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The harmonium continuum

Of all the things European imported into Indian music in the 19th century, two instruments — the harmonium and the violin — have been remarkably Indianised. Both the instruments have been used extensively in classical and filmy music.

columns Updated: Dec 06, 2010 16:35 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Of all the things European imported into Indian music in the 19th century, two instruments — the harmonium and the violin — have been remarkably Indianised. Both the instruments have been used extensively in classical and filmy music. But this week, thanks to the opening bars of the item number du jour — ‘Sheela Ki Jawani’ in Tees Maar Khan — my mind has been riveted on one of them: the hefty, hand-pumped harmonium.

Deemed ‘un-Indian’ by the then information and broadcasting minister BV Keskar, the harmonium was banned from All India Radio in the 1950s. (It’s another matter that Indira Gandhi confided in filmmaker Roberto Rossellini that Keskar was in that post because of the “acute shortage” of ministerial talent in the newly-independent country.) Singer Shubha Mudgal wrote a few years ago that John Foulds, who headed the Western music section of AIR in the 1930s, harboured a view similar to Keskar’s. Later, self-appointed purists in Bengal banned the harmonium’s use with Rabindrasangeet.

But no official proscription could keep it out from popular or classical realms. In Bollywood during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, V Balsara and Master Sonic were the pre-eminent masters of the instrument who were much in demand. And today, after many a turn in musical fashion, it seems to be going through a curious mini revival in Hindi film music. Not just with ‘Sheela Ki Jawani’ or ‘Namak Ishk Ka’ before that; it has been used memorably in recent times by composers Sajid-Wajid on ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ and by Pritam on ‘Billo Rani’ too.

Firoz Shah, who played the instrument on the latter two songs, confirms that there has been a palpable rise in demand over the last five years. The 55-year-old, who has recorded in Bollywood for over 30 years, says it has to do with the need of modern-day composers to get a ‘rustic’ sound on some of the songs. It fits neatly into the ruling formula mix for filmi albums.

Not so, says Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo. He traces the recent rise from Salim-Suleiman’s ‘Haule Haule Ho JAyega Pyar’ (Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, 2008), for which the sound was created on a keyboard. And if one sees it today as a sort of a necessity on some item numbers, such usage too has come a full circle. The 70-year-old maestro reminds us that the harmonium first moved from small baithaks to lavnis and nautankis, and from there to the dance music of early Bollywood, “where you could see someone playing the instrument on screen”.

But truth be told, the cue for delving into a short history of the harmonium — ‘Sheela ki jawani’ — will not be remembered for the instrument. Its use on the song is unmistakable but all too fleeting. If at all, the song will be a YouTube hit because of Katrina Kaif’s accompanying jhatkas.

The instrument has, however, been used rather interestingly by composers Vishal-Shekhar. The intro is followed by the almost-customary English warble — “I know you want it, but you never gonna get it” — without a burp. The percussion, which unlike the keyboard has got full credits on the jacket, has made the switch subtler than you would expect. For the lead number of the album, ‘Tees maar khan’, Sonu Nigam can be heard in a never-before array of voices — ‘male, female and chorus’, declares the liner. But unlike, say, Kishore Kumar in ‘Aake Sidhi Lagi’, this has been made possible by the digital wizardry of the team led by Shirish Kunder, who is the only composer on the album apart from Vishal-Shekhar.

‘Walla re wallah’, a qawwali by Kamal Khan, Raja Hasan, Shreya Ghoshal and my favourite composer-singer Shekhar Ravjiani, goes down the predictable clap-to-faster-clap route.

Sukhwinder Singh and Shreya Ghoshal has delivered another foot-stomper with ‘Badey dilwala’, which apparently features ‘live percussion’ by Nikhil Koparde and Arun Solanki.

‘Happy ending’, which I guess will play when the credits roll up at the end, brings together a number of fresh voices — Prajakta Shukre, Harshit Saxena, Debojit Saha and Abhijit Sawant. Is this the dolly meant for television contest winners? If it is, I wish they get better deals in the future, with recordings that bring out their individual voices. But for now, this is the one which will float into the stack against their names. And it will float out soon, too.

Do you, dear reader, really want me to me to rate the remixes too? If you don’t, please drop me a mail and I’ll be spared the pain that comes up near the end of all albums these days.