By: Donna Armstrong
Published: July 31, 2015


Department sitar repair specialist J. Scott Hackleman recently discussed his love of sitar repair, training, and experiences with staff member Donna Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG: Tell me about this bottle.

HACKLEMAN: “This bottle of shellac was used by Nodu Mullick, who is given credit for building Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Shellac is used to keep the bridge from slipping. Nodu kept this bottle, along with a few tools, to work on sitars at my teacher’s apartment. I inherited it after my teacher Amiya died. Nodu was good friends with my teacher, Amiya Dasgupta. (1)

Other than Ravi Shankar, Amiya was one of very, very few people to also have a ‘Nodu’ sitar. Ravi-ji played exclusively his ‘Nodu’ until it was irreparably damaged in 1987. Nodu Mullick traveled with Ravi Shankar. When Ravi-ji came to town, Nodu would often stay at Amiya’s and everyone and his dog would bring him sitars to work on. That’s how I got into working on these; it was because of Nodu. I was lucky enough, when I would go to my teacher’s place for my lessons, and Nodu would be there. Sitars everywhere. I asked if I could sit and watch him work. He said ‘OK.’ This went on for a couple of years. Nodu didn’t really teach anybody; he didn’t want to do that. He shared some of his knowledge with Amiya, and on these rare occasions, showed me a few things too. I eventually got quite a few good tips on jawari from Nodu. That’s why I carry that little bit of…” [Hackleman picks up the bottle of shellac.]

ARMSTRONG: Earlier, you were telling me about when you were fifteen or sixteen, working at a music store in your hometown of Houston, and you saw your first sitar hanging on a wall…

HACKLEMAN: “It was being sold on consignment by an Indian fellow who was working for Shell Oil. He said that whoever bought the sitar would get three free lessons. Luckily for me, he had actually studied proper sitar. I started meditating when I was about fifteen, after an introductory lecture at the TM [Transcendental Meditation] Center in Houston. It was 1967/68. That’s what got me into Indian music – through yoga and the meditating.”

“The funny thing is, in Texas at the time, and this shows you how strenuously I wanted to learn to play: I was so into classical music—that was all I listened to—that I didn’t come to Indian music like most people at the time, through Ravi Shankar and the Beatles. Some people told me about this guy named “Ravi” or “Rabi” and I thought they were saying “Rabbi” (you know, Texas accents). It wasn’t until I looked at a record one day at the yoga school and saw the name “Ravi Shankar” that I realized he played sitar.”

ARMSTRONG: When did you move to California?

HACKLEMAN: “I was on my way to the Philippines to teach TM, but that’s when they were imposing martial law there. Maharishi (2) said “Don’t go.” So then I got a job at the print shop in Santa Monica that did all the printing for the TM movement. While at the print shop I decided to pursue my interest in instrument making, so I built a clavichord. At around the same time, I decided to get my sitar shipped from Houston. It had gotten damaged from the shipping. That’s when I decided to learn how to work on sitars.”

“I started studying sitar with Amiya in about 1974. I was studying sitar, but when Nodu would show up with all the sitars, I said “Wow!! That is amazing! Eventually, I ended up going to Cal Arts, because Amiya taught there. It was when I was getting ready to graduate from Cal Arts that I realized I was utterly fascinated with the making of sitars. So I applied for two fellowships to study with an instrument maker in India. I applied for a Fulbright and an American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) fellowship. I got both, but could only take one. So, I took the AIIS. With it there was a lot more freedom.”

“My wife Jody came and joined me early on. We were there for one year [in 1987]. It was great. Really wonderful! That got me going with how the instruments are built, repaired, and where the materials come from. I studied with Kartar Chand Sharma in Paharganj and sat with Murari Adhikari in Kolkata.
(See )

ARMSTRONG: Is one of the department sitars made by Kartar Chand Sharma?

HACKLEMAN: “Yes. That’s my favorite!”

ARMSTRONG: When did you start doing work for UCLA?

HACKLEMAN: “Let’s see…I worked for UCLA for the first time before I met my wife so that would have been the early 80s because I met her in 1984. Ray Giles [who served as museum scientist for the music and ethnomusicology departments beginning in the 1970s and retired in 1997] (3) didn’t know how to do jawari and would have me to do it. Then I went to India for a year and after I returned, I was doing work for Ray when Shujaat Khan started working for the department [Khan taught sitar at UCLA from 1996 to 2010]. Ray told Shujaat that he had someone who could do Vilayat Khan-style jawari, which differs from Ravi Shankar-style [Vilayat Khan is the father of Shujaat Khan]. Shujaat was surprised that Ray had someone who could do that and he said ‘yes, have him do the work,’ so I did it and he was pleased.”

ARMSTRONG: And so you have worked for UCLA ever since. When did you move to the state of Washington?

HACKLEMAN: “In 2007. Now I drive down to Los Angeles every summer to do jawari on the department’s sitars.”

ARMSTRONG: And we appreciate the work that you do. Thank you for sharing your experiences.