Jathedar of Akal Takht wants harmonium replaced from Gurbani sangeet; but is it still a foreign instrument?

In the first half of the 19th century, when French musician Alexandre Debain was working on a reed organ called the harmonium that he would patent in 1840, he could have never factored in the acceptance the musical instrument would find thousands of miles away in the Indian subcontinent. Part of the proscenium alongside legendary musicians such as Kumar Gandharva, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and Kishori Amonkar; a quintessential accompaniment to film music, and accessible equally to the rich and the poor, the harmonium would become a familiar presence in the region, adopted by different communities and faiths. The humble baaja would make its way into temples, gurdwaras, and dargahs with much fortitude and be played alongside shabads, Krishna bhajans, and Sufiana qalams. “The harmonium has never felt un-Indian. The acceptance also came from music itself being a universal concept,” says Delhi-based harmonium exponent and assistant professor at Delhi University, Vinay Mishra.

Earlier this week, Giani Harpreet Singh, a Jathedar of the Akal Takht, asked the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to work towards ensuring the phasing out of the harmonium from the Golden Temple as it is foreign and has been a “British” imposition . It drew one back to questions of authenticity, the evolution of the instrument in the subcontinent and how it replaced the traditional Gurbani sangeet string instruments such as the saranda, taus, dilruba, Esraj, and, the most significant one, the rabab, the origins of which rest in Afghanistan.

While many Gurbani sangeet scholars agreed with Harpreet Singh’s view, others opened that an instrument that has become an integral part of a community’s musical and religious journey, should remain untouched.

According to musician, academic and revivalist of traditional Gurbani sangeet instruments, Bhai Baldeep Singh, the British angle is a stereotypical idea. “Rather than taking a unilateral decision, one needed to look at the recommendations of the vidwaans. He (Harpreet Singh) is removing the harmonium, which according to me, too, is not suited for Gurbani sangeet, it lacks the microtones that our ragas are to be sung with. But what is he inviting back into the durbar? The fake sarandas, the hotchpotch dilruba and the taus, an extension of a dilruba these days. One needs time to revive these instruments, a decade or more for people to learn them, find academic integrity, semantic precision,” he says, referring to the hasty decision of Delhi gurdwaras to train their ragis in traditional string intruments in the next six months .

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Debain’s first harmonium was foot-pumped and traveled through Europe and the US, where it became an instrument of choice in churches and many homes. The British brought it to India some years later, where it found itself at the hands of Dwarkanath Ghose in Kolkata, who owned a musical instruments shop – Dwarkin & Sons. In Mumbai, there was TS Ramchandra and Co. Ghose made the instrument smaller, portable and economical. Taking a cue from Debain who also created a harmonium pumped by hands, he manufactured the second kind, making the harmonium suitable for the baithiki (sitting) style of Indian music. It came with a drone quality, which was similar to the tanpura. It was heat-resistant and did not require extensive tuning. After World War II, when the import of harmoniums from Europe stopped, more factories came up in Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar to meet the demand.

The first imprint of the harmonium at this experimental stage was in Parsi theater in the 1880s, followed by Kannada theatre. Later, Marathi natyasangeet under Bal Gandharva took the harmonium to greater heights. Around the same time, the harmonium was added alongside sarangi in performances by courtesans, including those of India’s recording superstar Gauhar Jaan. Her harmonium player was Bhaiyya Ganpatrao of Gwalior, son of Maharaja of Gwalior Jiyajirao Scindia and famed courtesan Chandravhaga Bai, he was a dhrupad and dhamar musican who often performed with Gauhar Jaan and later taught Jaddan Bai (actor Nargis’s mother) and worked extensively on modifying the harmonium.

harmonium, harmonium instrument, harmonium instrument, acceptance of harmonium, harmonium musical instrument, harmonium Golden Temple, phasing out of harmonium, harmonium news, Gurbani sangeet instruments, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news Let the music play: Mohammed Rafi, OP Nayyar with Asha Bhosle (Express Archive photo)

According to senior harmonium exponent Sudhir Nayak, who learned under the aegis of noted harmonium player Tulsidas Borkar, the discussion over harmonium’s authenticity is not new. Its presence has often been criticized by practitioners of Gurbani sangeet and classical musicians for lack of meend (glides), gamak (accent on a note through oscillations) and ghaseet (a slide from one note to the other). “But they have not looked at the way this instrument has evolved. It has gone through a number of modifications such as increasing the air space for meend and shruti structures, by musicians who have worked all their life to bring it as close to Indian music as possible and circumvent its demerits,” says Nayak.

In the days leading up to the Independence, many Indian scholars including Rabindranath Tagore and Ananda Coomaraswamy among others, debated over the need for India to preserve the chastity of its musical heritage.The British that the instrument was “too lowly” to be played with classical music. English composer John Foulds, who later became director of All India Radio, wrote in one of his papers that the instrument was not suitable for reproducing microtones — the mainstay of Indian classical music. Post this Lonel Fielden, India’s first Controller of Broadcasting in the 1930s, decided to.remove the instrument from the radio. The harmonium was banned from All India Radio in 1941. This prohibition continued till 1971.

However, this was the time the harmonium thrived in films and ghazals. As for the airwaves, harmonium melodies in film music traveled through Radio Ceylon’s Binaca Geetmala. OP Nayyar, who in his initial days in Mumbai, taught harmonium to poor children to make ends meet, found success with some iconic harmonium interludes in his songs such as Leke pehla pehla pyar (CID, 1956), Bohot shukriya (Ek Musafir Ek Haseena , 1962) and Kajra mohobbatwala (Kismat, 1968). Ghazal legends Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar almost always used the instrument in their concerts, even though Akhtar strongly recommended the use of a tanpura. Because it was already in places of worship, folk music, too, adapted well. As of today, India remains the largest exporter of harmoniums in the world. “It’s no longer a western instrument. It’s an Indianised instrument because every aspect of it blends so well with Indian music,” says Nayak.

Assimilation is at the heart of the scriptures and music of Gurbani sangeet. Baba Mardana, Guru Nanak Dev’s long-time companion, disciple and rabab exponent, was born into a Muslim family and helped set up kirtan traditions. For centuries, Muslim rababis have played alongside the sacred hymns in gurdwaras in the subcontinent. The syncretic evolution of the Gurbani sangeet is also visible in Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, which includes the writings of both Hindu and Muslim bhagats (saints). So it was not unnatural when it integrated the ‘Western’ harmonium amid the music, despite its limitations. “If the harmonium needs to go, then even the tabla has to go. The traditional jori is what would be played earlier,” says Bhai Baldeep Singh.

According to Bhai Jalwinder Singh, a raagi at the Golden Temple, while people need to know about the older, fading instruments, one can’t just rid Gurbani sangeet of the harmonium. “The sangat (congregation) has a penchant for the current form of kirtan which uses the harmonium. I am a huge admirer of traditional instruments and believe that they should be brought to the fore. But we can take the harmonium along, and play them together. One does not need to be let go off for the other.”


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