If it’s a Harp, This Could be a Woman

The living-out-of-suitcases, jam-packed itinerary that characterizes visits to Europe with tour operators was the subject of the 1969 Hollywood film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. A busload of interesting tourists travels through Europe in a whirlwind schedule. If these tourists were to come back on such a holiday again, they would find nothing changed: the specific days the cities were visited, the sights, the food and the restaurants—even the guide’s jokes. Everything would be so predictable. So much so, that if people on such a tour were blindfolded and asked to guess exactly where they were just now, all they need to do would be to ask the time of the day, and the day of the week.

Such predictability finds a common platform with a gender joke that has been doing the rounds for a while now. Five flies died in a room one night. The bored family in whose home they died was curious to know about the gender of the dead flies. In stepped a friend who was raised on crime thrillers. After looking around, he discovered that three flies were on the bar counter. “These are males”, he declared. The other two, found near a phone, were announced as females. As mentioned, this is a joke, but you wonder if it is at least statistically true in both cases, that men drink more, and women use the phone more.

But jokes apart, there is a musical instrument that is mostly associated with women, and it’s an ancient instrument too, so for observation’s sake, its history can be studied in some detail. The instrument is called the harp, whose early shape was inspired by the curve of the hunting bow. It now comes in many shapes, but in all of them, it has a charming appearance.

This stringed instrument in fact predates Christianity. In that faith, angels play the instrument in heaven, that’s the kind of value the Bible puts on this instrument. The ancient Greeks loved music and it is to them that even our language owes many thanks. The words music, symphony, melody, rhythm, harmony, chorus, orchestra, and many more have Greek roots. The Encyclopedia of Music, written by Max-Wade Mathews and Wendy Thompson observes, “The notion of competition was dear to the heart of the Greeks, and music was no exception. As a focus for competition, the art of kitharodia (singing to the self-accompanying of a kithara, or lyre) dates from about 650 BC”.  The lyre itself is quite akin to the harp; in the former, the wires go over a bridge which, as in a guitar, passes the vibrations to the body of the instrument. In a harp, the wires enter the hollow of the instrument directly.

In the very early times the harp was played in processions and at banquets, and it was always played by women, perhaps because of its sweet and soft tones as also for its easy portability. It had many geographical variants too, during the first millennium itself. It was typically made of 22 metal strings in the early days, and the Irish harp was that kind. The Welsh harp was made with more strings—typically 31 or 34—and the strings were made of horsehair. Over the centuries, there came about many regional avatars of this instrument. We also have an Indian variant, which we will see in a bit. Meantime, after many changes, we now have the state-of-the-art modern harp with its 47 strings, its pitches controlled by 7-foot pedals. Today, thanks to the harp’s sounds and aesthetics, the harpist is an important part of several symphony orchestras.

Before we look at Hindi film songs in which the harp was clearly seen, consider a couple more of its arresting things. The harp is unique among stringed instruments in that whereas in all the other stringed instruments the strings run parallel to the resonator, in the case of the harp the strings run perpendicular to it. The other interesting thing about it is the mind-boggling shapes, sizes, colours and creative finishes it comes in. It can be small and portable, or it can be large and floor-mounted. Many of these finishes come with a stunningly catchy, carved human or animal head. In the song Jhuk jhuk jaaye nazar sharmaaye (Aab-e-Hayaat, 1955), Ameeta sings and dances, as a battery of her friends dance and pluck a heart-shaped harp. All these songs featured the harp on the screen:

