Harmonium contra Sarangi

1. Interview of Roshan Shahani with Kishori Amonkar, Jan 9 1994.

Roshan Shahani: Today there are hardly any singers who use sarangi for accompaniment. The harmonium has found favour instead of this durlabh saaz (rare instrument). What are your comments?

Kishori Amonkar: There may be a whole lot of commercial considerations, specially in concert performances, where the harmonium is preferred because it is a ready-to-use instrument. But the sarangi is the best accompanying instrument because it is most suitable for the human voice. I would wish that the sarangi is used more commonly, only then will classical vocal music acquire a “rang” (colour).

The “meend” (slide) which is an essential part of our singing cannot be rendered by any instrument other than the sarangi. The harmonium can never achieve that kind of tone or subtlety. It is a pity that Sarangi is not commonly used.

RS: But the widespread use of the “peti” (harmonium) has affected the presentation and aesthetics of khayal music.

KA: We do not get “shruti-s” from the harmonium. The aesthetics of music as per classical norms, which emphasise this are not the same now. We have got used to the harmonium and are losing the older values in music. There is a flow to music with the use of the sarangi. We are losing that flow in music. I would like that the sarangi is given an institutional support. I miss the sarangi accompaniment.

RS: In one of those rare concerts of great musicians one has heard you sing with the accompaniment of Sultan Khan on sarangi and Zakir Husain on the tabla. Did you feel a good sense of flow at that event?

KA: Yes, there are great sarangi players like Sultan Khan and Pandit Ram Narayanji but they are not available for us. They are hardly free. Why this is so, I cannot say. It can be because such people find it difficult to survive in this country. So we cant blame them. But whenever they happen to be around or any other good sarangi player accompanies me, I feel transported to the old world of music. In the old days there were “sarangias”, now there are none.

RS: Do you feel that the “sarangiya” who can make a dialogue with you is an ideal accompanist for sangat?

KA: “Yeh hi to baat hai”. I told you about the flow in music – whether it is in the shape of sawal-jawab or it is a “saamvad” or whether it is the fulfilment of the medium itself – The condition of music needs it. The demands of music can be satisfied most appropriately, by the sarangi.

RS: It can happen that in on-going “sangat”, where you are developing the raga, the sarangi player goes ahead of you. For instance you are developing the lower notes of the raga and the sarangi introduces a phrase with a higher note like reaching the pancham before you have even indicated it…

KA: It can happen this way. But a good, knowledgeable sarangi player knows what is a good “sath” – a togetherness in music. However if by chance this does happen, it is not really out of place. We must understand one thing, the sarangi accompanist who goes ahead in playing can only be a musician of a high class. When such an accomplished instrumentalist establishes himself he is an artist of the “patti” – (high calibre)

But this question of superseding the vocalist is not important. Sometimes the sarangi player may want to express something spontaneously. Then we must support him. There are sarangi soloists. Doesn’t it mean that they are artists in their own right?

RS: What do you think should be done to make the sarangi more popular?

KA: The popularity will increase when the “sarangiya-s” get back here to India and perform. You tell me. How many sarangi players are left in India?

I am ready to sing with any good sarangi player. Also, we must realize that they are not our slaves. They are accomplished in their own field. If they are denied recognition and rewards and awards and have to survive by other means then who are we to question their action? We have no right to ask such a question. Some institution can support them. As it is they are paid less. It has become a norm, to treat them shabbily.

I would feel most happy to sing with the sarangi. We have lost the “surila” (tuneful) aspects of music. We sing with the tempered scale. We must create a “sanstha” (institution) for the sarangi.

RS: In Rajasthan the folk sarangi is alive and well. The Langas and Manganiya community of traditional musicians have got recognition and support from government and other sources. But the instrument for classical music accompaniment has a dwindling status. Do you think that institutions like All India Radio or Doordarshan should promote sarangi music?

KA: We have so many avenues of broadcasting music through these mediums. The Bharatiya “parampara” (tradition) of music is hardly heard – it is not even a drop in the ocean of sound and noise we hear. The TV. channels are not doing anything even for traditional music. What should I say about the sarangi? We should create departments of sarangi music in the universities with guru-s placed in positions of teaching. The sarangi players should get government support in this way. But I know what it is to approach the government for help. The delays and complications are too many. I would rather do my “riyaaz” (practice). But yet somebody has to do something for the sarangi. I appreciate the idea of a conference on sarangi. Its closeness to voice/throat is remarkable. I remember how Dattaram Parvatkar used to play sarangi with my mother. I was a young giri then. He sensitized me to “shruti-s” by demonstrating the “swara-s” on his sarangi. He is my guru.

