The harp has always been considered as the instrument that the angels play. In India, harp is an instrument which not many people have heard of or even seen. The Tamil music literature contains traces of the instrument being used by the travelling musicians but nothing more. There are only a handful of harp players in India at the moment. I caught up with one of the most prominent of them, Nush Lewis.
Contrary to most musicians, Nush did not grow up aspiring to be a harpist. This can be attributed to the fact that children in India are predominantly exposed to Indian classical instruments or the keyboards and guitar at the most. Western classical music instruments are left for the elite as they are expensive. Nush, too began learning the piano but did not continue for long. It was when she enlisted for her college choir group, the realisation of becoming a professional musician dawned on her.
“It was my first shot at learning music formally. Learning to do scales was new to me. Having a qualified choir conductor taught me discipline. That is when I decided to pursue music,”
Movie making was another profession that had caught her fancy. At one stage it gained more importance than music and she decided to keep music as a hobby. But, according to her, better sense prevailed and she plunged into music full time.
“Whether I would ‘succeed’ at it was not relevant. I did not want to look back and feel why did I not do that? I hate that feeling,”
After convincing her parents, she enrolled at A R Rahman’s famed music school, KM Conservatory to become a vocalist. It was here that Nush would have her first encounter with the instrument. During a graduation ceremony, for an earlier batch, Nush witnessed her music theory teacher perform the harp.
“I was not only listening to her music but also observing her performance. It seemed like it had a million strings but the pedals intrigued me. I realised it is not just about strings,”
The next day, she and a few others approached the teacher to teach them and she agreed for a trail class. She would stay back after classes to practice and soon found admiration from her teacher. It was then that she decided to switch her majors subject from vocals to the harp.
“At this time my vocal training was not doing too well. The sheer number of vocal students in the class did not help me learn as an individual. If it weren’t for the harp, I would have left the school,”
Nuances of the harp
The harp is basically close to the santoor and the surmandal. The mechanisms are kind of similar. The nuances differ, not only between these instruments but also among the various harps. If you are learning the concert harps, they will teach you the classical techniques. Classical harpist are taught to place their thumbs higher than the fingers.
“It is funny because the natural way to play would be how you play the guitar. That’s the unlearning you have to do when you learn playing on a classical harp. Only the finger positioning differs according to the harp you are playing everything else remains the same.”
asserted Nush, adding,
“Strumming positions differ on Celtic and Paraguayan harps as the music played on them is very melodic and ‘flowy’. Classical techniques are very robust. The tension on the strings is far more on a concert harp than a folk one. I would play the pedal harp because the sound is grand and I had access to it. I combine the classical technique into the Celtic variety.”
Acceptance of harp in India
Harp in India still does not have many takers. The folk musicians have not entirely opened up to it. The Indian classical musicians, on the other hand have been eager to indulge. Nush has performed with the famous sitar player, Anupama Bhagwat and also collaborated with the Carnatic vocalist Chandana Bala Kalyan.
“The harp fits quite well with Indian classical but it also depends on who is leading it. You need to figure out the notes of the raag. Also if it is OK to suddenly play out of the box and not stick to the raag. As far as folk music is concerned it still has to happen, I do not know where it would fit,”
The harp has suffered due to lack of education about it. Composers now are into programming music and not many know how to write for it.
“They use the keyboard, plugins and samples. But the sound on the keyboard and harp are different. The limitations come in so you have to very specific while writing for the harp just because of its mechanism. You cannot have crazy modulations unless it’s a pedal harp,”
Due to the dearth of manufacturers globally, it is not easy to procure. The instrument has to be imported most of the time. A basic unbranded model would cost you anywhere above INR 80 thousand plus shipping and customs charges.
“One cannot walk in to a store and ask for a harp. The storekeeper might just ask you why? Or chances are that he may ask you what a harp is? Because of this I decided to manufacture the harp in India. It is at a very nascent stage but I am working towards it,”
signed off Nush.