Thursday, January 05, 2006

Harmonium - Sarangi Wars, Redux.

A while ago at a Hindustani concert by Padma Talwalkar, seeing the accompanying harmonium unable to keep up with the fluid voice of the singer made me wonder why this instrument was preferred to the sarangi or the violin. I expressed my thoughts in the article How the Harmonium Came on the Hindustani Stage.

I didn't know it when I first wrote this article, but the harmonium was banned in AIR concerts for 30 years from sometime in the 1940's. This is surprising. Though the instrument can't probably reproduce the high-speed taans or certain types of gamakas, it's got a rich continuous tone that only a very good violinist with impeccable bow control can match. This is a very desirable quality for an accompanying instrument. Banning the harmonium, I feel, was draconian.

In the late 1960's, the Sangeet Natak Akademi invited experts to a seminar to discuss this ban. Excerpts from the seminar proceedings were posted in the rec.music.indian.classical group and make a very interesting reading. V.H. Deshpande, an AIR artiste, while presenting his case for the harmonium, brought up the important topic of the role of an accompanist in a concert:
[W]hat is the role of an accompanying instrument? I submit it is to create a musical atmosphere, and inspire the artiste by bringing him into his best singing mood. Further, the accompanying instrument must keep the continuity of singing to heighten the musicality of the performance and make it more more entertaining and in effect more pleasing. This it is expected to do by following the main artiste closely with or without a little time lag and also at times being played independently in the interludes, generally calculated to excite and inspire the principal to do better than before. I dare say that the Harmonium by its powerful, constant and sustained notes not only abundantly satisfies all these requirements but satisfies them in a far greater degree than any of the stringed instruments...

It is said that Sarangi can reproduce the exact tonal nuances and meends and gamaks. This is alright only if the resonating strings allow it to remain in accurate intonation. But let me ask, whether exact reproduction is at all necessary for an accompanying instrument, whose role is only complementary?
A certain P. V. Subramaniam from Delhi makes an eloquent case for the harmonium as well:
It is not realised that as in the case of other aids to music the Harmonium has undergone great refinement. Today's version of the Harmonium is capable of providing a whole range of tonal excellence unavailable in other musical instruments... Present-day Harmoniums have three-reed-boards joined together with provision for air-release in a zig-zag fashion ensuring softness of tone and melody.

In the far South, before the days of cant and dilettantism, Perur Subramanya Dikshitar, the Harmonium Wizard, used to accompany the great classical vocalists... Dikshitar played on a highly sophisticated Harmonium. There are many gramaphone records testifying to his instrumental excellence while accompanying a maestro of the calibre of Palladam Sanjivi Rao. These records have also been broadcast over the Radio. The heavens have not fallen. They are in one piece.
This gentleman, P. V. Subramaniam, is none other than the much-feared Carnatic critic Subbudu!

Read the whole thing.

More on the Harmonium vs Sarangi debate:
In the For Sarangi team: Kishori Amonkar.
In the For Harmonium team: Rajan Parrikar.

Who doesn't love a good fight?

20 comments :

Suraj said...

Awesome post. I've always been on the 'other' side and thought Harmonium doesn't fit the bill all that well in terms of keeping up with the Ghamakkams. This post is indeed very enlightening. But I've never looked at any instrument from the view-point of what its role is. Looking at the harmonium that way, it just doesn't seem to be a good instrument to express a solo concert. But yeah, its a decent support instrument.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

Srikanth said...

Suraj, thanks a lot!

At the time of the Talwalkar concert, I was in the 'other' camp as well (though I wouldn't have supported a ban either). But recently I got to listen at a close range to a very good harmonium player rehearsing before a concert. The melodious tone of the instrument captivated me.

I have always thought producing a continuous and rich note was important for an accompanist - this comes from listening to MS Gopalakrishnan accompanying on the violin. In Carnatic concerts, most (accompanying) violinists ply very short bows. Never liked this.

So being there at that harmonium rehearsal made me switch camps!

By the way, if you like Hindustani, one of the sites I have linked, sarangi.info is a good place to visit. It is maintained by Pakistani connoisseurs of Hindustani music!

Sunil said...

i think the harmonium (as used now) is an outstanding accompanying instrument. It is more suited to hindustani music (because of a different style of gamakas than carnatic), but it really does enhance a concert when used well. It can also be used by the singer itself, so that means you don't need a second musician accompanying you (cost cutting? :-))

and a happy new year to you.

I can't find those old cassettes of mine with vachanas, but will try to dig up some info on vachana cassettes.

you might not have heard too many vachanas if you attended concerts primarily in TN. And most tamil musicians (understandably) don't sing vachanas. Only a few of them sing the much more prominent Dasa sahitya itself (and much credit for that goes to the legendary ML Vasantakumari). Vachanas are far less common.

