When renowned sitarist Shubhendra Rao landed in New York on November 1 last year to perform at a temple, he had little idea that the chain of events about to unfold would propel him into a campaigner for artistes’ rights. The sitar he had checked-in as luggage was severely damaged during his flight from New Delhi. And this was the third time in four years that his precious instrument was broken during air travel — once he even had to cancel a concert in France — and he had had enough. After Air India denied responsibility for damage to his sitar in a legal notice he had sent to the carrier, Rao restarted a petition he had launched in 2017 on Change.org to make airlines accountable for damage to checked-in instruments.
His petition, backed by other renowned Indian musicians such as Grammy awardee Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Shujaat Husain Khan, has notched over 81,000 signatures and helped him get a meeting with the civil aviation ministry officials on February 27.
Rao, a protégé of world-renowned sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, is hopeful an audience with the civil aviation minister would bring about a policy change in the way musical instruments are handled by airlines. Many Indian musical instruments are not allowed as cabin baggage — owing to their large size — and airlines ask them to be checked-in as regular luggage. But the problem arises when they are also treated as such, said Rao. “We aren’t talking about just any piece of luggage here. You can’t pick an instrument off the shelf and simply start playing. It takes years for it to become yours and produce the notes you want,” he told TOI.
Tabla player Abhinav Upadhyay, who often performed alongside ghazal king Jagjit Singh, agreed that musicians have a special bond with their instruments. “There are many instances of musicians having suffered because their instruments like sitar or sarod were damaged during air travel. There has to be some consideration when it comes to instruments related to fine art forms.”
Rao’s cause resonates with other musicians who also said that transporting their delicate and expensive musical instruments safely is often a struggle. Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt recounted how he once saw his mohan veena fall from the top of a tractor trolley which was carrying cargo from the aircraft upon arrival. “We had just landed in the US when I saw my instrument fall. I was shocked at how it was being handled,” he told TOI.
When Mumbai-based double bass player Abhinav Khokhar flew from Patna to Mumbai in February this year, he found his double bass — an instrument that costs upwards of Rs 2.6 lakh — covered in multiple cracks. “I had to head straight to my performance and when I reached there I found the bass broken. Luckily, I managed to arrange for a substitute instrument in time. And after several follow-ups and calls, I received compensation from the airline to cover the cost of repairs. But it took a month and by that time I lost out on eight gigs as I didn’t have an instrument. Searching for luthiers who could repair it itself was a task since bass is not an Indian instrument.”
Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan also said that his sitar has been damaged several times during air travel. “Airlines behave as if they have no accountability and make you sign forms that say so. How are musicians to perform without their instruments?”
For his performance in New York, Rao borrowed a sitar, but it “didn’t sound the same”. Back home, repairs alone cost him Rs 75,000 while a new sitar can cost anywhere between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh. According to Air India, no compensation was offered to the musician and CCTV footage at airports didn’t show any evidence of mishandling of Rao’s instrument by its staff. Air India spokesperson Dhananjay Kumar told TOI that passengers have been advised to adequately pack special baggage, particularly fragile musical instruments, on their website. He added that passengers have the provision to book an additional seat to carry such instruments on board.
But as Rao put it, “classical musicians aren’t paid like rockstars” and not every organiser is willing to bear costs of an extra ticket. “Even when you buy an extra ticket for your instrument, problems remain. My wife is a cellist and for years we used to buy a seat for her cello. But we would have issues during security check as there are no clear guidelines about how to handle such instruments. The petition calls for airline staff to be sensitised,” he said.
The sitarist is also demanding that airlines do away with the ‘Limited Release’ form which states that the airline will not be responsible for any damage to fragile luggage. “One of my suggestions is to have guidelines like the ones for strollers. Strollers are taken away only at the time of boarding and handed over immediately after passengers deboard, minimising the number of people who handle it,” he said.
And if all fails, he is considering a light-hearted approach to draw attention to his cause. “It could be something along the lines of what Dave Carroll did when his guitar was broken.”
Canadian musician Dave Carroll whose song ‘United Breaks Guitars’ — the first song in a trilogy which talks about how his guitar was broken during a trip on Unites Airlines in 2008 — topped the charts and found a spot in Time magazine’s ‘Top 10 Viral Songs of 2009’ has mixed feelings about the impact it had on the airlines. “I’ve seen United Airlines handle my guitar with extra care on subsequent flights (not knowing I am the writer of the song) and I appreciate the additional effort,” he told TOI over email. He recounted how when his guitar was damaged, the airlines denied any responsibility for it, citing that a claim should have been opened within 24 hours. “Four days after my first song was released, the airlines offered me compensation but I explained to them that my songs weren’t a negotiation tactic and I would be releasing more of them.”
Carroll agreed that airlines should have a separate policy regarding handling of musical instruments. “In the US, musicians are now allowed to bring their guitars (about 3 feet long) or instruments of that size on board. Musical instruments are fragile tools while traditional baggage services are standardised for suitcases and more rugged luggage. Airlines should train their employees on how to handle such items.

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