Why Did The Harmonium Disappear From All India Radio?

On September 16, 2013 by admin



Amalendu Bikas Kar Chowdhury


[Amalendu Bikas Kar Chowdhury is a renowned singer, song writer and music director, associated with All India Radio for a long period of time. This essay appears in a fine selection on the history of the wireless in India—Kolkata Betaar: 1927-1977 (edt. Bhabesh Das & Prabhat Kumar Das, Purbanchal Sanskriti Kendra, 2013). Translated by HUG]


Two news bulletins: April 18 and April 19, 1980 from the All India Radio, Calcutta, informs us that all artists of Akashvani are free to perform with the harmonium as an accompaniment once again.  Therefore, it is evident that the harmonium did actually disappear from the world of the wireless in this part of the world at some point of time. But why did such a thing happen?

There are a couple of interesting apocryphal stories about this matter. Suresh Chakraborty in his well-known essay Sudha Sagara Teere (Desh, June, 1979) writes: “What a portentous moment was that when Pandit Nehru uttered—‘I simply cannot tolerate that instrument. It is revolting to my very being.’— in his mind the cloying custom of inaugurating every meeting or congregation with an inaugural musical composition, with the omnipresent harmonium in tandem.  A thoroughly middle class and utterly banal practice, it is still very much a social phenomenon that we tolerate.” So, Nehru’s minions got into the act and made sure that the harmonium made itself scarce from the radio station.

In another anecdote, E.R. Ramkumar in the Sunday Magazine, The Times of India, December 10, 1979, tells us in his informative article, Harmonium: Why the Boycott?: “Lionel Fielden, India’s first broadcasting chief, banned the harmonium in 1939 as he felt it was not suitable to the tonal inflections of  Indian classical music.”

But these kinds of conjectures, as I have already hinted, are largely apocryphal, with no solid factual evidence behind them. The real reason behind this decision was Rabindranath Tagore, who did not think that the harmonium has or should have anything to do with Indian music. So, he had shot off a terse letter to the then Calcutta Bureau chief of Akashvani,  Shri Asoke Kumar Sen, on 19/21 January, 1940.


Santiniketan, Bengal

January 19/21, 1940

Ref: D.O. GC 1414 dated 17.1. 40


Dear Ashoke,

I have always been very much against the prevalent use of the harmonium for purposes of accompaniment in our music and it is banished completely from our asrama. You will be doing a great service to the cause of Indian music if you can get it abandoned from the studios of All India Radio.

Yours sincerely,

Rabindranath Tagore


Sj. Ashoke Kr. Sen

All India Radio

1, Garstin Place, Calcutta

And who can disregard Tagore of the late 1930s?  Naturally the harmonium, promptly and with an air of finality, did make an exit from radio stations beginning March 1, 1940. It reappeared on July 9, 1974 on AIR, Calcutta when that wizard of a harmonium player, Montu Banerjee, initiated a solo programme and started broadcasting his pieces with a new-found gusto. Actually, it is from October 1971 that some of the performers began using the harmonium as accompanying instrument—Manindra Mohan Banerjee, Satyendranath Chakraborty, Dhiresh Chandra Mitra, Muneshwar Dayal, apart from Montu Banerjee himself, were all on the AIR roster.

Gradually, Akashvani did seem to facilitate the instrument’s coming back to vogue in group based or special programmes. But make no mistake:  this happened gingerly. Because there were classists and Tagoreans of the earlier variety still on the lookout. But no dictum is ever full and final. Many artists did  revere the instrument, especially those who would sing folk numbers. And they missed it hugely.

The reasons for which the harmonium had to be shown the door are still very much there, if one is persuaded by them, that is. One must remember that there has been a sea change in the manufacturing techniques of the instrument itself. Its tone and musical quality have improved tremendously mainly  because of superior artisanal expertise. Though it is still debatable whether the harmonium is able to elicit the right kind of mellifluousness when broadcast through the wireless.  But I am trying to question this very mirage: what is this notion of the right kind of musicality? The notion is mystical rather than logical or musical.