RS: There was a time when vocalist and sarangi players made music together. There is no sarangi player who has reached as high a status as that of a vocalist. A person like Bundu Khan is exemplary. Why weren’t people like this made popular?

KA: We have not allowed it to happen.

RS: If a sarangi student comes to you to learn your gayaki would you teach the young person?

KA: Everything is possible. Look at the example of Hariprasad Chaurasia who considers Annapoorna devi – sitar and surbahar musician as his Guruma. He certainly learnt his music from her. Though each instrument has its own limits and specialities, I would love to teach a sarangi player.

Indian Music Forum Seminars

2. Excerpts from a discussion on RMIC, Jan 10 1996.

Comparing roles of harmonium and sarangi in accompaniment to vocals, Rajan Parrikar wrote:

‘Almost all of the above names you have quoted [Vilayat Hussain Khan, Bade Gulam Ali, Faiyyaz Khan, Krishnarao Pandit, Kesarbai Kerkar] preferred harmonium accompaniment. To this list we may add: Vazebuwa, Bhaskarbuwa, Amir Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharwa, Nissar Hussain Khan, Behrebuwa, Bal Gandharva, Begum Akhtar and on and on.

The AIR [All India Radio] ban on the harmonium was a silly, hare-brained idea to begin with. What was surprising is that it (the ban) had the support of men such as Rab[indranath] Tagore and, of all people, Nehru… As it finally happened, all these attempts at retaining the “purity” of Indian classical music fell flat and good sense finally prevailed with the lift of the ban.

‘And phenomenal increase in H[armonium] players? There are still only a handful of really top-notch H[armonium] accompanists in the country and not surprisingly they are in great demand. While it is facile to get started on the instrument… competence and proficiency is hard to come by, as anyone who has experience with the instrument will tell you. Furthermore, skillful accompaniment not only demands mastery over instrument technique but also a keen sense of swara-dhyaan…

‘Yes, musical devices such as meends and gamakas are inherently impossible to coax out of the harmonium. However, you seem to subscribe to the viewpoint that the paramount goal of accompaniment is to generate a note-by-note, microtone-by-microtone, gamaka-by-gamaka replica of the vocal output. Not everyone agrees. Others feel (and quite sensibly so) that the function of an accompanying instrument is to complement the main vocal line, not to cross swords with it. To that end they prefer an instrument that can provide a pleasing, sustained, non-intrusive tone to form the soft, secondary melodic line with as little time-delay as possible, use it to plug the gaps between vocal pauses via interludes and in general help enhance the musical ambience of the performance. They do not consider cloning of the vocal output on the instrument a sine qua non for an accompanying format. Most of the required boundary conditions are satisfied handsomely by the harmonium, which is why its rise in popularity is to be seen as a natural evolution and assimilation into the vocal performance.

‘A well-tuned, triple-reed array (with, say, a Nar-Kharj-Kharj configuration) can provide a rich, resonant tone ideal for accompaniment to “mardani” gayaki (which you have expressed a fondness for), quite in contrast to the effeminate, whinging, intrusive and distractive tone of the sarangi. The overall consistency, strength and superiority of tone of a harmonium is seen as a good trade-off vis-a-vis its limitations in the production of meends, gamakas etc.

‘The charges made against the harmonium in its accompaniment mode fall broadly along two lines and I shall address them briefly. Note that the thrust of my defense here is for its utility as an accompanying instrument. I hold no brief for its inherent limitations that are all-too-familiar.

Charge #1: Cannot produce microtones, gamakas, meends.
Guilty as charged. However, I have indicated above how production of these devices is not the be-all and end-all of accompaniment protocol. A nimble-fingered and skilled player of the harmonium can do a functional imitation of the meend or gamaka to tide over the phrase. In the worst-case scenario, its volume can be diminished to a point where it doesn’t clash with or mask the vocal curve (which is what is of prime interest anyway).

‘The inability to capture microtonal variations on the harmonium can be an acute problem for certain ragas and less so in others. But again in the accompaniment mode, these problems are relegated to the background. Good fingerwork and bellow-control can mitigate and even surpass them. I have yet to hear someone say that Amir Khan’s Darbari suffered because the harmonium fella had no place to go for his ati-komal gandhar. As an aside, it is chimerical to assume that the sarangiya can abstract out to a high degree the precise shade and nuance of the swara and play them back within the very short response time available. It just doesn’t work out that way in practice even though the sarangi is in principle capable of producing all the microtonal effects. Another point usually missed is the wayward and unmusical behaviour of the sarangi in the fast passages. The instrument can be one hell of a screechy joke as it scampers to catch up with the rapid fire taans and it doesn’t even take a trained ear to smoke out this besuraapan.