  • Ye raat phir na ayegi, jawaani beet jaayegi (Zohrabai, Rajkumari/Mahal, 1949)
  • Abhi kuchh raat baaqi hai (Lata, Betaab, 1952)
  • Jhuk jhuk jaaye nazar sharmaaye (Geeta/Aab-e-Hayaat, 1955)
  • Naachoon re gaoon re (Asha/Aab-e-Hayaat, 1955)
  • Haal-e-dil main kya kahoon (Lata/Udan Khatola, 1955)
  • Hamaare dil se na jaana (Lata/Udan Khatola, 1955)
  • Zaalim teri aankhon ne kya cheez pila di hai (Lata/Devta, 1956)
  • Kaise main aaoon piya paas (Asha/Durgesh Nandini, 1956)
  • Ye nazaakat ye aalam shabaab (Asha/Nausherwan-e-Adil, 1957)
  • Tim tim karte taare (happy version) (Lata/Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, 1959)
  • Jaadugar qaatil haazir hai mera dil (Asha/Kohinoor, 1960)
  • Aankh mili to dil dhadka (Asha/Cobra Girl, 1963)
  • Phir tumhaari yaad aayi aye sanam (Rafi, Manna, Sadat/Rustom Sohrab, 1963)
  • Ye kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai (Suraiya/Rustom Sohrab, 1963)
  • Muhabbat ke sarkaar samjho ishaare (Suman/Maharani Padmini, 1964)
  • Naina re dekhe unke nain (Suman/Maharani Padmini, 1964)
  • Tum naacho ras barse (Mahendra/Sati Naari, 1966)
  • Kaise samjhaoon badi na samajh ho (Rafi, Asha/Suraj, 1966)
  • Taaron mein sajke apne suraj se (Mukesh/Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli, 1971)
  • Neelam ke nabh chhaayi (Lata/Utsav, 1984)

The songs mentioned above all have some kind of harp seen on the screen, but sometimes it may not be the harp that we hear in the song. Using the example of the song Jhuk jhuk jaaye nazar sharmaaye again, in the recording studio it was the mandolin that was played, even as the girls played the harps on the screen. In fact, even the sound of the harp can sometimes fool most people, because it can seem like a piano to many. The reverse is true as well: many times the piano can sound like a harp, especially when playing softly, most especially when playing a glissando, which is an up or down slide over multiple notes. The two instruments are often spoken of in the same breath for that reason. Both have strings too. There are some differences of course, such as in a piano all the 10 fingers are used, but the harp needs only 8, since the pinkies are not used here. They also have a joke among musicians: a piano is a harp in a coffin, while a harp is a nude piano.

From the above list, only three songs had a male playing the instrument: Tim tim karte taare (happy version) (Lata/Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, 1959), Phir tumhaari yaad aayi aye sanam (Rafi, Manna, Sadat/Rustom Sohrab, 1963), and Taaron mein sajke (Mukesh/Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli, 1971). That small number endorses the high engagement of the harp with women. But the story becomes neutral when we come to the Indian version of the harp called Surmandal (also known as Swarmandal). This harp was seen being played at the start of Chalte chalte yoon hi koi mil gaya tha (Lata/Pakeezah, 1971). Classical exponents have played it on the stage too, Kishori Amonkar, Ulhas Kashalkar and several others.

Away from music, the theory of women’s association with the phone is being challenged by men, even as women are making a greater presence felt in the world’s watering holes.


Featured image: from Cobra Girl

originally published in DNA Jaipur, page 13 on 9 December 2018 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-12-09

5 Replies to “If it’s a Harp, This Could be a Woman”

  1. Manek this is outstanding as well as confusing.

    I remember while studying in school, some History/Geography chapters were very intriguing, however when, we sat to study them for an exam they became very confusing to remember and recollect.

    Coming down from the European Tours of a 69 Hollywood movie,to the mandatory carried forward jokes to the gender of the flies and comparing it to the drinking habits of people to fantastically harping on the harp from pre-biblical times to our modern day Hindi Songs is quite an exhaustive journey, but something which one is compelled to make.

    You made me go through he studies environment , when I had to read it thrice , before being able to absorb a fraction of this essay,the number of strings ,the shape the size etc. –
    Bahot konuphujan hai abhi bhi.

    Lagta hai phir se padhai shuru karni padegi

    Dilip Apte

Comments are closed.