GADAG : In a little over two decades, Ashok Koni (45) has come a really long way — from often going to sleep on an empty stomach, to now being a name sought after by customers in the region, and beyond. Ashok, a harmonium maker from a small village called Jantli-Shirur, is now known for producing quality instruments in Karnataka, as well as other states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. He gets requests for bespoke harmoniums from musicians and bulk orders from schools.
Life wasn’t, however, a song for his family earlier. Ashok was born in a poor family that made its living by roaming the streets to repair harmoniums. Even though his father, Hanumantappa, was an expert in repairing the musical instrument, all he earned at the end of the day during the 1990s was an amount ranging from Rs 2 to Rs 5, which sometimes went up to Rs 10. Upcoming musicians even occasionally gave them a jar full of rice or jowar. On some days, they earned nothing.
“We have been repairing harmoniums since I was a child. Those were very hard days for us,” Ashok says. “If we got no repair work, we used to eat prasadam at Veereshwar Punyashram, a school teaching Hindustani music in Gadag,” he adds, talking about how they were helped by many artistes in the institute. “They liked our honesty. We never charged more from them. That’s perhaps why God blessed us with work offers. We have not done any advertising, or gone out to hunt for customers. Our clients look for us and visit Jantli-Shirur to place orders.”
Ashok, who has till now sold more than 800 harmoniums, began with learning the craft of repairing and assembling it from his father. “One day I thought, when we can repair harmoniums, why can’t we make new ones,” he recalls.He then started making harmoniums in 1998 and gave it to some musicians in Veereshwar Punyashram.
They liked the quality and started giving orders. As the music school needed harmoniums, Ashok got orders, and his journey towards success began. Now Ashok and his son Chennaveeresh, a PU-I student, make harmoniums while his mother, Andamma, and wife, Saroja, help them. Chennaveeresh also wants to continue in his father’s footsteps.
“Ashok has magic in his hands,” Kumar Hiremath, a harmonium player from Veereshwar Punyashram says. “The harmoniums made by others are cheaper, and can be bought for Rs 12,000 but they are made of low quality wood and get worm-infested in two-three years. But Ashok uses Sagavani wood, which is strong, and the instrument can be used for more than 10 years,” Hiremath explains. The cost of Ashok’s harmoniums range from Rs 12,000 to Rs 16,000.
The quality of his work is a major factor that attracts musicians towards him. “Ashok uses good material. Our artistes now refuse to use harmoniums made by others,” Ashok Akki of Vijay Kala Mandir says, pointing out that the institute has been using harmoniums made by Ashok for 20 years. The made-to-order harmoniums also make musicians gravitate towards Ashok. “He understands our needs and makes harmoniums according to that,” says Nagayya Shastri, a harmonium teacher from Veereshwar Punyashram. “I am not able to see, but I can say just by playing a harmonium that it is made by Ashok Koni.”
Spreading music far and wide
Padma Shri recipient Puttaraj Gavai always used Ashok Koni’s harmoniums. M Venkatesh Kumar and Nagayya Shastry, who has been teaching harmonium for 25 years at Veereshwar Punyashram, have also been his regular clients. Besides Veereshwar Punyashram, his products are much in demand in institutes such as Vijay Kala Mandir inGadag, and Siddarudha mutt in Hubballi.
Ashok makes six harmoniums in a month. He and his family work day and night when they have bulk orders. They only accept orders for up to 10 harmoniums at atime. However, according to Ashok, musicians give him plenty of time as they need a good instrument.