Humble harmonium, the accompaniment par excellence of Indian music has an important role in Sikhism. The instrument has supported kirtans in Gurdwaras for a long time. The harmonium entered the holy places of Sikhism nearly 121 years ago. He came onto the scene even as stringed instrument teachers disappeared during British rule in India, it is said. The golden days of the harmonium seem to be over.
The Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh has requested the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to phase out the harmonium within three years from Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). Those who have studied both Hindustani Sangeet and Gurmat Sangeet regret the request. The harmonium caused a revolution in the field of kirtan.
After the British takeover of India, it was very difficult to learn to play stringed instruments for many reasons, including lack of teachers, historians say. The art of singing the kirtan might have died out among ordinary Sikhs if the harmonium had not filled the space. The harmonium has become the standard instrument for all Sikh worship music performances (kirtan) and it seems inseparable from the Sikh musical experience.
By the mid-19th century, however, the kirtan experience was considerably different. Until the early 20th century, kirtanis performed kirtan on stringed instruments and adhered to a number of complex traditional musical themes and structures. Following the introduction of the harmonium, the kirtanis became attracted to this instrument and within 50 or 60 years the harmonium became their instrument of choice.
Every day, 15 hymn singers sing around 31 ragas for 20 hours at the Golden Temple. Only five have the experience of performing without the harmonium and only use string instruments, according to tradition. More than 20 Gurmat Sangeet departments in SGPC run colleges have recently started string instrument training. The Akal Takht does not want the harmonium now because he is not from the religion or the region. He wants it to be replaced as soon as possible by the original string instruments.
There is a view, however, that the practice of associating Gurmat Kirtan is with Namdhari only. The overwhelming majority of Namdhari jathaas are said to do kirtan in the classical Indian style rather than Gurmat kirtan. Almost never sticking to hukmi raag, they use other raags, many of which are not gurbani, which they learned in the gharana they come from.
It is also true that even in his heyday some of the prominent darbaari Raagis had been very “traditional” using vaajai and modern kirtan styles, one of the most famous was Darshan Singh Ji (Sant). Ironically, some remember that his son Harbans Singh Kola returned to kirtan gurmat and swapped vaaja for dilruba and started doing hukmi raag, although later he also took the non-gurmat raag route, but he always sticks to the devotional style and puratan Dhrupad. Be that as it may, the fine arts are always undergoing transformations and have an impact on all other spheres of life. Religion has its own rules. If the Puritans seek to restore the “oldest and purest” form, so be it. A kirtan will always be as sweet with or without a harmonium.