A perspective on the Indian Harmonium
- Ramblings on Thanksgiving Day, by Kedar NaphadeNov 27, 2008
The harmonium is one of the most commonly used instruments in Indian music today. This instrument is seen in use across many different genres - and is more than likely to be found in almost any household that has an interest in Indian music! It is used to accompany classical vocal music, semi-classical forms, ghazals, bhajans, its also used by many musicians and composers as the instrument of choice for musical support while composing new tunes. Yet, in spite of the ubiquitous availability and familiarity, the instrument continues to be one of the more controversial ones in Indian music.
Those familiar with Hindustani Classical music know that the harmonium as an instrument has had a very colorful, controversial and paradoxical history in many respects. Among the orthodox connoisseurs of classical music, the instrument has come under fire for not having the ability produce elements like meend, gamak etc. that are elemental to Indian music. Among lay people, the picture is quite different. As it is relatively easy to produce sound from this instrument - compared say to the flute or sitar for example, a lot of people "play" the harmonium - but the ignorance about the art is still staggering. There is ignorance about very basic musical issues like the quality of the instrument and the tuning of the instrument. As such, there is a proliferation of low quality harmoniums that are out of tune, being played by untrained people almost everywhere! It's this rather unique combination of scorn from the orthodox elite and the unfortunate fact that harmonium playing commonly heard in settings other than the classical stage tends to be harsh, out of tune and piercing that continue to plague the status of this instrument.
Today, the harmonium stands at a very interesting juncture in its history. It is slowly but surely rising from a tainted and disadvantaged past to an instrument of respect - fueled but what are now many different classically trained harmonium players who are working diligently toward the cause of this instrument.
Being a harmonium player myself, I am deeply devoted to this instrument - and as such will certainly not claim to be unbiased in this account. Further, this is by no means an authoritative or complete history of the instrument or of its evolution in Indian music. It is at best, a personal perspective from a student and exponent of this instrument. However, having been trained on the scientific method in my educational background, I trust that this article will come across as a fair and balanced study rather than the sycophantic ramblings of a zealot blinded by his adoration of the instrument.
While the harmonium is quite certainly the most commonly found musical instrument in Indian households, and Indian music is probably where the instrument currently thrives the most, paradoxically, it is not Indian in its origin. The harmonium is said to have been invented originally in France in the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the instrument was brought into India by the British who at that time were the colonial rulers of the country.
It was originally used predominantly as an accompanying instrument for stage music (musicals), devotional music (keertan) etc. Gradually, it made its way into accompanying Indian Classical vocal music due to some of its strengths such as the sustained note, strong support of the notes to the vocalist ("swara - bharaNaa") and crispness of taan.
The original form of the instrument was similar to the European harmonium where the bellows were pumped by both feet, the performer sat in a western style chair and used both hands to play the keyboard. Since Indian classical music is rendered in an Indian sitting posture on the stage, the instrument changed its form to a smaller one where the left hand is used for the bellows and the right hand is used to play the instrument. Around 1925, the harmonium as is currently known to Indian music started being manufactured in India - but it was only after 1940 that Indian harmoniums started becoming commercially available.
One of the Indian pioneers in constructing harmoniums was Shri H. P. Bhagat. Even today, his skills in making the harmonium are unmatched. Harmoniums made by him are extremely valued today among connoisseurs of Indian music. I have the good fortune of having a harmonium constructed by him, which I use for most solo performances and I have also performed solo on one that my guruji - Pt. Tulsidas Borkar owns. With it's melodiousness, excellent air volume and sheer softness of tone a high caliber H.P. Bhagat harmonium seems to have an uncanny, almost magical ability. Its as though the harmonium itself inspires the artist who caresses its notes into falling in love with the instrument all over again and rendering a soulful performance.
