A bellows and three octaves of minor piano keys; the harmonium looks small and quite simple. But when Raj Mohan sits cross-legged next to it and puts his left arm around the coffin, his right hand on the keys, that simplicity turns into a complex historical story. A migrant history.
Mohan is known from the Netherlands to India and from Mauritius to Suriname. In 2006, he released an album on which he first sang Indian ghazal poetry in Sarnami, the language of the Hindustani community. The title Kantrakic refers to his ancestors: the Indian contract workers who were recruited by the Dutch in the nineteenth century in British India. They went to Suriname to perform underpaid work after slavery was abolished. The harmonium reflects that cultural journey.
Just take the place where he sits with the harmonium: on the floor. The instrument was once introduced to India by British missionaries in the form of stage organs, which were played from a stool. But it soon became apparent in India that there was more market for the hand model, which could stand on the floor, like any Indian instrument.
The harmonium has become an indispensable part of Indian music and that is how it ended up with the contract workers in Suriname. Yet Mohan had no special interest in it in his early childhood. When he came to the Netherlands at the age of twelve, he listened to Bob Marley, rock music and Indian film music. When he was sixteen he first heard ghazal music, sung in Urdu, in a record store in Utrecht. “It sounded terrible. And yet. Every day I went back to that case to hear more, even though I thought it was ugly.” It became an obsession, he skipped class to listen, he had to figure out what was happening. When he asked the record seller whether ghazal was also sung in Sarnami, he laughed heartily at him. Such a beautiful thing could not exist in that ramshackle language.
He took lessons and after two and a half years was told by his patient teacher that he would never become a good singer. He sang structurally impure, his voice trembled and was too soft. Mohan eventually decided to go to India himself. There, in Bombay, he bought this harmonium. He’s had it for 26 years now.
He handles it carefully, with this instrument that connects him to his ancestors. But there is certainly damage, such as the iron plates, some of which are coming loose. “This one is ideal for a lazy musician like me.” With a sliding panel on the front, it can move the entire keyboard over the action of iron reeds on the inside, so that the notes automatically play half an octave higher. He can also adjust the touch sensitivity.
Because Mohan mixes his sarnami-ghazal with jazz, blues and Western classical music, he regularly has to puzzle on new chords that fit the Indian scales. Then he sits next to it, instead of right behind it, a style he borrowed from Mehdi Hassan, emperor of the ghazal. He folds his legs, puts an arm around the box and operates the bellows. His right hand searches the keys. It almost always succeeds to find those chords, the instrument seems intended to build cultural bridges.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 28, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 28, 2022