E. R. Ramkumar tells us that though the instrument got a new lease of life, Akashvani had still dispatched the following note to an artist at one point:

“The harmonium has not appeared in the broadcast of Karnatak music from AIR as an accompanying or solo instrument. Even in Hindusthani music, the instrument has only been tentatively introduced. We have not received orders from the Directorate to introduce the harmonium in Karnatak music. According to existing rules, there is no provision for auditions in harmonium either for playing solo or as accompaniment.” To this Ramkumar adds his own little commentary—“This was the reply of All India Radio officials in Delhi and Bombay to an artist’s request for an audition test—eight years after the instrument was supposed to have been allowed into the AIR premises ‘on parole.’”

Well, let us examine the arguments for and against banishing the harmonium.  Jnan Prakash Ghosh had articulated somewhere that the vitality and colour in which the genre of Thumri finds itself today has much to do with the regular employment of harmonium in its wake. This observation is spot on.  It is amazing how much of glow and dazzle an accomplished and imaginative harmonium player can bring out of the instrument  revealing a host of notes which the singer himself may not have even thought of while expressing the composition  in his voice.


Some of the astounding voices of our time have used the harmonium to its fullest potential—Faiyyaz Khan, Ghulam Ali, Aamir Khan, Begum Akhtar. And this is only the North of India. If we consider the South—who can forget Chembai Vaidyanatha, S.G. Kittappa, B.S. Raja Iyengar and others. And light classical music and more popular numbers can do wonders with the help of a harmonium.  It is plain injustice to keep it out of bounds.

The regular radio artists or those who are Grade B or even B High in the language of the wireless world have not yet been given permission to sing accompanied by the harmonium. A section of these artists are convinced that if such permission is granted, there will be a marked change in their rendition of the songs.  The cynics and disbelievers of course feel that such an argument is advanced in order to hide the weakness in their voices and tonal quality.

Even if that be the case, what is the problem? Is there anyone who does not want to hide his or her weaknesses?  We, the audience wish to listen to good music. If there are ways to hide one’s weaknesses and express oneself better by means of an instrument, what is the harm? The objection is essentially conservative and philosophically or practically untenable.

At the heart of the argument against the harmonium lies the fact that detractors essentially feel that given the hallowed  position shruti occupies in the Indian classical cosmos, the harmonium is unable to capture the subtleties of individual ragas since swara and shruti are virtually fixed in the case of the harmonium. Mathematically this argument can be proven to be correct.  But if we consider the rasa involved in producing and listening to the harmonium, either as a solo instrument or as an accompaniment, we find that nothing gets diminished as far as musicality goes.

Gandhar-Nishad in Malkauns or Rekhab/Rishabh in Puriya may have a slight mathematical alteration  in actual playing by the way Gandhar-Nishad-Rekhab/Rishabh has been fixed in the harmonium, but for our sense of hearing, there is hardly any felt difference. It is common knowledge that there is always a minimal discrepancy between the singing voice and the note played in the sarangi or the harmonium. So, the argument that the harmonium is unable to convey the ‘proper shruti’ is a futile and misguided one.

The likes of Ganpati Rao Bhaiya Sahab and Govind Rao Tene have shown us how, by regulating the wind in the bellow or by working with the shorter and longer notes skillfully, sheer magic with mind-boggling variations can be produced; especially in developing gamak and such other such expressions through the harmonium. Have we not heard such magical compositions even in this part of the world by the likes of Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Dhiren Mitra and Montu Banerjee?  If it could be used successfully in earlier times, I do not see any reason to get defensive about it now. It is for the sake of the audience that we need to get the harmonium back to the front and centre, in the world of the radio.  Not by making it sound banal, as it has become in middle-class drawing rooms. But by further exploiting its hidden potentialities.

We do respect our experts. But we love our audience.


pakka muisc


Comments are closed.