Initially the harmonium was in use purely as an accompanying instrument. Over the last hundred and some years, many great artists have contributed to this instrument, both in solo and accompaniment mode. Contributions have been made structurally, musically as well as from a tuning perspective. It will be impossible for me to list each and every one of them and comment on their contribution to the instrument, I will talk about a few stalwarts that rise to the top of my mind for different contributions.
While there were others before him, Pt. Govindrao Tembe (1881 - 1955) was the first to truly bring into limelight the art of solo harmonium, and lend a place of respect to the harmonium as a solo instrument. Govindrao was a versatile personality with many contributions to music and the theatrical arts in his time. He used to accompany the legendary singer Pt. Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale and also play solo harmonium. Of his many accomplishments, some of the most notable are his compositions for marathi natyasangeet - musicals from the state of Maharashtra. For example, his compositions for the 1910 play "Maanaapaman" are sung and played by artists even today, still extremely popular almost a 100 years later.
In the next generation, artists like Pt. Jnan Prakash Ghosh (1912 - 1997), Pt. P. Madhukar (1916 - 1967) and Pt. Bhishmadev Vedi () have made significant contributions to this art. Just like Govindrao Tembe, Pt. Jnan Prakash Ghosh was a versatile musical personage. He was a tabla maestro, harmonium player and composer who made many lasting, diverse and significant contributions to classical music, light music and modern orchestral music.
Pt. Bhishmadev Vedi is said to have been the first to contemplate improving the instrument by augmenting it with a string box like a harp attached to the top of the instrument. His disciple, Pt. Manohar Chimote later implemented this concept and also provided the name "Samvadini" to this instrument - this name has now gained widespread acceptance. Like Pt. P. Madhukar, Pt. Bhishmadev Vedi is also have said to been among the first to contemplate and design compositions specifically for the harmonium, styled along the lines of "tantakari" - performance of music on stringed instruments. These compositions tend to have a lot of cut-notes and high speed passages creating in some ways an effect similar to that of a string being plucked.
While there have been a lot of great musicians in the last century, only a handful of them may be appropriately described using the epithet "genius". P. Madhukar was one such artist. He was a genius with tremendous mastery over the instrument, exploiting the strengths of the harmonium to the extreme and delivering performances that had an almost unreal aura. The amazing speed with which he could play difficult passages, his extreme dexterity are unmatched to this day. Perhaps a harmonium player with physical command like his will never be born again.
However his genius was not purely in his sheer physical ability - but the musical thought that he created. His compositions - very difficult to reproduce - today stand as a benchmark for harmonium players. His performances of classically based compositions and naatyasangeet (songs from stage musicals) often departed radically from the conventional boundaries within which they had been envisioned and performed for years. In this, his contribution is not unlike that of Pt. Dinanath Mangeshkar who departed dramatically from the conventional rendition of songs in stage musicals - creating a unique, dazzling and difficult style. Pt. P. Madhukar also created a very able set of students like Pt. Tulsidas Borkar, Late Pt. Vishwanath Pendharkar, Pt. Anant Kemkar etc.
In subsequent generations, Pt. Manohar Chimote, Pt. Rambhau Vijapure, Pt. Tulsidas Borkar are some who have gained critical acclaim. Pt. Manohar Chimote currently in his eighties, made his career out of a life long pursuit of the solo form of performance and led a life of sacrifice and strife including a landmark symbolic lawsuit against All India Radio to force them to lift the ban against the harmonium. While the lawsuit was not successful, his contributions are indeed worthy. He is credited with renaming of the harmonium from "Peti" to "Samvadini". His samvadini - with the swaramandal - or harp strings- on top increases the resonance of the instrument. Additionally, his mentoring and molding of several students like Shri Rajendra Vaishampayan, Shri Jitendra Gore etc. has been a great contribution to the continued pursuit of the solo harmonium art form.
