Dr. Vinay Mishra’s hypnotic harmonium grabs your attention with his perceptive approach to raga in solo and accompaniment. No wonder, the ace harmonium player is a familiar face on the concert circuit. His sensitive touch on harmonium not only enhances the beauty of the concert but also makes a qualitative difference to the vocal recital.
His recent ‘Harmonium Vimarsh’, a unique musical evening at the India Habitat Centre offered not only his superb solo recital but also an interactive session that revealed a lot of information about this instrument of western origin that has become an indispensable part of the Indian musical scenario right from the classical and semi-classical to qawwali, Sufi, devotional bhajan-kirtan, film and popular music. Inspired by his melodious music and worthwhile research work on harmonium that also got published as a book of profound value, one felt like knowing more about him and his musical journey.
Edited excerpts from a conversation:
What made you write ‘Harmonium - Vividh Aayam’ (Harmonium - Its Various Aspects)?
I was amazed to see that there were literally no book on harmonium except for the kind of flimsy booklets “How to Play Harmonium in 18 Days”. I felt the need for a proper book on harmonium that dealt with its history and development, its structure and making ingredients like what kind of wood, reeds etc, its tuning process from the original tempered scale to the kind of tuning needed for Indian classical music and its role as an accompanying and solo instrument, the famous players down the ages, its role in classical to film music and the unlimited possibilities it possesses.
Please share your childhood memories that attracted you to this instrument
My grandfather Pt. Raja Ram was a religious man with profound knowledge of Veda-Puran and scriptures. The daily Ramayan-path or the musical rendition of ‘Ramcharit Manas’ by Tulsidas was a must in his daily schedule when he would sit with all his family members, play his harmonium and sing the Ramayan in the traditional tune. I was attracted to it out of curiosity first, but then he himself guessed my interest and started teaching me how to play the ‘dohas’ and ‘chaupais’ of Ramayan.
Gradually, our small village came to know about me and my younger brother who used to play the dholak, and both of us started getting invitations to perform the ‘path’ on several occasions of small festivities. Our father did like our interest in music but he did not want us to take it professionally because he had seen the pathetic condition of musicians in those days. So after high school he sent us to Benaras for our intermediate studies and kept us under the tutelage of Pt. Chhannu Lal Mishra where for the first time we were introduced to raga-tala, etc. We had a lot of exposure in Benaras and soon we realised that the great vocalists sing a raga for at least an hour whereas our 3-4 aalap, taan would finish in minutes, and we must learn it properly.
There was Sampurnananda Vidyapeeth closeby where Pt. Anup Mishra was teaching music. He would sit with a pair of tanpura and do his riyaz. For the first time, I was acquainted to a bada khayal there. I would take his permission to sit in his singing class or the close by sitar or tabla class. I started doing the cleaning-washing chores at his place and he started teaching me. I started singing fairly well under his training. After my intermediate, I got admitted to the BHU, where there were gurus like Dr. Premlata Sharma, Prof Ritwik Sanyal and the like. Pt. Vinod Lele, who was teaching tabla there noticed my gift of harmonium playing and encouraged me to accompany musicians who visited. When he realised that I just hear them sing and follow at times without even knowing the names of the ragas, he suggested that I should take proper training in it. The Bhojpuri film actor Manoj Tiwari took me to Ud. Mahtab Khan where I remained under his tutelage for eight rigorous years.
How did you reach your other guru, the renowned Appasaheb Jalgaonkar?
In Benaras, I became capable enough to accompany the semi-classical genre due to the ‘mijazdari’ (emotional approach) of Ustad Mahtab Khan, but in khayal accompaniment I needed to change the strategy. So bhaiya (Vinod Lele) took me to Appasaheb in Pune. He taught me some spacious ragas like Yaman and Shuddha Kalyan. After his passing away in 2009, I continued practising keeping his teachings in mind.
What are the essential qualities for a good accompanist?
After achieving a comfortable level to play from every and any key as a tonic,one is supposed to have complete knowledge of the raga and tala and then know the nuances of the particular gaayaki of the musician he is going to accompany.
You will agree that there are limitations of harmonium, as far as Indian classical music is concerned...
You see, there are plus and minus points of every instrument. The plus point with harmonium is that it can sustain the swaras as long as required. Then it has ‘bharaav’ that can fill the space and provide positive support to the vocalist. As far as the tempered scale is concerned, we can tune harmonium according to our requirements like any other musical instrument. For instance, Gandhar sounds a little higher in tempered scale, but you can easily tune it as desired. As for meend and gamak, a good harmonium player can certainly give you a feel of all these nuances with years of practice and experience.
Tell us more about the tuning, so crucial for our music and your first ever experience of it.
It was Ustad Abdul Karim Khan , who was the pioneer in tuning harmonium according to Hindustani Classical music. He not only took care of the high-pitched Gandhar of the tempered scale but tuned the harmonium according to shadja-pancham, shadja-madhyam, shadja-gandhar and shadja-dhaivat, etc combinations of our music. When we talk of classical music, we have to think of the shrutis. And it is a must for raga-dari sangeet. I myself have got 22 harmoniums tuned to different requirements. I pick up the one suitable to the voice of the vocalist, I’m going to accompany. My first ever experience of tuning was with Dr. Prabha Atre at Vrindavan, when I was to accompany her for the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan. Bhaiya (Vinod Lele) always tunes the tanpura tabla for the performing artistes. When he found the harmonium not up to the mark, he made me open it and do the proper tuning to match Prabha ji’s voice.
What is your notion about the scale changer harmonium?
It is advantageous only for those who cannot play from every key. If you want to enjoy the accurate ‘sur’, the scale-changer would not do. You will not find any harmonium player worth his salt, using a scale changer.
Why don’t we get tuneful harmoniums easily these days?
The demand of making hundreds of harmoniums for schools and colleges or for the people who want to buy the cheap stuff and the scarcity of good harmonium makers has resulted in this situation. If you want a good piece and ready to spend money, go to a maker who knows the art of making well-tuned harmonium, you will certainly get one. With people are becoming more aware to musicality now a days the future looks bright!