Maharaja of Bhavnagar Krishnasinhji Gohil called two blacksmiths from Palitana to repair a German-made harmonium in 1901. Jivanalal Kanji and Mohanlal Mistry not only fixed the musical instrument, which they had never heard about leave alone seen, but carefully studied its design and structure.
Within a couple of years, they began making reeds of the harmonium and their sons and relatives carried the tradition forward.
Today this small town of Bhavnagar district, linked only by roads and known as a pilgrim centre for Jains, is the only place in India where quality harmonium reeds are manufactured.
Ludhiana or Kolkata will have reeds only from Palitana. With seven such small-scale units, the third generation of those two blacksmiths, offering innovation and variations, has taken the business ahead.
In the cramped by lanes of Palitana, these units can be easily mistaken for big houses. All leading harmonium manufacturers companies in the country come to Palitana for the reeds. The demand is so high for the seven units too to meet deadlines for orders. These seven units together make 200 sets of reeds, each containing 46 pieces, per day.
Directly or indirectly the units employ about 500 people in Palitana. From 3 sets a day two decades ago, each unit makes 15-20 sets daily today.
''The way this industry came into existence is purely accidental. But thanks to hard work, insight and vision of our forefathers, it is going strong even after 100 years'', says Raju Mistry, grandson of Mohanlal J Mistry, adding, ''When our grandfather started in 1921, harmonium was a little known instrument and hardly any market for it."
Jivanalal and Mohanlal designed, marketed and formed a base for their products, while remaining in Palitana. ''Even today we do not earn a single penny from Gujarat. All our clients are based in Kolkata, Mumbai and Ludhiana. Most of these clients, also hundred years old, have been doing business with us since years. Their business grew only after World War II which put an end to import of harmonium from Germany and Paris.
One of the more famous Mistrys in Palitana is Manohar Mistry, who graduated from making reeds to producing harmoniums. Today, his clientele list reads like the who's who of the music industry in India.
He has designed and supplied musical instruments to ghazal singers Jagjit Singh and those legends from across the border, Mehdi Hassan and Gulam Ali. Music maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and Bollywood music composer Anu Malik have also bought harmoniums from Mistry.
''Jagjit singh requires a base harmonium'', remarks this 53-year-old while tuning a harmonium. ''His voice and tone is heavy. There should be no madi (female) scale on his harmonium. So one which I am making for him has two nar (male) and a kharj (base) scale'', he adds.
It takes him around 20-25 days to make a special harmonium, against 8-10 days for a regular one.
In a single harmonium he offers up to 11 different arrangements. With demand has come dependence on machines. ''Making reeds is now 70 per cent manual job, earlier it was 100 percent. If this small scale industry has failed to developed anywhere else there is a reason. ''We need skilled workers. And that is the reason we have not been able to expand. It is the same reason that other centres like Ludhiyana, where one or two units do make reeds for domestic use, have not been able to grow. Harmonium manufacturers say Palitana has acquired mastery in scale changers. These units offer as many as 25 variations in reeds and perfect tuning.