Charge #2: Ruins intonational integrity of the artist.
Balderdash. If your intonation is bad to begin with, doing away with harmonium accompaniment isn’t goin’ to improve matters. You have to dig at the root of the problem of how you got to be so lousy. Now one way that could have happened is if you cut your vocal teeth using the harmonium as a crutch. No concert performer worth his name has had his intonation screwed up after using a harmonium for accompaniment. Funnily, even good harmonium players don’t have intonation problems when they demonstrate a raga by singing it out. Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, to name a few – all afficionados of harmonium accompaniment and masters of intonation – have been using harmo[nium] accompaniment all their lives, with no change in intonational status whatsoever.’

Click here to read full discussion.


17 thoughts on “Harmonium contra Sarangi

  1. I regret that at some time, sound ceased to be of value in Hindustani music. Let us consider, for example, the results of Dr. C. V. Raman’s work on the tabla and pakhavaj, published in various journals as well as in his collected works.

    Some references:
    Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences A 1 179-188[1935].
    Nature,London,500,104,1920 and Handb.Phys.Akustik,8,414,1927.

    The summary of his conclusions is:
    1. the drums in question, namely the tabla and pakhavaj, contain the solution to the problem of getting harmonic overtones out of a circular drumhead; all other percussion instruments give inharmonic overtones;

    2. that the overtones so produced are consonant with the overtones produced by tamburas and the veena or, for that matter, any open string.

    It follows therefore that timbre, also loosely translated as “javaari” is a vital element in Hindustani music.

    Also that overtones that are pleasing, consonant, euphonious or what you will, are those that are produced by an open string.

    The keyboard cannot achieve this, by any means. The intervals are not based on intervals of a vibrating string. It is no point reeling off names of people who used or continue to use the harmonium. The principle is paramount.

    And if one does listen carefully to the SOUND of the music and not merely to note combinations, the keyboard, always and every time, sounds dissonant. As it should.

    “Sureelapan” in Hindustani music is the degree to which consonance is achieved with the tambura. In which we tune the strings and then adjust the javaari threads for the desired timbre.

    It follows therefore, that any accompanying instrument would be consonant only if it reproduces intervals and tones based on those produced by open strings. And the tambura is particularly rich in these. A brilliant work on this was done by the late Dr. B.C.Deva. The paper on “Tonal Characteristics of the Tambura” is reproduced in his book,”Indian music, a Scientific Study”.

    By implication [and sensitive listening], the sarangi and other stringed instruments are the only appropriate accompanying instruments for Indian music. Or indeed any music which generally follows a melodic line.

    If the percussion instrument is made with so much trouble, just think of how much more is demanded of an instrument playing the melody!


    J S Pande

  2. Hello,
    I have followed the dialogue here quite keenly. It is quite evident that, inherently, harmonium is not well suited as accompaniment for Hindustani music. Dr. B. Chaitanya Deva who conducted elaborate experiments with various instruments and wrote two excellent books on them wrote, “The most ubiquitous invader is the harmonium. Since it is easily carried about, requires no tuning and is not very expensive, it has been used extensively in folk music, light music, and Hindustani classical music; though Karnatak classical music has so far kept it out of bounds. But the fact remains that its very structure makes it incapable of producing accurate pitches (srutis) and ornaments (gamakas) which are some of the most beautiful ingradients of our music” in his book Musical Instruments (pp. 18) written in 1977. This is also borne out by Kishori Amonkar, perhaps, not as clearly. The mismatch may well be tolerable to some. But, it is inappropriate to praise the very mismatch and to doubt if a Sarangi player can acquire sufficient skills to accompany accomplished vocalists. Being a meticulous Historian and a rigorous musicologist Dr. B. C. Deva sums up the role of the Harmonium from both the viewpoints. By the way, he chooses to discuss the above passage while discussing the changes brought about in Hindustani music due to the contacts with the West.


