A 64-year-old man sits outside a shed on a plastic chair. This shed contains the lifelong work of his father along with his own sweat and tears. Harmoniums are stacked in every corner for as far as one’s eyes can reach. The place is full of the sounds of wood being cut and carved into something special. Another man sits stooped over a harmonium, tuning it expertly. For a second, if you close your eyes, the world stands still.
Sant Singh used to tune and polish pianos for an English company during the time the British were still in control of India. A resident of Gujranwala, Pakistan, one day he happened to come across a new musical instrument called the harmonium. Harmoniums were actually invented in Europe, where they slowly went out of fashion. They were brought to India by western traders and travellers. He recognised the potential of this instrument and knew that a business in the manufacturing and sale of it would be highly successful in this country. He started the business on a smaller scale from within the confines of his own home and then slowly expanded to start exporting the harmoniums to other countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand. After the Partition, Sant Singh had to move his entire family to Uttar Pradesh, where they found a new home for themselves. His son, Ajinder Singh, was born here.
After the demise of Sant Singh, Ajinder Singh took control of the workshop. He has always been in love with his father’s work. He proudly proclaims how he shows up for work every morning at 8 and then leaves not a minute before 8 at night. He has been helping out in the workshop ever since he was in school. He remembers how he would quickly gulp down his lunch and then eagerly rush off to the workshop, keen to master the art so close to his father’s heart. For as long as he can remember, he has known his entire family to be working in this particular field. He was offered a well-paid job once, which he turned down, saying that he could not work for somebody else when he would rather keep the work of his forefathers alive.
Ajinder Singh is a strong believer in his father’s philosophy, “If you make something worth buying, it will sell at all costs.” Each and every part used in the making of the harmonium is manufactured by their own hands. They use the best possible wood for the instrument, also importing it from New Zealand when necessary. Each harmonium takes around 3–4 days to be completely finished. They are only deemed to be worth selling when Ajinder Singh inspects them himself. He believes that each harmonium symbolises Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art and learning. Henceforth, they should all receive the respect that they deserve. He says that he is always trying to come up with new ideas to make the instrument better, quite like an engineer.
Ajinder Singh’s workshop has seen quite a few hardships too. The COVID lockdown was particularly hard on them, and their work had to be completely shut down for months. However, they were back in full force and following all the necessary precautions after the first lockdown ended. There is also the problem that nobody wants to be involved with the hard work that this job requires anymore. However, Ajinder Singh believes that instruments such as the dholak and harmonium form the very basis of Indian Classical Music. There are no new age instruments that can replace them, and their sales are mostly unchanged.
The bond Ajinder Singh shares with the work he does and the art that he loves, cemented by his bloodline, is a rare sight to see nowadays. His optimism and cheerful smile are like a long sip of water after a long drought.