But a few "lesser known" musicians from mysore or hassan and such places do sing them. You also learn them if you do courses (BA, MA or senior/vidwantha exams) from the state government. I had to know 4 vachanas as part of my senior exam curriculum.

Vijayanand said...

I have the opinion that a typed instrument (if I may call it that way) like piano, harmonium, keyboard is mainly for polyphonic music.
(1.As you must be knowing harmonium is not an indian instrument
2.If we think of several ways of creating polyphony, typing two or more notes at a time seems to be one of the easier ways.)

Ofcourse it has several advantages that was discussed in your previous post - ease, singer playability etc.

I would consider the idea of "singer getting inspired by the harmonium" as very subjective.

Finally a lot of western instruments were indianised. I think the succesfull adaptations were the monophonic instruments like violin, mandolin.

Srikanth said...

Sunil,
Thanks and wish you a happy new year too!

It is more suited to hindustani music...
I am inclined to agree with you, though I am curious about 'Harmonium Wizard' Perur Subramanya Dikshitar (that Subbudu mentioned) and how he accompanied Carnatic vocalists.

It can also be used by the singer itself, so that means you don't need a second musician accompanying you (cost cutting? :-))
:-) True. This could be done while singing compositions/bhajans, but I feel it might be very tough while improvising... And tougher in Carnatic - how would (s)he reckon the tala?

you might not have heard too many vachanas if you attended concerts primarily in TN.
This could be rectified if a Kannadiga artiste settles down in Madras and performs. There have been Andhra musicians moving over (Balamurali, U Srinivas), but don't think anyone from Karnataka have.

I had to know 4 vachanas as part of my senior exam curriculum.
What, you have done a music course! Where? How long? Tell me more!

Srikanth said...

Vijayanand,
Thanks for the comment! Will soon respond...

Srikanth said...

Vijayanand,
Sorry for the delay - responding to your comments always need thought and research; so couldn't reply immediately. And then the weekend fell.

I have the opinion that a typed instrument ... like piano, harmonium, keyboard is mainly for polyphonic music.
...creating polyphony, typing two or more notes at a time seems to be one of the easier ways
...succesfull adaptations were the monophonic instruments


I read up a little: It turns out polyphony (music consisting of several melodic lines, each having individual significance and independence) is different from chords ("typing two or more notes at a time"), which is called homophony (music consisting of a single melodic line supported by chords or other subordinate material).

Of the keyed instruments, piano and the electronic-keyboard, true, support polyphony. But the harmonium, the accordion and such-kind are homophonic (support chords) and not polyphonic, as the keyboard is smaller and only one hand can be used to operate the keys.

In addition, non-keyed string instruments like the mandolin (that you mentioned), guitar etc. support chords too, though they can also be used as monophonic instruments.

So I think, merely whether the instrument is poly-/homo-/mono-phonic may not be a sufficient criterion to decide its suitability.

I would consider the idea of "singer getting inspired by the harmonium" as very subjective.
True. But the statement was made in the context of the ban on harmonium. That it is possible that some artiste would be inspired by an accompanying harmonium and may be prefer it to sarangi/violin was sufficient reason to revoke the ban.

Vijayanand said...

Thanks for clearing the confusion I apparently had between polyphony and homophony.

So I think, merely whether the instrument is poly-/homo-/mono-phonic may not be a sufficient criterion to decide its suitability.

Completely agree! But my point was the following: When a technique is developed (keying / typing notes) to mainly accomplish a particular task (chords or polyphony) it may not be the best solution for other complementary tasks. (for monophony)

Anyway I think your post has ignited me to
write about the 'future of musical instruments' (which I will do so in a week's time).

Last but not the least, for some time I have been flooding you with 'half-baked' information to which you do research and respond with the correct information. Thanks!

I have to shamelessly admit that I am ok with this setup, as long as you are not pissed off by this!

Srikanth said...

Vijayanand,

for some time I have been flooding you with 'half-baked' information to which you do research and respond with the correct information
I must say, you are comments are seldom 'half-baked' - you are welcome to post as much of it as you wish! I would not have known that there is such a beast as "homophonic music" and that it is distinct from polyphonic music but for your last comment! :-)

gawker said...

Nice post. I think the harmonium was banned on AIR because of Nehru's prejudiced views against it. Apparently he called it a "bastard instrument". Although I myself like the sarangi's more fluid tones, I don't harbor any dislike towards the harmonium either, having learnt classical music on it myself.

Srikanth said...

Hi Gawker,
Thanks! I concur with your views.

It seems Tagore disliked the instrument too, though I don't think he would have favoured a ban on it.

hernanmassau said...

Nice blog! I didn't like the harmonium at all, in fact I think it ruins any raga. It has a very european, square, sound that doesn't fit with the rest, sounding really alien in that wonderful classical music you have in India.

