It was sometime in 2009 when one day I was doing my riyaaz as usual and began musing on the beauty of the harmonium accompaniment in Indian classical music. Unlike in any other genre of music, Indian classical music (ICM) is completely spontaneous which is why even the same singer singing the same Raga and the same bandish (composition) in that Raga, creates a different mood, a different picture everytime. This abstraction of Indian music is rather difficult to comprehend and internalise for the layman. Of course this same abstract flexibility makes Indian classical music highly creative, and requires a very high amount of training for the musician, as the music is created on the spot, in front of the audience.
The same is the beauty of the accompanying instruments and the music they create in Indian classical music. In Hindustani or North Indian vocal music, it is generally the Tabla and Harmonium which mainly accompany the artiste, whereas the Tanpura or the drone is set to the same cycle of surs (notes) and keeps the continuity of the music, beginning before the singer starts and phasing out after the singer stops. While the Tabla plays the Taal (Rhythmic Cycle) in which the bandish is composed, the Harmonium usually follows the singer, who at every moment is improvising and presenting something new! Naturally, once the harmonium player understands the style of the singer, he often starts anticipating what the singer will be singing next, which makes following the singer easier!
As a trained Kathak dancer years ago, I was always much more fascinated by the Tabla, and I still am! As a singer now, for so many years, I have always had excellent pieces in my performances, where it is kind of a musical conversation with the Tabla. However, the harmonium in all these situations had played the supportive role of following me and when I stopped, playing the mukhda of the bandish or when the Tabla played its piece, providing the mukhda as the lehra. As any keen listener of ICM would agree, this role played by the Harmonium lends wonderful support and continuity to the main performance.
It was that day, sometime in September 2009, that while enjoying this beauty and spontaneity of the Harmonium accompaniment, I wondered if along with this main role, the Harmonium could also engage in a jugalbandi (duet) with the main artiste. This had me thinking. I started reading a lot of literature on Hindustani music and tried to find out if such a thing was indeed done in the past.
Unfortunately, there is not much documentation in Indian classical music about the various experiments done by musicians. ICM invariably has been passed down through generations orally, without too much emphasis on documentation, one of the reasons being that ICM has to be demonstrated live to be taught. The spontaneity cannot be noted down on a piece of paper. So whatever literature was available, I studied thoroughly and found no mention of such a Vocal-Harmonium Jugalbandi done by anyone in the past. I also had conversations which senior knowledgeable musicians and musicologists regarding this; my training in Research Methodology, particularly Qualitative Research coming handy! The Marathi stage music, Natyasangeet has a few instances of some spontaneous jugalbandi taking place between the singer and the harmonium accompanist, but there was no reference anywhere of a full-fledged concert of Vocal-Harmonium Jugalbandi.
I further thought analytically of the role of the Harmonium player in this whole performance: does s/he only engage in a Jugalbandi with the singer or does s/he also accompany? As I envisaged it, I could not remove the traditional 'accompaniment' role of the Harmonium as that was an integral part of the performance. On the contrary, what I visualised was a more comprehensive role of 'accompaniment' in the real sense of the word; accompaniment which was not restricted to either of the above roles. This gave ample space and freedom to the Harmonium player as well. From this, was born the Vocal-Harmonium Jugalbandi, which we staged in March 2010. To the best of my knowledge, such a two-hour complete concert of Vocal-Harmonium Jugalbandi was presented for the first time in the history of Hindustani Classical Music.