Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

India's Musical Menace

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

India's Musical Menace

Article excerpt

THE POET AND COMPOSER Rabindranath Tagore famously pronounced it the "bane of Indian music: One listener described it as "a torture only fully appreciated by those who have undergone it." An other called it simply "a menace" The contraption responsible for all this suffering? Why, the harmonium, one of India's most widely played musical instruments.

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According to University of Minnesota ethnomusicologist Matt Rahaim, the harmonium has played a fraught but indispensable role in modern Indian music. The benighted keyboard instrument was developed by a French inventor in the mid-19th century. Homesick colonists in India liked the harmonium, a cheaper and more durable alternative to organs and harpsichords, as the latter two often finished the long voyage east warped and unplayable. Indian craftsmen quickly learned to manufacture harmoniums, and soon their compatriots incorporated the instrument into performances of Indian classical music. In comparison to traditional instruments, the harmonium was easy to tune and a cinch to learn to play. It also lacked the cultural baggage of instruments such as the sarangi, an Indian fiddle that had an unsavory association with the world of courtesans.

As the Indian independence movement gained steam in the early 20th century, however, the harmonium became a target of anti-colonialists. High-minded Indian music critics began to elaborate an indigenous theory of Indian tuning with a "single, unique Indian gamut of pitches" that some said the European import could not produce. …

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