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The Harmonium in North Indian Music

Book Review by Yogendra
(August 2011)

The harmonium is nowadays one of the most common and most popular of all Indian instruments. Across all genres, there is hardly any vocal performance without harmonium accompaniment - be it in classical khyal, in thumri and ghazal or in qawwali, bhajan and kirtan. And for us at India Instruments, harmoniums are among the best selling instruments. But although its use in Indian music was hotly disputed for quite some time, the history of the harmonium in Indian music was, until recently, as much in the dark as the reasons for its success. The book "The Harmonium in North Indian Music" now closes these gaps.

Its author Birgit Abels, young professor of musicology at the University of Goettingen, shows how the harmonium - a European invention of the mid-19th century - initially found its way into British colonial circles and the Bengali elite in Calcutta in the second half of the 19th Century, then made its way into the Marathi theater and finally spread into the classical music traditions. She describes how, in the 1880s, an indigenous Indian harmonium industry started developing, while around the same time the original European harmonium was modified for playing on the floor. Finally, in the middle of the 20th century, the harmonium practically disappeared in Europe and became a completely Indian instrument with the introduction of an indigenious Indian reed production.

In great detail Birgit Abels deals with the quarrels about the suitability of the harmonium for Indian music, which culminated in a ban on the harmonium in all broadcasts of state-run All India Radio from 1940 to 1970. With the perspective of contemporary cultural studies, she exposes this argument as a purely ideological conflict that had little to do with the specific problems of musical practice and a lot with non-musical ideological positions.

Birgit Abels' pragmatic reasons for the success of the harmonium as an accompanying instrument in the classical North Indian music are compelling and innovative at the same time. She shows what a great range of flexibility and tolerance can be found in classical Indian music practice and how much the harmonium has benefited from it. She also discusses the advantages of the harmonium over a competing instrument like the sarangi. And she argues with the socio-cultural role assignments between soloist and accompanist, which the harmonium players have never questioned.

Overall, this a very knowledgeable, witty and enlightening book - and it is far and away the only one on the topic. In this respect it ought to be required reading for anyone interested the history of the harmonium in India, and its use in classical Indian music. Unfortunately, the sophisticated language of cultural studies might be quite challenging for lay readers. Those with interest only in the harmonium and with little knowledge of Indian art music and its recent history and of current discourse in cultural studies, might find the book therefore rather too difficult. But it might perhaps also inspire curious minds to go a bit deeper into these issues...