May 26, 2022

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the humble harmonium should be phased out from the Golden Temple’s kirtans. We also look at the potential ownership of the East Bengal football club by Manchester United, among other news.

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Should Harmonium Be Removed From The Golden Temple?

We’re in an interesting cultural moment in India with a lot of debate and discussion on our history. History, represented through monuments, texts, scriptures, and now, even musical instruments, is being looked at from a different perspective. History is being dug up once again.

The musical instrument in question is the harmonium. It’s a standard instrument in Sikh musical worship. Giani Harpreet Singh, one of the five clergies at the Golden Temple, urged the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to phase out the harmonium. He says it’s not in keeping with Sikh traditions. Does he have a point, or is this another case of wiping important history?


The harmonium has become standard in all Sikh musical worship, or kirtan, performances. This wasn’t always the case. Until the early twentieth century, kirtan was performed on string instruments. It adhered to several complex traditional musical themes and structures. Then came the harmonium. Over the course of 50 to 60 years, the harmonium became part and parcel of the performance. In fact, it became one of the instruments of choice for the performers.

The harmonium is a small manually operated instrument. It comes in two types – a foot-pumped version that looks like a small organ and a hand-pumped portable one. The latter is the more popular one among Kirtan Jathas and the tabla. These form the main type of instruments used by Ragis during the performance of kirtan. It doesn’t have pipes, and the pitch is determined by the size of the reed.

Let’s trace its journey and how it came to India. The earliest instrument in the harmonium group was the physharmonica, invented in 1818 by Anton Haeckl in Vienna. It was influenced by the Chinese mouth organ called sheng. This was taken to Russia in the 1770s and introduced later in Europe. Here, it caught the eye of physicists and musicians. Then in 1840, Alexandre Debain produced his harmonium in Paris.

When Europeans emigrated to the United States, they introduced the harmonium in their adopted country. Soon, companies like Mason & Hamlin began manufacturing them. It became popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Churches and synagogues couldn’t afford expensive organs, so the harmonium was a worthy substitute.

However, in the 20th century, its popularity started to decline. The invention of the electric organ was the final nail in the coffin. On the other side of the world, it was different. The harmonium was portable and heat resistant. This meant it could be shipped, and this is what the British did. Several European harmoniums made their way to India.

In 1875, musician Dwarkanath Ghose of Kolkata-based Dwarkin & Sons brought out his version. It was more durable and less expensive to make. By 1915, India became its leading producer. The instrument is now at the centre of controversy, with Giani Singh wanting it to be phased out.

VIEW: A colonial relic and imposition

Giani Singh’s main contention for wanting the harmonium to be phased out is that it doesn’t resonate with the real Sikh traditions. The Takht administration has proposed a three-year deadline to remove the instrument from the Kirtan committee. He wants traditional string instruments to be used instead.

Balwant Singh Namdhari, a master in Gurmat Sangeet and string instruments, supported calls for its phasing out. The reason is it was brought to India by the British, and it’s not something that was indigenously made. He called the harmonium an invasion by the British and called for the revival of string instruments. Bhai Baldeep Singh, a direct descendent of Guru Nanak Dev’s disciple Bhai Sadharan, also agreed.

Baldeep Singh spoke of the harmonium being part of the British’s interference in Sikh affairs. He and Balwant Singh also said the instrument affects the quality of singing. They say the instrument covers up your limitations as a ragi. Some supporters of the move also say when Guru Nanak Dev Ji, widely believed to be the first Kirtan singer, would perform, the harmonium wasn’t a part of the performance.

COUNTERVIEW: Can co-exist with string instruments

While it’s true that the harmonium came to India during the British rule, it has become an integral part of Hindustani music broadly, let alone Sikh musical traditions. Dr Alankar Singh, who specialises in Hindustani classical music, said once Sikhs became slaves to the British, it was difficult to learn and play string instruments. If it wasn’t for the harmonium, the traditions might’ve disappeared.

Is it practical to phase it out? Not really. Officials say of the 15 groups of bhajan singers deployed at the Golden Temple, only five have the expertise and skill to perform without the instrument. Most don’t have the practice and skill of using string instruments. It would also affect those who have spent years practising the instrument and performing with it. It’s also not used only in traditional music but in Bollywood songs and vernacular compositions.

