Interview: Suphal & Suvojit Pakrashi of PAKRASHI HARMONIUM of Kolkata Continuing the Tradition of World-Class Music Instruments


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Washington, DC, August 1, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio) In India, the musical instrument popularly called the "Harmonium" refers to the hand-pumped (bellowed) version of the reed organ. In North America and much of Europe, "Harmonium" is mostly associated with the foot-operated version leaving both hands free for playing the keys. Harmoniums were overtaken in the Western world around the 1930s by the electronic organ, but remain hugely popular in India and entire South Asia as the primary accompaniment instrument used by vocalists themselves while performing. And Pakrashi is the name that pops up in the minds of most Bengalis whenever the best of Indian harmoniums are being discussed.

Interestingly, here is a description of a Pakrashi Harmonium on sale on Amazon.com (click here if you wish to order): "Harmonium, Pro, Folding by Pakrashi (Item Code: HRMPF-2) Harmonium Pakrashi & Co., folding, Scale changer with Mechanical Coupler. 5 drones and 4 stops. It has 3 banks of 45 reeds each.and 6 drone reeds. Comes in its own traveling case plus a nylon case too. Keyboard pops up, store in locked-down position for travel. Mechanical coupler (plays 2 octaves with one stroke). It is a 9-scale changer. The Keyboard slides to change scale. Integral bellows, dozens of sound combinations. Finish color and decoration style may vary from photo. The Harmoniums are not meant to be played in concert like a mini organ. This is instrument was introduced to India by the British. It has been embraced and is now a truly Indian instrument used as accompaniment across many genres of Indian music including Hindustani classical, light modern songs, Tagore songs, folk and devotional songs. In the early days, Harmoniums were are not in concert pitch and were not meant to be. As with many Indian instruments the key for the music is selected to best suite the vocals, or to set a mood. Traditionally, Harmoniums were usually higher pitched if compared to the Western Scale, and Harmonium tuning did not reflect the Western Scale and was not meant to. However, at present all Indian musical instruments comply the international pitch standard of A=440Hz, thus accepted in the western world.

Almost all singers and artistes from Kolkata are familiar with Pakrashi & Co. store selling musical instruments from 82-A Rashbehari Avenue. They are most renowned for their Harmoniums, and more often than not artists from Kolkata are seen playing a Pakrashi harmonium along while performing.

Suphal Pakrashi & Suvojit Pakrashi
Suphal Pakrashi (right) and son Suvojit Pakrashi of Pakrashi & Company of Kolkata

The history of the Pakrashis goes back to 1922 when Sudhir Chandra Pakrashi moved to Kolkata from what is now Bangladesh and established the store. Arijit Chakraborty caught up with Suphal Pakrashi and Suvojit Pakrashi, representing the 2nd and 3rd generations running the business in this informal and intimate audio interview.

Suphal Pakrashi
Suphal Pakrashi

The Harmonium was not really a popular instrument when the store was established. Suphal Pakrashi tells us how his father and uncle involved themselves with the leading singers of the time like Pankaj Kumar Mullick and exponents of the still-new Rabindrasangeet songs to map the notes of the Esraj to a keyboard instrument. Suphal dwells on the remarkable efforts by many people from their musician-customer community who worked with them to improve the instrument which over time has reached it's modern form. Technologies like scale-changer harmoniums are a labor of love of many dedicated artists working together with the Pakrashis.

Suphal, Suvojit and Rezwana Chowdhury Banya
From left: Suvojit Pakrashi, Suphal Pakrashi, Rezwana Chowdhury Bonnya

Suphal took lessons in playing the Sitar as a young boy, thus training his ears to music. Suphal would also watch his father continually research and improve the harmonium and experiment with delicate changes in physical measurements, angles, frequencies, airwaves, weights and such characteristics to attain the desired qualities in the sound.

Interestingly, Suphal tells us about the importance of string instruments as a source of generating perfect notes which are used to train their ears, and thus eventually propagated to keyboard instruments. In fact, Suphal and his son Suvojit are both trained string instrument players.

Suphal also talks about what it means to "tune" a harmonium - the airwaves and circulation paths inside the instrument might get clogged or distorted over time diluting the ability of air to carry the weights, or the angles may drift etc., and then "tuning" the instrument is required to bring the sound back to it's full richness and correct frequencies.

There is not much use in keeping a business alive if the mind is not alive, says Suphal Pakrashi. It is their customers - musicians and artists who liven up to the sound of their instruments - who will keep driving them towards bigger achievements.

Suvojit Pakrashi, the 3rd generation Pakrashi businessman, talks about the continuous modernization in musical instruments, as in all domains. In fact, portability and miniaturization are what made the Harmonium popular in the first place - there were only Pianos and Reed Organs before harmoniums. During the 1890s and early 1900s, Western musicians were looking for ways to make a portable keyboard instrument, and eventually the foot-based pump ("bellow") was replaced by a hand-operated one.

Suvojit Pakrashi
Suvojit Pakrashi

Suvojit discusses many remarkable technical intricacies about Harmoniums, scales, frequencies and musical notes that will surely fascinate you. Not only that, Suvojit is a trained vocalist, too, and do not miss Suvojit Pakrashi singing a few lines of a couple of Rabindrasangeet songs for us Washington Bangla Radio listeners (he is actually quite a good singer, as you will hear!)

Here is wishing Pakrashi Music Company - an inconic Kolkata institution - greater success and a spectacular future.

Pakrashi And Co. can be contacted at:
Mr. Suphal Pakrashi - Managing Partner/ Technical Head.
Mr. Parimal Basak - Senior Manager (Administration)
Mr. Suvojit Pakrashi- Managing Partner / Marketing Head
82- A, Rash Behari Avenue
Kolkata - 700 026, India
Tel :     +(91)-(33)-24665602 / 24658007
Mobile :     +(91)-9433022230
Fax :     +(91)-(33)-24663801
Email :     customers@pakrashi-harmonium.com

(Some information in this article is sourced from Wikipedia and Amazon.com)

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