Pt. Rambhau Bijapure of Belgaum, currently probably in his nineties, has a magical touch to his hand and has developed a very emotive style, which follows the vocal art form or the gayaki ang. He too has been a lifelong teacher in Belgaum, Karnataka and has created some great students like Shri Ravindra Katoti and Shri Sudhanshu Kulkarni. Ravindra Katoti has continued to popularize the harmonium as a solo instrument by instituting a Harmonium conference in Bangalore which has received very positive reviews. His style of playing harmonium solo is also very touching!
Pt. Tulsidas Borkar, my guru, has his own significant contributions to the art of harmonium solo and accompaniment, in recognition of which he was honored with the Sangeet Natak Academy award by the President of India Shri A. P. J. Abdul Kalam in 2006. He has created a very pleasing confluence that combines the emotive essence of the vocal style or khyal gayaki and the dazzling techniques pioneered by his guru P. Madhukar. Today he is one of the most respected and versatile harmonium players. As an accompanist, his skills are held in high regard by singers from many different schools (gharanas). There are several who claim that he is second to none in that art. In rendering his solo performances, he traverses through several genres like classical music, thumri, natyasangeet, dhun - creating an experience which is not only dazzling but also emotive and moving. He has taught many young students and continues to be devoted to the creation of the next generation of harmonium players. Some of his students include Sudhir Nayak, Seema Mestri, Shriram Hasabnis and myself.
There are many others whose work also needs credit - Pt. Govindrao Patwardhan, Pt. Appa Jalgaonkar, Pt. Purushottam Walawalkar were senior artists of the last 50 years who gained tremendous fame and popularity as accompanists. Appa Jalgaonkar was the first harmonium player to receive the Sangeet Natak Academy award. Dr. Vidyadhar Oke, disciple of Pt. Govindrao Patwardhan has created a new version of the instrument called "Melodium" through which the instrument is not restricted to just 12 srutis or frequencies within an octave, but can play all 22 srutis - which according to some thoughts of school form the foundation of Indian Classical music. Dr Arawind Thatte has also gained a lot of respect as a deep thinker and performer of harmonium solo - he was probably the first soloist to render the genre of Tappa on the harmonium. While my first hand familiarity is mostly with artists from Maharashtra / Goa / Karnataka, a little surfing on YouTube reveals talented artists like Suvendu Banerjee - indicating that the art of harmonium solo is also alive and well in Calcutta - another center of Indian Classical Music.
While the harmonium has come under fire for being incomplete and having shortcomings rendering it unsuitable for Indian music, its popularity as an accompanying instrument has only grown over our times. No instrument is perfect, every instrument has strengths and weaknesses. So does the harmonium. Crispness of taan, constancy of sound production, ability to play cut notes, ability to provide a strong "swar bharana" or melodic support volume during accompaniment are some of the strengths of the instrument. An able artist with the use of deft technique can use these strengths and their training in classical music to dwarf the shortcomings of the instrument. By appropriately tuning the instrument and creating new techniques and modifications that enhance the performance ability of the instrument, a lot of the able harmonium players are now carrying forward the torch and continuing to further popularize the art of harmonium solo. Experimental duet concerts - harmonium in duet with flute, sitar, accordion, mandolin, sarangi etc. are also catching the eyes of audiences. In India as well as abroad, harmonium solos are starting to get acceptance and a spot in music conferences.
It remains to be seen, whether the harmonium will rise to the same level of acceptance in the eyes of connoisseurs... perhaps it will happen in our lifetime, perhaps not.. but progress toward that is definitely happening all over the world.
On this day of "Thanksgiving" I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude toward all harmonium players who have thoughtfully and consciously pursued the art and training in classical music, deepest obeisance for pioneers like Pt. Govindrao Tembe and Pt. P. Madhukar and todays legends like Pt. Manohar Chimote, Pt. Rambhau Vijapure and Pt. Tulsidas Borkar, and to all my peers - the torchbearers of the younger generation - thank you. Thank you for your devotion and hard work and pursuit of this art. Thank you for what in the future will no doubt be non trivial contributions. Let's keep up the good work, let's keep the flame alive.