Calling it colonial would be a disservice to the 20th-century Kolkata-based music manufacturers and musicians who made the harmonium their own. Besides, it’s often considered that the Indian version is remarkedly different from the earlier western versions. It’s also more attached to Indian classical music than French, American, or British.

What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The harmonium should be phased out of the Golden Temple proceedings.

b) The harmonium should not be phased out of the Golden Temple proceedings.


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Pollution at Wular Lake (Kashmir) – One of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes, the Wular Lake is shrinking as parts have turned into shallow streams with vast areas covered in silt and waste. Per a 2018 study, it has shrunk by 45% over the past century. In the winter months, its area is reduced to 24 sq km, about a fifth of its original size. Dredging and stopping the inflow of solid waste into the river is the only way to reclaim it. The state plans to cut 5 lakh trees to increase its water level.

Why it matters: With declining water levels and quality, the lake and its surrounding areas have seen a decline in the bird and fish population. The bird population reduced to 707 in 2021 compared to 1.2 lakh in 2020 per the Asian Water Bird Census report. Several native fish species of the lake have also disappeared or are endangered. Almost 60% of Jammu & Kashmir’s fish is sourced from the lake.

Tip-offs on child labour (Kerala) – The women and child development (WCD) department will reward ₹2,500 to persons providing information on child labour in the state. On May 18, a government order on this was issued, and it allocated ₹2.02 lakh. Per police officials, several underage persons use fake IDs and work in factories and restaurants in Ernakulam district. Employers are directed to not employ children. Apart from the police, the labour department also conducts checks.

Why it matters: In February, the state government announced a joint task force to identify and rescue children being forced into begging and labour in the streets of Kochi. Police officials said there are organised rackets that are behind child labour in the city. The rescued children will be rehabilitated or repatriated. There are concerns that the financial crisis due to the pandemic might increase child labour in the state.

East Bengal ownership (West Bengal) – Manchester United could soon be the owners of East Bengal football club, one of the oldest in India. BCCI President Sourav Ganguly confirmed that discussions have taken place with the club and others. He said it will take another couple of weeks before any final decision is made. He also clarified that United won’t be an investor, but the outright owners of the club.

Why it matters: The club has been struggling off the field. Its association with Shree Cement Ltd came to an end last year after the company handed over the sporting rights. The company bought a 76% stake in the club. It was also reported that the club was in discussions with Bangladesh-based conglomerate Bashundhara Group. Before the pandemic, the club was set to play a friendly with United as an exhibition match.

Exposure to air pollution (Maharashtra) – A recent paper from the World Bank Group ranked Maharashtra third in the list of most populated sub-national regions globally, where more than 97% of its population was exposed to air pollution. The survey used remote sensing data for aerosol concentration and population numbers to ascertain the movement of PM2.5 particulate matter. Per the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), the state has the highest number of non-attainment cities at 25. Cities across the state are struggling to curb emissions due to private vehicles, construction, and urbanisation.

Why it matters: The state has been allocated more than ₹2,900 crores per recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission to address air pollution. About 80% of this is expected to be used for its Electric Vehicle (EV) policy. The funds are to be used by the end of the 2026 financial year. Exposure to PM2.5 matter reduces the average citizen’s lifespan by four years in the state, according to updated studies published by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC).

MMT Think Tank (Arunachal Pradesh) – The apex body of the Monpa Mimang Tshokpa (MMT) has formed a think tank as the knowledge arm of the MMT. It’s called Nyam-Shiblhen-Tsog. The goal is to help people of the region be better prepared and aware of the challenges ahead. The think tank will carry out scientific and evidence-based research and analysis of the region’s challenges and provide policy proposals. It could include, economic, social, or environmental issues.

Why it matters: In 2018, the MMT was formed as the Monpa tribe requested an apex body to represent them. In its first general conference, about 500 delegates from the tribe adopted a constitution and bye-laws, bringing the entire tribe under one platform. Nagaland’s Phek district saw something similar as the Chakhesang tribe initiated a think tank on development, particularly on the impact of wild buffalo rearing on common grazing grounds and water sources.


$18.89 billion – The value of Indian exports to Latin America for the 2021-22 financial year. It’s a 48% increase compared to 2020-21. Brazil continues to be the number one destination of exports to the region.