HARMONIUM unfolds like a paradox. It’s a box with two other boxes tucked inside. It has buttons that remain mostly obedient. It has a reed or two that people forget to have maintained for unusually long periods of helpful neglect. It has keys that seem to seduce with the aura of gravity attached to a piano. It can, at times, simulate the playfulness of an accordion. However, it remains mostly unnoticed. It travels silently as its supporting sounds exist in deferred appreciation. It’s a bit like a shadow without the body. It is a cultural remnant of an unfinished colony where the original home is lost and denied in history by both the colonizer and the colonized. He cannot return to Europe. He learned to live with his own relative non-presence, homelessness and endless anonymity.
The times are such that I return willy-nilly to the harmonium. In fact, given my own inadequacy as a singer, I never left him and, to his credit, he never failed me. But more of that a bit later…
I remember a song from “Street Singer” (1937) in which KL Saigal walks down an alley singing “Babul Mora Naihar Chhooto Hi Jaaye (O father, my home escapes me)” with a harmonium slung around his neck . I often wondered why he clumsily held her like a child in his embrace. It makes me wonder if the child could, in fact, be sick or, perhaps, die. Because I don’t hear the sound of the harmonium in the song. He’s most likely there but I can’t hear him. The sequence is symptomatic of a larger condition that has befallen our music in various forms of transit. The harmonium accompanies a devalued street singer who imposes himself a bit like a superfluity – his contribution does not exceed his presence as a simple accessory. He hangs here like a stranger – an albatross, the reward for a sin not yet committed.
I remember another film called “Harmonium” (1976, Bengali) by Tapan Sinha in which a harmonium continues to travel on the sidelines – always in transit, always in exchange. It exists rejected and disavowed like a bad omen. Ritwik Ghatak’s iconic Bengali film, “Meghe Dhaka Tara” (Cloud Capped Star, 1960), also cuts through the protagonists’ night of despair with a song by Tagore in which the harmonium lurks in the background almost like a drone but remains invisible and unfelt. , like water below the surface.
It also reminds me of “Harmonium” by Koji Fukada (2016, Japanese) where it is the only consolation of the condemned – the one who desists and disappears. I wonder if I heard a dull strain of the harmonium in Rafiq Ghaznavi’s heartfelt cry (passionate appeal) accompanying the impoverished protagonist returning home from Bombay to Lahore in “Khazanchi” (The Treasurer, 1942, Lahore) .
The muted strain continues with Asa Singh Mastana’s “Heer” in “Dooj Ka Chand” (The Next-Day Moon, 1964). Although it is a film about the world of qawwals, even ‘Barsaat ki Raat (The Night It Rained, 1960) denies the harmonium the autonomy it has come to occupy in this musical genre. The only exception one can think of is AR Rahman’s ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ (What to say) in ‘Bombay’ (1995) where the harmonium emerges as a stand-alone instrument between songs, assuming the status of an instrument distinct and ecstatic. emotion.
My own initiation as a classical music listener began with one night’s ‘kirtan darbars’ at the local gurdwara. I can’t remember a single performance in those congregations that wasn’t accompanied, at the very least, by a few non-intrusive harmoniums like foot soldiers placed in front. And I don’t remember any stringed instrument except for a very rare “tanpura” or a “swarmandal”. The list of raagis reads like a virtual scroll of honor. There were legends like Bhai Santa Singh, Bhai Surjan Singh, Bhai Sumand Singh, Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, Bhai Dilbagh Singh and Gulbagh Singh. The harmoniums installed in front were almost never in the foreground.
The space of iconic Hindustani classical singers such as Ustad Amir Khan, Begum Akhtar, Siddheshwari Devi, Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kishori Amonkar, Girija Devi and Parveen Sultana was a bit different with harmoniums now removed. from the foreground even as the tanpuras rose in the background, like the twin towers of melodic drones. A few of these maestros kept a “swarmandal” on their knees, which they sometimes stroked with parental attention. Harmonium, however, has rarely been removed from the performance arena. There had to be something about the instrument for it to hold its space so stubbornly.
The Harmonium had moved away from its mid-19th century reincarnation as a miniaturized church organ (or “reed organ” as it was called for a very short time in Europe). It was initially an instrument intended to be used in a project of proselytism. But in a short time, it was appropriated by the alluring spaces of the layman – saang or swang, lavani, tamasha, jatra and various spaces of popular culture.
The harmonium quickly emerged as an invisible point between low and high culture and quietly moved into the sacred space of classical without any declared outrage from the performer. He entered temples, gurdwaras and khanqahs (Sufi gathering places) as a self-effacing participant. It is only in the qawwali format that it will rise as a melodic prologue, a kind of tarana, to inaugurate the following structures. Even so, in independent India, the state kept him in exile for nearly 17 years under the normative gaze of its most senior I&B Minister B.V. Keskar – a brainy Brahmin from Pune with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, University of Paris, and impeccable training in ‘dhrupad gayaki’. The drought period finally ended in 1967 with the advent of Vividh Bharati.
In those days of life without a harmonium, I remember my father carefully pulling a small harmonium out of a wooden crate, dusting it off before inviting us children to come together. It was a wedding present from her in-laws. His eyes shining with wistful longing, he slowly raised his voice to a KL Saigal song from ‘Dushman’ (1939) – ‘Karun Kya Aas Niraas Bhai’ (What shall I do, now that all my hopes have turned to despair ). It’s the first song I ever learned. It never left me, nor did the harmonium.
— The Delhi-based writer is a well-known musician. He wrote this article in response to the Akal Takht Jathedar demanding the removal of the harmonium from the Gurbani kirtan