legacy is continued by his sons. So the next time anyone asks you where to access a really classic set of musical instruments, you can tell them to take a train or a tram to Rash Bihari Avenue.