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Remove harmonium from Golden Temple? Sikh music scholars strike differing notes

Every day, 15 ragi jathas, or groups of hymn singers, are deployed in turns to perform at Harmandir Sahib for 20 hours in one of the mainly 31 raags that are chosen depending on the time of day and season.

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar | Amritsar |
Updated: May 23, 2022 3:37:45 pm
Most of the hymn groups perform on the harmonium. (File Photo)

AKAL TAKHT Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh has asked the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to phase out the harmonium within three years from Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) so that the kirtan, or singing of Gurbani, can be accompanied by traditional string instruments.

But not everyone is on the same note.

One group of scholars in Gurmat Sangeet, the Sikh tradition that has parallels with Indian classical music, support the move and say the harmonium was “imposed” by the British. Then there are those who ask: the world can’t go back in time, why should music?

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Every day, 15 ragi jathas, or groups of hymn singers, are deployed in turns to perform at Harmandir Sahib for 20 hours in one of the mainly 31 raags that are chosen depending on the time of day and season. According to SGPC officials, only five of these groups have the experience and skills to perform without the harmonium, using only string instruments such as rabab and saranda. Most of the over 20 departments of Gurmat Sangeet in SGPC-runs colleges have started training in string instruments only recently.

“The harmonium was an invasion by the British. But then, it made inroads. We had met the Akal Takht Jathedar with a demand to revive string instruments. It is good that they are taking steps in this direction,” said Bhai Balwant Singh Namdhari, who is a master in Gurmat Sangeet and string instruments.

Bhai Baldeep Singh, a direct descendent of Guru Nanak Dev’s disciple Bhai Sadharan and renowned Gurmat Sangeet exponent, also wants the harmonium out.

“Guru Nanak Dev ji was the first kirtaniya (kirtan singer)…. The harmonium was introduced as part of British interference in Sikh affairs. They had no idea about our heritage. Before the British came, every Gurudwara had a jagir (property) and part of the earnings from this would go to rababis and Sikh kirtaniyas. There were Muslim rababis, too, who used to play in gurdwaras. This system of supporting ragis and rababis collapsed after the British came,” Baldeep Singh said.

Balwant Singh and Baldeep Singh feel the harmonium affects the quality of singing. “The harmonium covers up your limitations as a ragi. String instruments demand dedication and hard work,” said Balwant Singh.

“There is no space for sympathy if someone feels bad about the harmonium being excluded. The Akal Takht Jathedar should call all scholars of string instruments if he wants to implement the edict in letter and spirit. A mission statement should be made,” said Baldeep Singh.

Other experts believe the harmonium can co-exist with traditional instruments.

“It is said the harmonium was played at Harmandir Sahib for the first time in 1901 or 1902. There are kirtani jathas that use both the harmonium and string instruments, and still come up with very good performances,” says Punjabi University professor Dr Alankar Singh, who has specialised in Hindustani classical music and Gurmat Sangeet.

“It is true that the harmonium doesn’t play slide notes like string instruments. The British have naturally affected our music. For example, the violin has become one of the main instruments in South Indian music. Sikhs believe that everything happens with the will of the Almighty. I would humbly request that instead of saying we will not play the harmonium, we should say we need to encourage the use of string instruments more,” he said.

“The harmonium brought about a revolution in the field of kirtan. After we became slaves of the British, it was very difficult to learn to play string instruments for many reasons, including lack of teachers. The art of singing kirtan could have become extinct among the common Sikhs if the harmonium hadn’t filled the space,” he said.

Surjit Singh, who heads the SGPC-run Giani Sohan Singh Sital Dhadi/Kavishri Gurmat Missionary College, which is an academy for Gurmat Sangeet, says “the words ‘to phase out harmonium’ do not fully convey the intention of the Akal Takht Jathedar, which is to revive string instruments”.

“Do we need to shun the harmonium? There was only the rabab at the time of Guru Nanak Dev ji. Then came the saranda and taus. The harmonium and tabla came with changes in time. Now electric instruments have come,” he said.

“Does reviving heritage mean that we should go back in time to when kirtan was performed only on rabab? Can we shun modern transportation because Guru Nanak Dev ji travelled on foot? There is a need to discuss whether the revival of string instruments means to phase out the harmonium.”

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