How The Harmonium Became An Instrument of Hindustani Music.
The musical instrument synonymous with Indian music called the harmonium, was birthed, died and reborn in the 230 years or so of its existence. It was conceived in the West, but today largely resides in the East, or in Eastern oriented music, particularly in the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora; so much that many mistakenly think it to be an Indian instrument. It is used in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and in other South Asian countries as an accompanying instrument in Hindustani classical music, Sufi Music, Bhajan and other devotional music, Qawwali, Natya Sangeet, and a variety of genres including accompaniment to Classical Kathak Dance.
To go into the past and locate the precise starting point of an idea or an invention is tricky, but one must start somewhere. The prototype of the harmonium was designed Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, a German-born professor – not of music but of physiology – at the University of Copenhagen 1780. Similar instruments have been made in other places around the same time, but this was because the original idea of Kratzentstein had spread through the common trade route.
Harmoniums played in Europe and the West were usually driven by a foot pump. However, another story had been playing out on the opposite side of the world. Several European harmoniums made their way to India where they became the cynosure of the eyes of Indian musicians. One such musician was Dwarkanath Ghose, whose company Dwarkin & Sons, was a leading manufacturer of musical instruments in Kolkata (Calcutta). In 1875, he brought out his version of the Indian hand-harmonium, an instrument more than halved in size from the European harmonium because it was pumped by hand-operated bellows located at the back of the instrument instead of foot-operated bellows beneath the keyboard. It was in response to the Indian needs that Ghose’s hand-held harmonium took birth. Ghose’s instrument could be played while the player was sitting down on the floor. All Indian musical instruments are played with the musician sitting on the floor or on a stage, behind the instrument or holding it in his hands. In that era, Indian homes did not use tables and chairs. This new incarnation of the harmonium was more durable, far less expensive to build, and easier to maintain and repair. Ghose simplified the internal mechanism of the instrument, and added drone stops that would render it suitable for Indian classical music. A scale-changing mechanism was added later.
But the fundamental difference that made such adaptations possible at all was this: Western music is based on harmony, Indian music on melody. Therefore, it was quite feasible to pump the bellows with one hand and play the melody with the other. One did not need both hands on the keyboard. India started manufacturing its own harmoniums, and by 1915, had become the world’s leading producer of the instruments.
Like any new kid on the block who had outsider written all over, the harmonium was received with suspicion by many Indian musicians. But when well-known performers like Ganpat Rao and Govindrao Tembe introduced it in their classical musical concerts and into Marathi opera, it gained grudging respect. Then politics derailed this acceptance. The partition of the state of Bengal in 1905 into East and West Bengal by the British sparked off the nationalist Swadeshi movement. One of its tenets was that anything British was to be rejected, that which was Indian favored. And the harmonium (never mind that it originated from continental Europe, not Britain) became a target.
In the pre-harmonium days, Indian vocalists would be accompanied by musicians playing the sarangi (a bowed, short-necked string instrument). Though said to approximate the human voice, the sarangi was technically difficult to master and needed extensive re-tuning for each raga (melodic musical scale). Moreover, some performers shunned it because it was historically associated with courtesans and titillating music. The harmonium began to replace the sarangi as the instrument of choice to accompany vocalists. But with the politics of national identity and the designation of the harmonium as ”foreign” (though a Bengali, Dwarkanath Ghose, had ‘indianized’ it), the sarangi came into favor again. Gone was the taint of courtesans and debauchery; the good old sarangi was Indian, and therefore to be preferred over that nasty little foreigner, the harmonium.
The harmonium also had its limitations. While the Indian scale of music of twelve semitones is nearly the same as that in Western music, there are discernible differences between the two. The Indian concept of swara (note in an octave) does not relate to a specific pitch point, rather to a pitch-range with variegated possibilities of shades and nuances. No keyboard instrument can meet to this concept of swara; it can only play one note or the next. Thus, the harmonium could not generate the meend or gamaka (a glide from one note to another) in the way a veena or a sitar could. Therefore, the harmonium cannot produce alankars (sound ornamentations), the trills that are so beloved in Indian classical music. A given swara in two different ragas has subtle intonational differences; musicologists claimed that the harmonium could not bring these out effectively.
All of this became ammunition for the anti-harmonium brigade’s use. The instrument’s name itself suggested that it was devised to play harmonies, two or more keys pressed simultaneously to register the melody note and the chord. This is an instrument of evil, the purists cried, a Frankenstein monster that will inflict harm upon Indian music. All India Radio (which, at one time, had the monopoly over commercial radio broadcasting in India) then banned the instrument from its airwaves from 1940 to 1971. It now allows the broadcast of orchestral music of which harmoniums form a part, but solo harmonium recitals are still prohibited.
The instrument initially was the darling of Rabindranath Tagore, who used it to compose many of his songs, although he later not only fell out of love because of its musical limitations but condemned it outright and forbade its use in his residential school, Santiniketan. But the harmonium was not without its champions. Lions of Indian classical music such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi , Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Begum Akhtar picked the harmonium as the instrument of choice to accompany them when they sang.
The harmonium had a rich, continuous tone that only a violinist with a steady hand and immaculate bow control could match. Besides – and politics be damned – wasn’t the whole idea to set the right atmosphere and bring out the best from the singer with the instrument most suited for the occasion?
The harmonium had other good points. Without a doubt it was easier to master than the sarangi or the violin. It was excellent for group singing, loud enough for the drone to fill a concert hall, and it became the key instrument in teaching students the rudiments of music and song. Hindu and Sikh groups quickly adopted it for their devotional music (bhajans, kirtan, dhun, shabad), using a tabla or dholak for the percussion beat, and often with other accompaniments like bells and cymbals. The Christians didn’t lag behind; they used it to sing hymns in Indian languages just as the Europeans and Americans had once used it for church music. The harmonium became the principal (and often, the sole) instrument for qawwali, a devotional music tradition of the Sufi branch of Islam that went back seven centuries. The harmonium had now justifiably developed a reputation as an instrument for devotional music in four religious traditions on the Indian subcontinent.
The Carnatic (South Indian classical) school of music has been ambivalent about the harmonium as a natural fit in its repertoire, though it had its great exponents such as Perur Subramanya Dikshitar whose wizardry on this instrument, many say, cannot be surpassed. Another veteran harmonium player, Palladam Venkataramana Rao, said that the instrument is so good that it is silly to hold its inability to produce a gamaka against it, because gamakas alone do not Carnatic music make. But for all that, a solo harmonium performance is as rare in the famous Chennai Carnatic music concert season in December as snowfall is in that city.
The naysayers notwithstanding, the harmonium became popular across a wide spectrum of music: rural folk music all over India, in ghazals (Urdu poetry set to music), kathak (North Indian classical dance), thumri (North Indian semi-classical variation) and kheyal (North Indian classical vocal). Even the Indian movie industry embraced the harmonium with an open heart. The harmonium became an instrument for popular entertainment.
The hand-pump Indian version of the harmonium came in around the latter period of Indian indentureship. As cited by Dr. Primnath Guptar it was first brought to Trinidad by the founder of the Naya Zamana orchestra, Fakeer Mohammmed, on a trip back from India in 1918 one year later the end of indentureship. This was just prior to the birth of Local Classical music in the decade of the 1920s. The harmonium then took center stage for these performances as well as the folk song traditions that came during indentureship. As Hindustani music evolved during the 2oh century in the Caribbean he harmonium was the key instrument during the performances as we see it used in modern day Chutney and Chutney-Soca.