A group of scholars of Gurmat Sangeet, the Sikh tradition that has parallels with Indian classical music, believes that the harmonium was “imposed” by the British. There’s a call to phase out the harmonium from the Golden Temple in three years and replace it with traditional string instruments during kirtans. Some scholars of the Gurmat Sangeet, a Sikh musical tradition, believe that the harmonium was introduced by the British
Harmoniums have long been part of the tradition at Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Every day, as ragi jathas sing ragas at the temple, the instrument provides soulful music that reverberates throughout the gurudwara complex.
However, harmoniums might go silent if the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of power in Sikhism, has its way. The 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).
Why does the Akal Takht want the harmoniums to stop?
The Takht administration believes that the harmonium is not part of Sikh traditions. It was introduced by the British and has no parallel to Indian music.
It has urged that the harmoniums be replaced by traditional string instruments when kirtans and the Gurbani are sung inside the Golden Temple.
“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,” Bhai Balwant Singh Namdhari, who is a master in Gurmat Sangeet, a centuries-old musical tradition in Sikhism, and string instruments told The Indian Express.
Bhai Baldeep Singh, a direct descendent of Guru Nanak Dev’s disciple Bhai Sadharan and renowned Gurmat Sangeet exponent, echoes a similar view. “The harmonium was introduced as part of British interference in Sikh affairs. They had no idea about our heritage,” he told the newspaper.
Before the British, every gurudwara had a jagir (property) and part of the earnings would go to those who would sing kirtans. However, this tradition of “supporting the ragis and rababis” disappeared during the colonial era, according to Bhai Baldeep Singh.
Does everyone agree?
According to Punjabi University professor Dr Alankar Singh, who has specialised in Hindustani classical music and Gurmat Sangeet, the use of string instruments should be encouraged. However, he doesn’t believe that the harmonium should be stopped.
“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 the 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 told The Indian Express.
Is removing the harmonium possible?
Every day 15 hymn singers sing about 31 ragas over 20 hours at the Golden Temple. Only five have the experience to perform without the harmonium and use only string instruments, according to the newspaper.
Over 20 departments of Gurmat Sangeet in SGPC-runs colleges have started training in string instruments recently.
When did the harmonium come to India?
The British brought the harmonium to India; it was played in churches and homes.
The harmonium was reportedly played at the Golden Temple for the first time in 1901 or 1902.
In India, musician Dwarkanath Ghosh modified the harmonium. The foot-operated bellows beneath the keyboard in the European harmonium were replaced by the hand-operated bellows at the rear. Drone knobs were added to the instrument to produce harmonies in Indian classical music. A scale-changing technique was also added to the Indian version of the instrument. By 1915, India had become the leading manufacturer of the harmonium,