The Baguiati workshop. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Baguiati workshop. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

1875 Dwarkin & Son | Sound-clouding centuries

In 1884, in a by-lane of Calcutta, the harmonium, as Indian classical music knows it today, was invented. The sowers of 'sur' struggle to keep in tune

photoDwarkin & Son Pvt. Ltd, says Pratap Ghosh, one of three partners of the Kolkata-based musical instrument manufacturing company established in 1875, was not exactly set up as a rant against the British. In fact, Ghosh mentions dispassionately, Dwarkin was handheld by European mentors in its early days; the name of the company too is an Anglicization.

The name Dwarkin resulted from a pairing of the names of Dwarkanath Ghose, Dwarkin’s founder, and the foreign firm Thomas Dawkins, from which Dwarkanath imported musical instruments in the early days. It was so named by Upendrakishore Ray, who was, among other things, a composer and writer. He felt an Anglicized name would work better considering the Indian craving for all things foreign.

photoYet, for the 137 years of its existence, Dwarkin & Son has served a habit that many would consider to be quintessentially Indian. In 1884, Dwarkanath, in an epiphanic moment, realized that the playing posture of the harmonium needed to conform to the Indian habit of sitting cross-legged on the floor for eating, chatting, or a musical performance. Chairs and tables were not commonly used.

In reaction, Dwarkanath started tweaking the Western pedal harmonium, where the bellows are operated by the feet. He customized the bellows, keyboard and reeds of the instrument and what emerged eventually is what has come to be known as the hand-held, or box, harmonium. The instrument no longer stood upright, the feet no longer played a role.

photoThrough his innovation, Dwarkanath ensured that the modified harmonium adhered to the Indian character of music: While one hand of the instrumentalist worked on the bellows of the harmonium, the other played the notes—Indian classical music being primarily nodal in character as opposed to the chordal Western form where often both hands are required to play the harmonium while the feet remain at the bellows.

Soon enough, Dwarkin’s fame as the “inventor of the hand harmonium" ensured that sales of other instruments like the accordion, esraj, violin, clarinet and cornet stocked by Dwarkin paled in comparison with the Indianized harmonium.

Today, at the Baguiati showroom and workshop of Dwarkin in east Kolkata, a handful of harmoniums sit on shelves, waiting for buyers. There are many more acoustic Spanish guitars in the glass showcases—in recent years, true to the changing tonal fibre of contemporary Indian music, the demand for guitars has outstripped that for the harmonium. Denting the company’s fortunes further are the cheap Chinese instruments that began flooding the market after liberalization.

In the decades following independence, the company used to sell as many as 60 harmoniums every month; its sales started dipping from the mid-1970s. These days, the family-run company reports sales of 120-odd harmoniums annually. The sharp dip is explained by the advent of electronic keyboards, labour trouble, the shortage of skilled workmen—most of the work is done manually and requires a high level of expertise and precision—and little advancement in terms of research and development at Dwarkin, according to Ghosh, a relative of Dwarkanath.

photoIt is quite apt to say that Dwarkin has lived off its one big innovation.

“Right now, our primary aim is to maintain the position that we have. Only later can we think of increasing our production and sales footprint. We, of course, have Dwarkin’s goodwill to bank upon," says Ghosh, whose two partners are his brothers Ashish Ghosh and Pradip Ghosh.

The support is well-entrenched. In the initial days, Dwarkanath found a patron in Jyotirindranath Tagore, the elder brother of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and a musician, playwright and painter of note. Once critical of the shrill tonality of the modified harmonium, a complaint duly attended to by the company, Jyotirindranath wrote to Messrs Dwarkin & Son on 23 September 1888 about being “glad to find that you have succeeded in imparting that rich mellowness to its tone which is so desirable in such instruments".

photoAnother long-time Dwarkin patron, Upendrakishore—father of writer and playwright Sukumar Ray and grandfather of film-maker Satyajit Ray—wrote to Dwarkanath in 1889: “You deserve every praise for the successful manner in which you been trying to meet the want of an instrument really suited to the Indian climate".

Placed below the glass tabletop at Ghosh’s office is a carefully displayed copy of an 1888 dated letter written by Rabindranath Tagore. “The instrument," he wrote to Dwarkin, “is ideally suited for Indian music. I would like to buy this instrument if you will write to me its value."

The letter is not mere recommendation. In later years, when controversy raged among Tagore scholars over the use of the harmonium by the bard, the letter proved to be critical evidence of Tagore’s support, says Ghosh.

Since then, Dwarkin and the box harmonium have been an integral part of Indian musical culture. It is said that the legendary Indian classical musician Allauddin Khan met English bandmasters at one of their shops, a meeting that later helped him form the Maihar Band. “One has to admit that Dwarkin & Son wasn’t merely a musical instruments shop," wrote Padma Bhushan awardee and tabla player Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh of his family business in the Bengali literary magazine Desh in 1980. “With honesty, dedication and a love for music as his capital, Dwarkanath Ghose could create the kind of cultural environment which is undoubtedly of historic importance."

photoOver the years, manufacturers like Sarat Sardar & Sons and Melody and Pakrashi & Co. have followed Dwarkin’s innovation. But one of its biggest competitors has been G Rith, a harmonium-manufacturing company started by a former employee of Dwarkin. “People who are into music invariably have to have a connection with Dwarkin," says Bengali author Buddadeb Guha. “They have been an institution."

But the most recurrent compliment to Dwarkin comes every evening from certain pockets of Kolkata when neighbourhoods come alive with the sound of riyaaz, accompanied, all so often, by the buttressing sound of a Dwarkin harmonium.

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