In the other hand, sarangi, with its beautiful and complex voice may be not the best instrument for accompaniment but it's great for soloist.
I think violin suits better for an accompaniment instrument, it blends well with the music and can produce gammaks and meends, and have some eastern origin that doesn't sound alien.

Tarique said...

If you're into tuning instruments and are very critical to precise tunings, you will clearly hear beating when playing the same note an octave apart or playing the base note (sa) with the 3rd (ga), 4th (ma), 5th (pa), or 6th (dha). That's because the tuning is to the tempered western scale. It is not on a precise harmonic ratio boundary. Most people can't distinguish this unless you're highly pitch sensitive and you start tuning instruments. The drone of a tanpura which is exactly tuned to a base note with its perfect 4th (ma) or 5th (pa), will produce overtones, such as the 3rd (ga),that are perfect harmonic ratios. When a tempered harmonium is played with a tanpura, a certain amount of discord can be heard in the form of beating (ie, even a slightly out of tune note eventually overtakes and then catches up with the frequency of another harmonic or overtone, thereby causing a perceptible beating effect). The faster the beating the more out of tune and the slower the more in tune the note. In the old days when Indian musicians practised with tanpuras and had decades of practise, they could not only obviously hear the differences, but the could hear it enough to disturb them. A sarangi player who is highly practised and who is also listening to the tanpura will produce the precise note down to its exact frequency. The expert knows when he/she hits the exact frequency because there's no beating effect with the tanpura or its overtones. Plus the sarangi can glide the note to almost perfectly match the human voice, as well as vary the volume with bow action within a much wider range. Personally, I hear much more emotion and pathos evoked from the sarangi glides, gammaks, volume variations, etc. than I hear with from the harmonium. However, I do also like the harmonium and have a perfectly tuned 22 shruti harmonium - it has 38 levers, one for each exact shruti within 3 octaves. It is tuned only in C# and there's no beating effect when harmonic notes are played together in C#. The advantage is that in my scale of C# I have perfect notes for every raga, but of course you cannot play cords in any other key. I guess it was mostly the tempered tuned harmoniums that got banned from AIR, not customed Just intonation or shruti wise tuned (the classical Indian scale really has 22 distinct notes called shrutis). Essentially, Indian classical music is happy with one scale, because there's infinite variety in terms of number of scales -- 2000+ ragas vs a few scales in Western music. However, it does not have cords and changing keys for different effects as in Western Music. But then Western Music doesn't have the extensive use of glides gammaks etc. that evoke emotions. Music is subjective. In fact, the perfectly harmonic shrutis of Indian Classical music may sound out of tune to a Westerner since the Western ear hears the equal tempered scales from child hood.

So, it's not so much the harmonium, but the harmonium tunings that were not as desirable in the old days when Indian musicians were more purist and critical in the use of precise shrutis, which I guess was the reason for the ban in the 1940's. All I know, is that if you practise with a tanpura or a perfectly tuned shruti harmonium for a while, then when you revert to the equal tempered tuned instrument you can feel a distinct loss of colour. Now, practise on a tempered instrument for a few days, and gradually or brain retrains itself to find the tempered scale as musical (till you go back to the perfect shruti tuned instrument). Remember, with a tempered tuned harmonium as accompaniment, after a while even an expert vocalist, or other instrumentalist starts aligning their notes with that of the tempered harmonium. So, my take is that a harmonium is OK to be used provided it is custom tuned to the raag (shruti wise). Howver, a tempered harmonium is OK for Indian light classical where pitch perfection is not as critical I guess.

akriti said...

The note by Tarique certainly presents a very balanced view about the harmonium. It also indicates his depth of understanding of Indian music in general and Harmonium playing in particular. He has covered all the facets of harmonium. It is indeed a heartwarming note from Tarique.The present hindustani harmonium artistes certainly tune their instruments depending on the main raga which the main vocalist is planning to perform. I have even heard ragas like Marwah being performed very well by great harmonium artistes. I also feel that there is nothing wrong about any instrument and only the aesthetics of instrumentalists matter. I am amazed at the depth of music played in Harmonium by Rambau Bijapure who is more than 90 and still performing at his aesthetic best. There is going to be harmonium festival on the 24th of this month at Bangalore

Srikanth said...

Tarique,

Thank you very much for your erudite and thought-provoking comment. I have to confess that the points that you have brought out never struck me before, and really make a lot of sense.

I infer from your thoughts that you are a very serious student of music, and would like to discuss with you further. Is there an email address I can reach you at? Please let me know. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hmm that's quiet interessting but actually i have a hard time understanding it... wonder how others think about this..

ader45 said...

harmonium is a must man... it symbolic calmness.

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Anonymous said...

Can any of you defending the harmonium here, ever melt into the music of a harmonium as you would into the sublime, truly heavenly wail of the sarangi?
Let us not accept a mere passable accompaniment when a jewel of our own is dying out.

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