IWhen you visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar, you don’t just see a structure. There are little things that complete the spiritual ambience of this place – the golden dome, the sarovar, the faithful. And what acts as a binding force between them is the soft, continuous music. Every day a group of 15 ragi jathas (hymn singers) sing about 31 rags over a period of 20 hours, an activity essential to nature and the veneration of the place. This music is an expressive way of spiritually appreciating and worshiping the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs. From this music, the harmonium forms the sound of the soul, a “key” instrument.
But now the sound of the harmonium can become mute at the Harmandir Sahib.
The Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh ordered the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to replace the harmonium with more traditional stringed instruments and phase it out within three years. According to the Takht, the Harmonium is an instrument with colonial roots, so not the most appropriate way to delineate the Gurbani.
At a time when India’s past and ‘purity’ are constantly being unearthed and debated, the humble harmonium has become the latest victim. The irony: music has always been seen as a global connector and not as something that divides.
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history of harmony
Harmonium was developed by Alexandre Debain of France in 1840 and patented. Before that, many, including Anton Haeckl and Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, worked on earlier prototypes. Later, Victor Mustel in Paris and Jacob Estey in the United States made improvements to the patented harmonium and brought it closer to its contemporary form.
The harmonium has become a staple of Western classical music, played in church and used by several music producers such as bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák, German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert, French composer Louis Vierne among others in the early 1900s. By now it was smaller than a pipe organ, much lighter and more efficient. However, in the 1930s, with the advent of the electronic organ, the demand for harmoniums began to decline.
It was the British who brought the harmonium to India, to their homes and churches. In India, musician Dwarkanath Ghosh, who owned a musical instrument manufacturing unit, modified the harmonium. The foot-operated bellows under the keyboard of the European harmonium has been replaced by the manually-operated bellows on the back. Drone buttons have been added to the instrument to produce harmonies in Indian classical music. A scaling technique was also added to the Indian version of the instrument. By 1915, India had become the leading harmonium manufacturer. This new instrument was more durable, more cost effective and easier to maintain and repair.
Thus, the harmonium can be said to have found a second life in India where to this day musicians use it in a variety of productions — not only in rigid classical music but also in Bollywood songs, vernacular compositions among others.
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Music and borders beyond
Ask, and most Indians wouldn’t know that the harmonium is not an Indian instrument. The question is, if the harmonium in its current form doesn’t even bear similarities to the Western harmonium, then doesn’t it essentially become something of Indian origin? And by calling it colonial, are we not doing an injustice to the music makers and musicians of 20th century Kolkata who brought the harmonium to the peak of its usefulness? The Western harmonium of the past and the distinctly different Indian version are practically two separate instruments sharing the same name. Today, the harmonium is more strongly attached to Indian classical music than to French, American or British.
The idea of music is to transcend boundaries or distinctions that separate people. Music is for everyone because it treats everyone equally and does not limit its expression to certain groups of people. Therefore, to deliberate and reflect on its roots is to disrespect the authentic nature of this art.
Are our religious institutions so fragile that something that is meant to just accompany an expression of our devotion can so easily challenge our belief systems, or become blasphemous? We must examine how the divisions we create are baseless and against the very notions of faith we place firmly in people and places, and overcome their sanctity and strength.
Yashika Singhla is an intern at ThePrint. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)