Explained: Harmonium in the Sikh religious tradition and why Akal Takht wants it removed from the Golden Temple

The Akal Takht wants the harmonium removed of the Golden Temple over the next three years. Giani Harpreet Singh, Jathedar of Akal Takht, recently asked the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to ensure that the deadline is met.

On May 21, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) set its own goal of phasing out harmoniums by asking all Delhi Sikh Raagis to switch to traditional stringed instruments.

What is behind the push by Sikh bodies to ensure that kirtan, or Gurbani singing, is accompanied only by traditional instruments, and why is the harmonium the receiver?

history of harmony

Originating in Europe in the 1700s, the harmonium went through many design changes to become the instrument we know today.

The first prototype is said to have been built by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen. Modifications followed, and in 1842 a French inventor named Alexandre Debain patented his design and called it “Harmonium”. It was a pedal harmonium. It was brought to India by Western traders or missionaries in the latter part of the 19th century.
According to the Union Ministry of Culture website, the Indian hand-pumped harmonium was designed by Dwarkanath Ghose in Kolkata in 1875.

Drone buttons have been added to the instrument to produce harmonies in Indian classical music. A scaling technique has also been added.

By 1915, India had become the leading harmonium manufacturer and the instrument had become an integral part of Indian music. Today’s harmoniums can play up to 12 Surs and 22 Shrutis.

However, a section of Indian classical music scholars have continued to note that the harmonium is not capable of performing all Raagas correctly and striking all classical notes with perfection.

At the Golden Temple

It is not known exactly when the harmonium entered the Golden Temple. It is believed to have been there since the beginning of the 20th century.

A painting of a congregation at the Harmandir Sahib by William Carpenter from 1854 shows the kirtan performed with only the rabab string instrument and a tabla-like instrument called a jori – there is no harmonium.

However, it is difficult now to imagine a performance of Gurmat Sangeet without a harmonium.

Indeed, of the 105 Raagi jathas (choir) hired by the SGPC, 100 perform kirtans with harmoniums. Five jathas with knowledge of traditional stringed instruments or Tanti Saaz have only been added in recent years.

“The harmonium is said to have been played in Harmandir Sahib for the first time in 1901 or 1902. There are kirtani jathas who use both harmonium and string instruments, and offer very good performances”, said Dr Alankar Singh, a Punjabi university, Patiala, professor specializing in Hindustani classical music and Gurmat Sangeet, said.

Opposition from Sikh scholars

A group of scholars from the Gurmat Sangeet, the Sikh tradition that has parallels with Indian classical music, believe the harmonium was “imposed” by the British.

They believe that the harmonium allows the Raagis to hide their shortcomings, while the Tanti Saaz require more discipline. These scholars argue that the harmonium enables less talented Gurbani singers to become Raagis to the Harmandir Sahib, which in turn impacts the quality of kirtan.

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Over the years, several Sikh Raagis have also been criticized for attempting to introduce an element of entertainment into what the Sikh clergy consider strictly spiritual discipline. The SGPC had even warned Raagis not to stray from the Raagas mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib while doing Shabad Kirtan. In the Guru Granth Sahib, each Shabad is related to a Raag.

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But it’s not easy to replace

The SGPC will not find it easy to phase out an instrument that has been part of the Gurmat Sangeet ecosystem for over a century. Many generations of Sikhs have grown up listening to the harmonium as part of the Gurmat Sangeet. There are Raagi who have trained for years in the discipline. Harmonium and tabla lessons are standard in most gurdwaras in India and abroad.

Several Sikh scholars opposed to the Akal Takht’s call believe that it should focus on reviving string instruments instead of suppressing the harmonium. The other side, however, argues that it was the dominance of the harmonium that marginalized Tanti Saaz in the first place. They also point out how the Namdhari sect eschewed the harmonium in the 1970s and switched to using string instruments altogether.

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