New insights into Indian music – in a book on the harmonium!

Here is a book that provides many new insights into Indian music from an altogether unexpected angle:

The Harmonium in North Indian Music by Dr. Birgit Abels (Professor of Cultural Musicology, Georg August University Göttingen, Germany); ISBN-13: 978-8178223094.

This meticulously researched monograph is far more informative than its title might suggest; particularly to readers for whom the harmonium seems a mere substitute for the “real item” – whatever that be in the musical and social history of modern India (i.e. any bowed accompanying instrument in view of its capacity to emulate the human voice).

Although this may neither be intentional nor explicit, it is worth pointing out here that the author challenges vague prejudices that have been lingering for too long as regards India and Indian music; some obviously being solicited by the very instrument under scrutiny. Her writing is marked by an appreciation of the creative outlook found among modern Indians, for whom music has long been more than a sentimental pastime or a link with a “golden past”. Long before electronics became ubiquitous in studios and on concert stages, Indians were keen students of acoustic sound and its application. The very concept of personal transmission, musical and otherwise, long set India apart in this regard, and to some extent (though decreasing) still does in the face of institutionalized learning whereby an  internationally recognized degree is most highly prized.

The author provides a context that is bound to reverse many misconceptions about the way music has been made, felt and used in India; namely the deliberate effort among educated Indians to participate in the modern world on eye-level rather than as subordinates and colonial subjects. As a case in point, Sourindro Mohan Tagore (1840-1914) started this process in several pioneering projects. He wrote and published books on research relating to musical instruments. Being in touch with leading scholars and museum curators in several countries he sent them specimens of Indian musical instruments – the beneficiaries included Göttingen’s collection (still to be seen in the author’s own university department).

This vibrant past comes alive through a wealth of quotations and references not commonly accessible to most readers. Much of these are worth probing further for their wider implications beyond the Indian performance practice we now take for granted:

In addition to the musically inherent requirements of the accompaniment, the fact that the venues that had to be filled with sound grew larger (due to social changes and new technology, such as the microphone, especially) plays a role that should not be underestimated. In terms of sound volume the harmonium clearly has an advantage over the sarangi when compared directly. Other reasons for the sarangi’s “demise” have been described in detail by Joep Bor, who also relates these reasons to the harmonium: the sarangi had the “disadvantage” of being firmly connected with a strong stigmatization. (p. 23)

It is interesting here to contemplate how for Rabindranath Tagore, an unconventional (rather than nostalgic) outlook, eclectic compositional style just as his integrative educational approach were better served by another bowed instrument – one that seems less burdened by stigmatization: the esraj which, although identified with Bengali culture, has never become as popular even in Bengal as the harmonium which some would rather have seen banned from All India Radio (“Tagore is said to have nodded approval in a letter”); but when this ban did indeed come into force temporarily in 1940 it merely “prompted different reactions” while on the whole, “no negative effects can be diagnosed.” (pp. 56-58)

The quest for innovative music practice and listening experiences has been “on” for a far longer period than most Indian music aficionados would have suspected until now. What distinguishes this book from others on related subjects is that it demonstrates how the harmonium itself became a catalyst of change in its own right, not merely an end in itself (e.g. status symbol among amateurs just as a means of emancipation from prevailing hierarchies among professional musicians); most unexpectedly, it now survives in an age when the effective manipulation of musical sound no longer requires bulky, fragile and costly instruments such as the harmonium. (Here one could argue that the line between live performance and recordings has become blurred in India, and more so than in western “classical” or “traditional” music; but this is another story yet to be probed into!)

In short, this affordable book is a joy to read and can safely be recommended to any lover and student of Indian culture for more than the main reason implied by its title.

Ludwig Pesch

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