Did you know that from 1940 to 1972 the harmonium was banned by All India Radio as it was deemed inappropriate for Indian music? Although for a short two-year period, solo performances on this European instrument were permitted, from 1974 to 2018 it was only allowed as an accompaniment.
Despite several musicians taking up cudgels on behalf of the harmonium, purists — especially in the Carnatic music tradition — still frown upon it. That’s because Indian music works in the gaps between the 12 notes and as you glide over two notes or a whole octave there are subtle micro notes that are played up. While this glide is possible in plucked string instruments such as the veena, sitar and the sarangi, and even wind instruments like the flute, it’s not possible in the harmonium.
Now, aerospace engineer and seasoned entrepreneur G Raj Narayan has come up with an electronic harmonium that allows for the meend, or gliding between notes.
Raj Narayan, who invented the electronic shruti box in 1979, and whose company Radel not only produces a variety of digital musical instruments but also parts for the defence industry, says if not for Covid, it would have got launched commercially by now.
He says his latest invention addresses the problem of scale that the harmonium poses for Indian musicians. “Indian music has a different kind of scale standard. It is unequal tempered. The harmonium is an equal tempered instrument,” he explains.
So, how has he solved the problem? He lays it out in simple terms — in an electronic instrument, you have the facility of selecting any key as a shadja (the defining note of a scale). “Once you have selected the control key, through software, you can get the unequal tempered scale as is required for Indian music,” he says.
A unique symphony
For years, Raj Narayan — who started his career in the design department of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd — has been tinkering with microprocessors and high-tech electronics, testing their applicability in music.
Hailing from a family of musicians and well-versed in both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, he says he understood the challenges Indian musicians faced with various instruments. He set out to address them through electronics.
In 1979, he set up Radel and commercially began manufacturing electronic musical instruments.
First came the electronic shruti box. Over the last 40 years, Radel has brought out the digital veena, the digital tanpura and the digital tabla, even as it entered defence systems once the field was opened up to the private sector.
Raj Narayan’s wife Radhika, who is involved in a big way in the company — the name Radel comes from her name — says acceptance of these electronic musical instruments has been very slow.
“There is huge resistance. It took 20 years for people to accept the digital veena, which incidentally got a patent in 2002,” she says. They have had to hold competitions — in fact, there is a virtual one on Saturday, July 25 — to popularise the instruments.
Ease of use
Will the electronic harmonium, too, face resistance? Though Raj Narayan points to the conveniences — the digital replacement is one-fourth the weight of the regular instrument, and you can carry it in a backpack, to name just some — there are discordant voices.
Priya Kanungo, Associate Professor of Performing Arts at the Jindal Global University, who teaches music and writing, admits that technology is the way forward in music. However, she is anxious about what technology may displace in the process. Will the artisan who makes the harmonium or the accompanying artiste become obsolete, she worries.