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Harmonium makers

As in 2019

Tushar Prabhune, May 28, 2019: The Times of India

Barring an occasional stray cow, the narrow lanes in the temple town of Palitana in Gujarat seldom get any visitors in the torrid summer. At the end of one such alley, inside a shop whose board reads ‘Manohar Musicals’, Manoharbhai is squatting on the floor, hunched over a harmonium. The noisy ceiling fan positioned right above his head does little to deter him from the painstaking labour of scraping and sanding some brass reeds to tune the harmonium.

Eventually, it’s time for the 75-yearold to take a break and he gives TOI a tour of his store, which also doubles as his workshop. The walls are adorned with photos of a beaming Manoharbhai along with his clientele. It’s an impressive roll call. Music directors Naushad, Khayyam, Pyarelal (of Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo) smile alongside ghazal maestros Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali as devotional singer Anup Jalota looks on from a postcard-sized frame.

Manoharbhai Parmar, or Manubhai as he is fondly known in the music circles, is one of the most sought-after craftsmen for singers who want to infuse their songs with soothing notes of a harmonium.

Not only are Manoharbhai’s harmoniums in high demand, but doyens of classical music also vouch for the harmonium reeds made in his native town of Palitana.

Known as the largest pilgrimage centre for the Jain community, Palitana, about 50km from Bhavnagar, is also where harmonium reeds are manufactured and shipped to other parts of the country and sometimes even abroad. The instrument, which lends itself beautifully to various styles of music from classical to ghazals to kirtans, produces sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame. This piece of metal is called a reed. Most harmoniums have two or three sets of reeds per note.

“It’s the reed that is the soul or what is referred to as sur of the harmonium. Most musicians prefer the reeds made in Palitana,” says Anup Jalota who was introduced to Palitana harmonium by his father Padma Shri Purushottam Das Jalota, an acclaimed classical vocalist.

Until 1960s, reeds for harmoniums were largely imported from Germany, but after manufacturing units there shut shop, Palitana suddenly found itself swamped with orders. Eminent music historian and author Manek Premchand says, “A lot of German commodities fell out of favour after the Second World War. Many countries wanted to eliminate any German cultural footprint and German reeds were among products whose import was banned in India.” Today, there are about 10 units in Palitana that manufacture reeds, employing approximately 600 people.

Experts say it is the durability, distinct notes and fine craftsmanship of Palitana reeds that make them stand out. Ustad Akhlaq Hussain, a renowned harmonium player, says, “Harmonium reeds are made in some parts of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab as well but they are no match for reeds made in Palitana. Palitana reeds sound more melodious and have distinct notes. Since reed manufacturing units in Germany closed down, majority of harmonium players prefer only Palitana reeds.”

Renowned playback and ghazal singer, Hariharan, says he uses Palitana reeds for their tone quality and tuning stability. “I have used reeds made by Manoharbhai. His harmoniums are also tuned to perfection,” adds Hariharan, who has known him since 1980s. Playback singer and music director Roop Kumar Rathod says, “Reeds made in other places need frequent tuning. In contrast, those made in Palitana get more seasoned and open up with use.”

Barun Paul, Kolkata-based harmonium manufacturer, agrees with the musicians. “Majority of harmonium makers today use Palitana reeds. Many have tried making reeds in various parts of India, but they haven’t been able to match Palitana’s quality,” he says.

The craftsmen in Palitana say that the art of making the perfect reed is a gift they were born with and it’s not an acquired skill.

“The secret to a melodious reed lies in a good ear. It depends on the innate ability of the craftsman to listen and to attune all his senses to music. It is not a skill that can be taught. It’s instinctive,” says Parag Mistry, great grandson of Mohanlal J Mistry, whose family has been making making reeds since 1931.

Local legend has it that in 1901, Bhavnagar’s ruler Krishnakumarsinhji Gohil called two blacksmiths to repair the harmonium of a British man. Jivanlal Mistry and Mohanlal had never seen a harmonium, but using their sense of music they successfully repaired it. Since then, generations of the family have “followed their calling” and produced some of the finest reeds available in the market. At one point, the entire process was manual. Today, there are machines to assist but the tuning of the reed is done manually by the master craftsman.

Jeetubhai from Ratilal Jivanlal Mistry, a 114-year-old firm thatoperates three reed units, says it can take a new worker six months to a year of practice to make a perfect-sounding reed.

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