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The sound of music

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

How often lately have you tried to repair a household gadget? Even fixing a simple toaster oven requires a fair amount of brain-work. This includes competent 3D visualisation, a clear sense of process, a practical knowledge of electricity, materials and conditions of use, and a pinch of school physics. Also: manual dexterity. Not many people have it all.
How much more of each does Y M ("Nishi") Nakra need? He has been making some of the finest speakers (for music, not politics) in India since the 1950s, by hand. His brand, Enbee Audio, until recently a fixture of Delhi's Shankar Market, is well known among connoisseurs "in the upper niche of the segment", as he puts it.
So, apart from mechanics and materials, Nakra has to understand sound itself "" and music, and space, and electricity, and the human ear, and the peculiar condition of both performer and audience. He has to intuitively know all these things. No computer or hired consultant can do his job.
Like a traditional craftsman, Nakra started his apprenticeship early "" as a schoolboy in Simla, when he was a ham, or amateur radio enthusiast. He set up an antenna on the roof of his house (his father was a government doctor), and with it, he says, "I was the first one to catch the Delhi radio station. Then," he carries on, "I was the first one having a transmitter with one single valve, making contact, in the dead of night, with Japan!"
It turned out that his little transmitter had been jamming British communications. Officials came to check, and found him "busy on the radio". Their conversation, as he reports it, went thus: "What is this?" "" "Can't you see, this is Morse code!" "" "What are you doing?" "" "I'm trying to contact Japan again in the day; I've designed this thing." "" "So you make transmitters also?" "" "What transmitters? This is just a small transmitter for Morse code. I am a ham." "" "Do you have a licence?" "" "No. But I have helped three ships whose SOS messages were coming through, I sent them to other ships that were close by." The event was written up in the Hindustan Times.
Nakra did physics in college ("When you come out of college your attitude is book-based. You are not beyond that.") and then went to London, where he joined the Electricians' Guild and the Institute of Radio Engineers. Later he also travelled to the USA, "only for liberalising my point of view and thought process".
In the early 1950s he set up shop in Delhi, at first making radios. They sold "in places like Srinagar, because foreign radios never worked there "" voltage fluctuation. So I designed a circuit that would work from 110 volts on... We used to airlift them in Dakotas to Bombay, transport was so cheap." When he started making speakers, his early clients said "3,000 rupees? I could buy a secondhand car for that much!" But they bought nevertheless.
"All designers have their own philosophies," Nakra says, describing the painstaking way he builds his speakers. So, for instance, "a general purpose amplifier will have X amount of gain [the magnitude by which it increases the sound input]. But you want in a stage a gain of two. You get down the gain by clamping and clamping "" by choking it, in other words. It's not free, so it sounds restricted, metallic, it doesn't sound musical." He says "free" with a musical lilt.
"You design the circuit to the simplest and best possible that the components can give you," he says. "The cleaner the whole path, the results are something that you hear. When a person spends so much money, why should they have the feeling they're listening to speakers? Be as close to the original as possible. The illusion should be there. The instruments should be coming out of the walls rather than the speakers. Why should you feel that you're listening to electronics?"
Nakra's belief in craftsmanship and purity extends beyond his work. He loved acting and theatre (particularly the "do-or-die" feeling of being on stage) and did so passionately as a young man. He plays the sitar and tabla, and designed the furniture in their home "" and some of the home itself. It is bright, spacious, unfussy and restful, and the little garden is exuberantly green. "My architect wanted a dome," he says, but Nakra flatly refused.
A split-level section is the house's musical heart, with Enbee speakers and a precisely inclined roof for good sound. There is also a workshop, full of daylight and tools, where a few men work under Nakra's supervision, still crafting the speakers that his customers swear by. At 80, Nishi Nakra is full of ideas.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal asked whether "skilled labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living" in America (that is, a plumber is likelier to be a millionaire than a manager). Most Indians know that a salary is not the route to riches.
What they may not be aware of is the tremendous satisfaction and pride that can come of working with hands and mind to create something of use to someone else "" something that nobody can do just like you.

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First Published: Sun, October 07 2007. 00:00 IST