  3. The harmonium is ok for musical accompaniment as long as its volume is kept low and the music vritti is balanced to follow the singer. Nowadays it is a norm for accompanists to seek adjustments for extra volume. Often, this ruins the fine equilibrium of ‘conversations’ of a khayal mehfil. One can only recoil at the aggressive harmonium input, particulary when its player goes on a trip, pounding out staccato,bellicose sound even when the singer does not have this violence in his upaj design. Yes, for most luminaries of the khayal, the peti was preferred to the sarangi; They had more control on this tempered instument. The sarangi caused too much tuning trouble, and mediocre players released only sqawaks and wails. Kumar Gandharva had his sangatkar press sa-pa-sa keys solely, throughout the recitals, precisely for the pleasant curtain of sound, against which he could produce his own firworks, or meditations. But hear the grand old Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, singing with a violin sangat. The artistry of bol-banav, taan, and meend ka kaam is unforgettable. We should look forward to seeing the violin as an instrument for accompaniment to the singer. Kishori Amonkar is getting the young Milind Raikar to accompany her on violin in many concerts these days. The harmonium is around too but what makes these swara stars, crave, primarily, for sounds of the strings ?

  4. dear sirs,
    my old collegemate roshan has missed the point. the trouble is that in terms of SOUND , “NAAD” if you like, there are certain ideals ….
    an out-of- tune anything will sound terrible,even if it is the tabla or pakhavaj.
    hindustani music is a succession of harmonic overtones as they attach to the notes being sung or played. even depressing the sa-pa-sa keys of the [so help us!”{DIS}har”-monium} gives us the same result. the overtones produced by the reeds,at any rate all those which i have heard, are out of sync with the vibrations of an open string. plus, i suspect, even the “pa” might be slightly off.
    going through a book published around or shortly after the first world war,”kadeemi lakhnau ki aakhri bahar” i learn that the sarangi replaced the sitar as an instrument accompanying vocalists some time in the 19th century.or maybe a little earlier.
    in fact to this day, singers from the “puthwar” region of pakistan sing their songs, mostly sufiyana variety, to the accompaniment of a sitar
    without “tarab”,i.e., sympathetic strings.
    according to dr b.c.deva , even the tambura probably dates from the 14th or 15th centuries. singers were accompanied by harps before.

  5. …just to round off, i have recordings of rasoolanbai accompanied by flute and sarangi,from the “no harmonium” days of all india radio. sounds wonderful.
    the shehnai has also been used to good effect by vocalists as an accompanying instrument.though not nearly enough.

  6. Forgive me for my ignorance. I am raptured by the Sarangi, and would like to attempt to learn to play such an instrument. From the discussions, research, and listening I have done, I realize it is quite an ancient, complicated, and deep instrument with a musical history I can only fein to understand. Any chance there are videos or books that teach the basic techniques of playing? How difficult of an instrument is it to play – and I’m not assuming to master it!

    Thank you,

  7. I think there are Sarangi Players in younger generations who are accompanying vocalists they may be less in numbers.Like Kamal sabri he is not only accompanying Khayal Singers but also Dhrupad singers like Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar sahab.

    He also accompanies Parveen Sultanaji, Rashid Khan,Grija Devi,Rajan sajan etc. and He is also an excellent soloist..

  8. ref. mr arnab’s comment.
    i really see no great problem in sarangi accompanying ANY singer. i have, for example recordings of rahimuddin dagar,father to fahimuddin, accompanied by inder lal dhandra.brilliant accompaniment.
    there is also a certain bogus mystique attaching itself to the dhrupad.but more on that only if i am sufficiently provoked!

  9. Yesterday I went to see a concert of Sarangi Maestro Kamal Sabri organised by Hindutan Lever limited Taj Mansingh New Delhi

    i think the concert was marvellous
    the sound of his instrument was out of this world…First of all he told us about the varsetility of this wonderful instrument and played lovely raga and a melodious thumri and specially his command to play a tappa was amazing and mind blowing…after listenning to him i was searching about Sarangi on the net and i found your website,was wondering u don’t have any of his recordings..

  10. Dance of the Desert
    by Sarangi Maestro Kamal Sabri album released by MUSIC TODAY

    DANCE OF THE DESERT- For the first time ever in the history of recorded music, a unique thematic music album featuring a 5 – sarangi ensemble. The instrument, which is synonymous with the vast desert of Rajasthan, enchants as it weaves through the vast landscape adding colour, music and vibrance to its stark, yet fascinating backdrop. Multiple layers of sarangi interlace with an ambient world music canvas to create a spellbinding new sound.

  11. The harmonium is a miserable blight on Hindustani music. Give me sarangi any time. However, my teacher, Amir Khan, complained that sarangiyas ruined his raga development by going ahead of him.

    Meanwhile in the South, vina is replaced by violin for accompaniment.

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