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Doting on the dholak

Published: 
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Dholak makers Arjun Bhawan, Shiva Kissoon and Vejai Kissoon. PHOTOS: DAVID WEARS

In his little corner of the world, 46-year-old Vejai Kissoon has been quietly making dholaks for more than 30 years. 

The musical instrument, which isn’t as quiet as Kissoon, is a South Asian barrel-shaped, two-headed hand drum made of one piece of wood.

While Kissoon’s work has gone unnoticed by the media, it has not by the many musicians who go to him to select unique, powerful-sounding dholaks. What started as a hobby has turned into a small business 

He said, “I grew up going to Ramayan and satsangh and in those days we had no one to fix and repair our drums so I started doing it myself. Other people then started bringing their drums for me to fix and eventually I started making drums for people so it really started as a hobby”. 

His hobby has now turned into him commanding a niche market where people with his skill are a dying breed. There are not many dholak-makers here and as Kissoon’s clients say, “none of the dholak makers are as good as Vejai.”

While Kissoon is good at what he does and he does earn some money thanks to his talent, he stated that the dholak-making business, while it is a necessary one, isn’t very successful. Why is this so?

He explained, “We do not have many young dholak players here and a dholak is something that lasts a very long time so the number of people needing new ones will be limited.” On average, Kissoon makes three drums per month with the help of his son, Shiva, and his friend Arjun Bhawan who has helped him since he started making dholaks. A dholak costs anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000.

What goes into making a dholak? “There is a lot work,” explained Kissoon, who works out of his home in Forest Park Road, Claxton Bay. He first has to source the wood for the shell of the dholak. “This varies in cost based on the type of wood.” He then has to pay a man to saw the wood. After, he gets down to work placing the screws, decorating the outside, putting in the stainless steel band, preparing the goat’s skin and bamboo for the bases of the dholak and then he puts the entire thing together. Aside from locating the wood, the process takes Kissoon about three days to one week to complete the drum. 

So what is the most expensive type of drum? The cost is based on its sound, its look and most importantly, the type of wood it is made of.

“The most expensive dholak” he said, “is made of Cowa (Scientific name Artocarpus heterophyllus). While Kissoon’s business is slow from time to time, he continues repairing and making dholaks just for the love of it. “Drumming and making them too, that is just my passion—whatever pain and problems one may have and you play a drum, all troubles vanish,” Kissoon said.

So what can we do to keep the dholak business alive in T&T? The dholak maker said, “Our generation and our family always had the passion for drumming. Parents nowadays need to encourage children to go to the temples and get involved in satsangh and Ramayan.

“Parents have to teach children to be proud of their culture and get them more actively involved in it.”

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