The obiquitous harmonium or hand pump organ, were it to be classified within the caste structure of Hindu society, would definitely not be considered a Brahmin. It is far too common and lowly for that. Perhaps the rank of shudra, those who service the rest of society, is more appropriate. Like the shudra or lower castes the harmonium provides an essential, indeed, indispensable service to Indian musicians, especially singers.
Whereas about 150 years ago, before the current version of the harmonium was reinvented for Indian conditions by Dwarkanath Ghose, it was the sarangi that vocalists chose to accompany them. But over the years as musical tastes, technologies and consumption patterns changed the harmonium has succeeded in almost totally pushing the sarangi to one side.
Now every singer of ghazals, geets, bhajans, qawwali, nat and kirtans either plays the harmonium her/himself as she/he sings or has someone sitting close to her/him who keys out the melody line. Though purists continue to look down their noses at the instrument–its foreign, its ugly, its cheap–and for nearly 25 years it was forbidden (!) to be played on All India Radio, its place in the concert hall is as secure as that of the tabla or sitar.
Though it is often a scorned instrument, there are many absolutely fantastic, nay, virtuoistic harmonium players from all rungs of professional and informal music worlds. In the villages it is played with a rough raw abandon that is a wonder to behold. On classical and semi classical stages it is more demure–often simply peppering the vocal lines by way of emphasis. The number of qawwalis that open with extended harmonium solos are far too many to count. But despite its amazing versatility across genres and styles the harmonium has rarely ever been given center stage. As an instrument worthy in its own right to be heard, to sing, to fly as a voice as serious as Ravi Shankar’s sitar or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod.
But all that is about to change today!
While digging around in my collection I came upon this fantastic and rare (in concept, if not in availability) recording. A jugalbandi (musical conversation) between the violin, played by the legendary Prof. V.G. Jog and the harmonium played by percussionist and all round musican Jnan Prakash Ghosh.
I’ve been listening to this over and over, thrilling to the idea and sound of one of my favorite instruments, finally getting the recognition it deserves. To make its case and assert that it is not content to just sit on the sidelines ‘servicing’ the stars of the show but that it too is worthy of being fully in the limelight.
This particular record was issued in 1985 but there is an earlier recording of the two gentlemen made in 1967. I’m not sure whether they are one and same and this one is a reiusse of the original or if there are multiple such jugalbandis out there. But I’m on the case, and I’ll be sure to let you know what I find out.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this tremendous and unusual recital.
- Shyam Kalyan
- Jhinjhoti and Misra Kalengra with Dhun Kaharwa