Brothers in harmony

11 min read
10 May 2017
11 min read
1308 words
From the Archive (Feb, 2016): The Shah brothers have been selling and repairing harmoniums for over 40 years. Their service has been invaluable for uncountable Nepali artists
The Shah brothers have been selling and repairing harmoniums for over 40 years. Their service has been invaluable for uncountable Nepali artists

The resonant sounds of the instruments cut through the incessant noise outside—the staccato honk of a motorbike, the gnarly whine of a wood cord being sawn at a nearby shop, the tinny ringing of a rickshaw bell, all the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The melodies rise and fill the air in Nyakantalla Tole, around Krishna Music Emporium. 

Krishna Music Emporium is one of the last remaining harmonium repair-shops in the Valley. The shop has been run by four brothers, as a family business, for some four decades. The family’s love for the craft has helped them stay in business, but more importantly, the emporium has been making a significant contribution to the Nepali music industry. The harmonium provides the quintessential Nepali sound layer in many a Nepali music genre The four brothers in the family— Rupnarayan, Sitaram, Tejnarayan and Balkrishna Shah—have seen it all, in all the years they have spent with the harmonium. As kids, they used to accompany their father, Shri Thaka Shah, to the shop every day and would watch their father repair harmoniums for singers of the earlier generation, such as Narayan Gopal. They picked up the tricks of the trade from watching their father toil at the shop for years. The shop was their only school and their father, their only teacher. After a lifetime of playing, watching and learning, the brothers have perfected the skills needed to become master repairmen themselves. And that is why many of the luminaries of this generation, such as Shambhujeet Baskota, get their harmoniums maintained, repaired and fine-tuned here. 

The resonant sounds of the instruments cut through the incessant noise outside

The now-famous shop had rather humble beginnings. When Shri Thaka Shah started his business in 2028 BS, harmonium had not yet become the industry mainstay it is today. The reed-organ instrument was occasionally brought to Nepal from India by musicians who performed bhajans or Hindustani ragas. Shri Thaka, who hailed from Khuttipripadhi VDC, in Mahottari district, was initially a stove repairman who also knew a thing or two about repairing harmoniums. When he got here, only a few clients, from the bhajan tolis around Ason, would come trickling in. Later, as Radio Nepal, the only radio station of the time, became the cornerstone of the Nepali music industry, that trickle became a flow. The musicians who worked at the radio station all repaired their instruments at the shop. That relationship endures to this day. 

The place has been witness to much labour of love. The evidence is there on display in the contents housed by the seven floor-to-ceiling shelves. Their slots are filled with harmonium parts: the harmonium’s wooden housing-cabinets, reed banks, keys, leather bellows. These bits and pieces are all that the brothers need to revive any harmonium that a customer lugs along into their shop.

Say, a customer walks in because his harmonium doesn’t sound quite right. Here’s the basic MO for how the brothers usually tackle a case. First, a few cups of tea are ordered. Then it’s time to get to work. Any of the brothers who is not busy with a prior case will take on the unit that has come in. He may first run his fingers over the keys, checking for a loose reed. As he does this, he will listen for that buzzing sound that a reed gone awry produces. If all the reeds look like they are snugly nestled in their reed banks, he will check for an air leak. Removing the metal frame of the intake vent behind the external bellows, he will then check to see if either the leather flap or the bellows are torn. Just a minor re-patch will fix either problem. Once the re-patching is done, he will reach for the shop’s lone tuner and tune back the harmonium to perfect pitch. 

Depending on how many sets of octaves you want, they’ll recommend the harmonium to suit your needs

Because the brothers have worked in such granular detail with harmoniums, they are also connoisseurs of the instrument. Thus, if you are a customer who wants a certain timbre in a harmonium, they can perfectly match the harmonium you have in your mind with one they have in stock. And depending on how many sets of octaves you want to make use of, they’ll recommend the harmonium to suit your needs. If you want more range in your bass notes, you can opt for a harmonium that has more keys in the lower-pitch settings. If you want more options for the high treble notes, they’ll offer a harmonium with more keys in the higher-pitch settings. That’s why discerning artists, both adhunik musicians and experimental artists alike, throng the shop.

The harmonium, contrary to popular belief, is not a dying breed in Nepal. Even though the demand for electric instruments is increasing, the harmonium is still a must for musicians of many genres. The adhunik singers need it, for example, to provide the right ambience. According to Udaya Sotang, a singer-composer who has often repaired his harmonium at the emporium, the harmonium is a great first instrument with which to work on your foundations before you move on to the tanpura, sitar or other instruments. The dohori genre, which has seen a resurgence of late, absolutely needs the harmonium to hold it all together. And the burgeoning fusion scene features musicians who will add in harmonium bits to lend that Nepali touch to their compositions.

The harmonium doctors, as the brothers are known in the music community, should thus easily be in business for the foreseeable future. But with at least five members of the family’s newer generation attending medical school, there may not be any harmonium doctors in the coming generation to continue the family’s legacy.

Newer shops will probably come in to fill void, should that come to pass. These upstarts might even be able to procure the best harmoniums that the music suppliers in India can provide. But they will probably need a generation, minimum, to build up the storehouse of knowledge like the ones the brothers possess—their living family legacy. One that they so easily draw from today to make your harmonium hit all the right notes.