A Story Untold

The Beatles used it for recordings such as We can work it out,Doctor Robert and Cry baby cry,and Scottish songwriter-singer Steve Adey incorporated it into his 2006 album All Things Real.

Written by Garima Mishra | Published: May 18, 2013 3:31 am

Chaitanya Kunte’s decade-long research on harmonium details the instrument’s journey in India and brings forth some rare recordings

The Beatles used it for recordings such as We can work it out,Doctor Robert and Cry baby cry,and Scottish songwriter-singer Steve Adey incorporated it into his 2006 album All Things Real. Even Pink Floyd’s album The Final Cut has the distinct reverberating sound of this instrument. Originally a western music instrument,the harmonium or pump organ was embraced by Indian musicians in the mid-19th century,although with a few modifications. Initially,the sangeet natak mandalis,kirtankars,nautankis and tawaifs took to the instrument. Gradually,its charm reached classical musicians as well.

Ten years ago,the instrument’s intriguing history inspired city-based harmonium player and musicologist Chaitanya Kunte. This was followed by an in-depth research,which not only gave him an opportunity to get a glimpse into the life and music of celebrated harmonium maestros,but also brought forth some rare recordings.

On May 19,along with sharing the recordings of 15 legendary artistes,Kunte will demonstrate various styles of playing the harmonium and the structural modifications it has gone through over the years. The event,called Baja Nama,will be held at Sudarshan Rangmanch from 11 am to 12.30 pm.

“Earlier,it was a standing instrument with pedal boards. However,when it was launched in India in the late 1850s,it was modified to suit the requirements of Indian musicians who preferred to perform while sitting. While some artistes experimented with tuning the instrument,others gave it a new look and feel by adding elements. For instance,in the ’60s,Pandit Manohar Chimote added resonating strings to it,” says Kunte.

Also called baja or peti,the harmonium was first adopted by thumri singer Pandit Ganpatbhaiyya Shinde of Gwalior,who played it from 1860 to 1890. Several others such as Pandit Govindrao Tembe,Vitthalrao Korgaonkar and Gyanprakash Ghosh then began giving solo performances using the instrument. “Several artistes I interviewed were kind enough to share the recordings too,” says 39-year-old Kunte,who has accompanied legendary personalities such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi,Kishori Amonkar,Prabha Atre,Pandit Birju Maharaj,Ustad Rashid Khan and Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra on concerts. He also owns a a collection of 15 different types of harmoniums.

Sharing an interesting fact about the journey of the harmonium in India,Kunte says the instrument was banned on All India Radio from 1941 to 1980. “It was considered to be besura (out of tune). Dr V N Pabalkar,an accomplished harmonium player,fought a battle with the government for 30 years until the ban was lifted,” says Kunte.

The musicologist adds that for a long time,the sarangi was preferred by vocalists. However,Ustad Abdul Karim Khan,Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan were instrumental in making the harmonium an essential part of concerts. “The harmonium proved to be a plus point owing to its firm and steady sound support,rich timbre and the possibility of producing taans and other embellishments such as the khatka,murki,jamjama and gitakdi with clarity,” he says.

However,today,says Kunte,solo performances of the harmonium have become a rarity primarily due to the view that it can be only used as an accompaniment. “I want to highlight how some maestros did not use it as a mere accompaniment but gave full-fledged performances of harmonium and yet achieved great success,” says Kunte.

He is also hopeful that the instrument will soon regain its lost popularity because many harmonium maestros are training young musicians. “For instance,Mumbai-based Pandit Tulsidas Borkar has trained three generations of harmonium players,” he says.

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