The Status of the Harmonium
We are in the midst of celebrating 60 years of independent India and since we always celebrate with fanfare, there have been the usual concerts, aka Azadi Express, with a turbaned actor-cum-truant-MP Govinda doing his characteristic dance moves, TV clips on almost every channel with a stylized version of the tricolour tacked on to one or the other part of the screen and, of course, cross-border debates and discussions leading nowhere, or more often than not ending in the perhaps-never-to-be-resolved issue of Kashmir. But there have been few, if any, discussions on colonial hangovers that we haven’t been able to rid ourselves of.
Take, for instance, the issue of the use of the harmonium in Hindustani classical music. The harmonium is a keyboard instrument brought to India by missionaries in the second half of the 19th century. Today, virtually every Hindustani classical vocalist specializing in khayal and thumri-dadra is accompanied by the harmonium, despite it being considered inappropriate for Indian music by many, including a certain John Foulds, who headed the Western music section of All India Radio (AIR) in the 1930s.
Foulds stated in an article that the inability of the harmonium to produce microtones or shrutis rendered it inappropriate for Indian music. His opinion led Lionel Fielden, controller of broadcasting for AIR (earlier known as the Indian Broadcasting Company), to ban the harmonium on AIR broadcasts in March 1940. This indictment by the British has continued to shadow the journey of the harmonium in India long after the nation became independent. If this isn’t a classic case of a colonial hangover, what is?
The British declared that the harmonium is unsuitable for Indian music without bothering to consult an expert in Hindustani music. We, like humble and obedient servants of Her Majesty, accepted the ban and continued to declare it unsuitable long after it became a part of mainstream concert performances and music-making.
While the ban on the harmonium was lifted and most broadcasts on AIR feature harmonium accompaniment, harmonium players could never enjoy the same status as other musicians. Till recently, AIR followed an audition system whereby every musician had to submit a recording to an audition committee, which then selected candidates after considering their broadcast worthiness and also assigned a grade to each selected candidate.
Grades ranged in ascending order from B, B High, A, to Top Grade, assigned only to the most exceptional musicians. But when it came to harmonium players, they remained in a special category called “ungraded” and even the most proficient and experienced weren’t assigned even a B grade, which was normally reserved for novices. It is only in the last few years that harmonium players have been auditioned and graded like other musicians. But, even now, broadcasts of harmonium solos remain unheard of.
For decades now, harmonium players have worked tirelessly on both the instrument and playing techniques. As a result, they have been able to overcome many of the problems that were the cause of the harmonium being considered unfit for Hindustani music. While two senior harmonium players, namely Appa Jalgaonkar and Tulsidas Borkar have received the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards in recent years, it was disappointing to note that the harmonium has still not been given its due respect.
In the concerts that followed the presentation of the Akademi awards, Borkar featured only as an accompanist to vocal music and was not invited to present a harmonium solo despite the fact that his gharana is known to have developed and enriched harmonium technique and repertoire immensely.
On the other hand, the electronic keyboard and synthesizer has faced no opposition whatsoever and gained widespread acceptance in Indian music. No one ever questions the use of an electronic keyboard in bhajan performances, garba, or other forms of folk music, ghazal, geet, qawwali or any traditional Indian music.
The electronic keyboard, I guess, was never banned as it came to India after the British had left. And, perhaps, that is why we made an independent choice to accept it so freely as opposed to the harmonium, banned by the British and, therefore, stigmatized even today, long after we are said to have become independent.
Originally published in The Mint (livemint.com) on Sept 1, 2007. URL: Harmonium