This couple has been repairing harmoniums for four decades—and they're still in demandHareram Shah and his wife have been repairing these musical instruments for over 40 years and his skills are still in demand
Inside an old mud-and-brick house on the narrow Ason-Bangemuda stretch, a rickety flight of wooden stairs opens up into a small space littered with wooden parts and piano keys. Hareram Shah sits in between a host of old, broken down harmoniums, tinkering with the one on his lap.
“I cannot manufacture this here. It needs a special machine. So, I have to import it from India,” Hareram tells a customer as he minutely checks a reed before attaching it to the harmonium.
The Shri Hareram Harmonium Centre, named after its owner, has been selling and repairing harmoniums from this location for the past 41 years. There are two small rooms on this floor, one for storing harmoniums and the other for repair. Hareram and his wife Sunaina Devi are the only two employees here at the moment.
“Even now, I get around 10 harmoniums a month to repair,” says Hareram. It is surprising given that most modern popular Nepali music doesn’t seem to feature the instrument.
When he first started, in 1977, Hareram only undertook repair jobs but later, also started to manufacture them himself. In the past, at least a decade earlier, he was able to build two harmoniums a month, selling five to seven a month, importing the ones he didn’t make from India. But, due to the availability of cheap musical instruments on the market and his old age, Hareram has now given up manufacturing and has gone back to repair. At 58 years of age, he might feel old but he doesn’t look it, still sporting a shock of thick black hair.
Manufacturing requires cutting wood and iron, along with smoothening and polishing, which is now difficult for him, he says.
“My hands can’t bear such hard work anymore,” says Hareram. But he continues to sell imported harmoniums, which are priced between Rs 14,000 and 70,000.
Hareram Shah at work. Photo: Anish Regmi
It used to take him at least seven days to prepare a new instrument and not more than a day to repair an old one, for which he charges Rs 2,000-5,000, depending on what’s wrong.
Born to a poor family from Khuttapipradhi VDC of Mahottari District in 1961, Hareram Shah has been repairing harmoniums since he was 16. He learnt the craft from his father, Thaka Shah, who was famous for his harmonium repairs in Mahottari. Thaka would travel across Mahottari’s villages, repairing harmoniums. Thaka, in turn, had learnt the trade from his maternal uncle, Ramekbal Shah.
In 1976, Hareram was in the ninth grade when he quit school and moved to Kathmandu with his father. The father-son duo lived with Kedar Wastaj, a pioneering tabala player. Wastaj used to play for King Tribhuvan, says Hareram. Wastaj had met Thaka Shah at a musical programme in Janakpur and they became good friends. Wastaj had suggested that Thaka move to Kathmandu, offering them accomodation at his house. In exchange, Hareram and his father repaired Wastaj’s instruments and those of friends that Wastaj brought over.
After a year, Wastaj’s elder son Min Bahadur Shrestha helped the Shahs open their own repair workshop in Bangemuda.
But Hareram felt incomplete. He was repairing musical instruments without knowing anything about music itself. So he decided to learn. He studied classical music under Nararaj Dhakal for a year and under Kamal Prasad Chhetri for four years. He also took lessons from Wastaj and Amber Gurung, who he was introduced to by veteran singer and musician Phatteman Rajbhandari who was a good friend of Thaka Shah. Hareram holds Amber Gurung in high regard, as someone who not only taught him aesthetics but also business.
“He [Gurung] always advised me to start tuning from A,” says Hareram.
Trained under some of the best music teachers, Hareram began to get opportunities to play music on Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. He also played classical music at Rastriya Naach Ghar’s annual programmes. For more than 10 years, from 1995 to 2007, Hareram concentrated on playing music, but after 2007, he had had enough.
“I couldn’t generate a good income by playing music so I stopped,” he explains. He tried teaching music to children but again abandoned it after not making enough money. He realised that he could make a better income just sticking to harmonium repair.
By this time, Hareram’s wife, Sunaina Devi, was already adept at repair, having been taught by her husband. The two were married when they were children, Hareram 15 and Sunaina 10.
“Sunaina was from Sarlahi and our parents arranged our marriage,” says Hareram. “In those days, love marriages were not practical.”
For the first five years of their marriage, Sunaina continued to live with her parents, as part of a child marriage ritual in some parts of Tarai where a bride doesn’t move in with her husband until puberty. This was the same period when Hareram moved to Kathmandu.
There are only five or six others in the harmonium repair business, says Hareram. Alongside his wife, he has taught the trade to his four brothers, who are also in the repair business.
According to Hareram, his primary assets are his technical and musical expertise, which allow him to maintain quality in his work. This is the reason people trust him to repair their harmoniums.
“It is not a simple task to repair a harmonium,” he says. “Beside technical expertise, one needs to possess a certain level of musical knowledge. The tuning is crucial. I can perfectly tune any harmonium. Nowadays, tuning can be done digitally using a special device, but I still prefer to do it manually.”
Once, says Hareram, he was even praised by Indian legend Ghulam Ali while on a visit to Nepal. Ali had apparently noticed how perfectly Hareram had repaired his harmonium.
In his four decades of harmonium repair, Hareram has provided a good education to his children and built a new house. He sold the small piece of land he had inherited from his father and took out a loan to send his children to school. His eldest son is a doctor and another son and daughter are in the final year of their medical studies in Bangladesh. His home in Dharmasthali was built in 2001; earlier, he and his family lived in the workshop. But he still shows no signs of stopping.
“I am obsessed with this repair work. It is the only thing I am perfect at,” says Hareram proudly. “I have devoted my entire life to this profession and will continue as long as my hands can move.”