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Hemen Sen - Sarod Maker

Obituary by Yogendra
(January 2010)

Hemen Chandra Sen, founder and head of Hemen & Co. and most influential sarod maker of the past decades, passed away in Calcutta on January 2nd. Hemen was aged 87 and had suffered a heavy heart attack. Nearly all leading sarod players of the 2nd half of the 20th century, from Ali Akbar Khan to Amjad Ali Khan, have collaborated closely with Hemen and have played only his instruments. Apart from his famous sarods, Hemen had also been making highly appreciated tanpuras and sitars. In 2003 he received the Hafiz Ali Khan award for his lifetime achievements from then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Hemen Chandra Sen came to Calcutta from East-Bengal, today's Bangladesh, when he was only 13. He became a student of sitar player Ali Ahmed Khan, an uncle of Ali Akbar Khan. Ali Ahmed advised him to make instruments for a living. Thanks to his able hands, his good sense of music and his close association with leading musicians, Hemen was able to establish his own shop called Hemen & Co. in 1946. Together with Ali Akbar Khan and Ali Akbar's father Allauddin Khan, Hemen was a key figure in the development and refinement of the contemporary Maihar-style sarod. Throughout the decades he established a worldwide reputation for the unique sustain and richness of sound as well as for the clear and noble design of his sarods. Practically all present day sarod makers have learnt directly from Hemen or have been substantially influenced by his craft.

Hemen had remained very active until just before his death. He used to sit and work every day in his little open shop at crowded Rashbehari Avenue, just a few hundred meters away from the previous shop of legendary sitar maker Hiren Roy. If you met him with his scrubby white hair and worn-out shirt and dhoti you would have considered him a simple spent helper rather than the world-famous master craftsman that he was. He didn't care much for his outer appearance. All that mattered to him was the nearly magical sound that a sarod could receive under his hands.

Hemen's views of our modern times have been rather sceptical. In an interview he once said: “Sitar or sarod making is no longer what it used to be. Once upon a time people were passionate about classical music. The quality of musicians was also much better. They would train for years before being allowed by their gurus to perform publicly. Those days are gone. The only music today’s kids want to learn is the kind that will get them to win television competitions.” Nevertheless Hemen trained both his sons Ratan (50) and Tapan (44) from an early age and has been working with them for many years. After his death they are determined to carry on his tradition.