Harmonium - India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan

During the mid-19th century, missionaries brought French-made hand-pumped harmoniums to India. The instrument quickly became popular there: it was portable, reliable and easy to learn. It has remained popular to the present day, and the harmonium remains an important instrument in many genres of Indian music. For example, it is a staple of vocal North Indian classical music concerts. It is commonly found in Indian homes. Though derived from the designs developed in France, the harmonium was developed further in India in unique ways, such as the addition of drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism.

In Kolkata, Dwarkanath Ghose of the Dwarkin company modified the imported harmony flute and developed the hand-held harmonium, which has subsequently become an integral part of the Indian music scenario. Dwijendranath Tagore is credited with having used the imported instrument in 1860 in his private theatre, but it was probably a pedal-pumped instrument that was cumbersome or possibly some variation of the reed organ. Initially it aroused curiosity, but gradually people started playing it, and Ghose took the initiative to modify it. It was in response to the Indian needs that the hand-held harmonium was introduced. All Indian musical instruments are played with the musician sitting on the floor or on a stage, behind the instrument or holding it in his hands. In that era, Indian homes did not use tables and chairs. Also, Western music being harmonically based, both a player's hands were needed to play the chords, thus assigning the bellows to the feet was the best solution; Indian music, being melodically based, only one hand was necessary to play the melody, and the other hand was free for the bellows.

The harmonium was widely accepted in Indian music, particularly Parsi and Marathi stage music, in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, however, in the context of nationalist movements that sought to depict India as utterly separate from the West, the harmonium was portrayed as an unwanted foreigner. Technical concerns with the harmonium included its inability to produce meend (slides between notes) and the fact that, once tuned, it cannot be adjusted in the course of performance. The former prevents it from articulating the subtle inflections (such as andolan, gentle oscillation) so crucial to many ragas; the latter prevents it from articulating the subtle differences in intonational color between a given svara in two different ragas. For these reasons, it was banned from All-India Radio from 1940 to 1971. (Indeed, a ban still stands on harmonium solos.) On the other hand, many of the harmonium's qualities suited it very well for the newly reformed classical music of the early 20th century: it is easy for amateurs to learn; it supports group singing and large voice classes; it provides a template for standardized raga grammar; it is loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. For these reasons, it has become the instrument of choice for accompanying most North Indian classical vocal genres, with top vocalists (e.g., Bhimsen Joshi) routinely using harmonium accompaniment in their concerts. However, it is still despised due to its foreign origin by some connoisseurs of Indian music, who prefer the sarangi as an accompanying instrument for khyal singing.

A popular usage is by followers of the Hindu and Sikh faiths, who use it to accompany their devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan). There is at least one harmonium in any mandir (Hindu temple) or gurdwara (Sikh temple) around the world.

The harmonium is commonly accompanied by the tabla as well as a dholak. To Sikhs, the harmonium is known as the vaja/baja. It is also referred to as a peti (literally, box) in some parts of North India and Maharashtra.

The harmonium plays an integral part in Qawwali music. Almost all Qawwals use the harmonium as their sole musical accompaniment. It has received international exposure as the genre of Qawwali music has been popularized by renowned Pakistani musicians, including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

There is some discussion of Indian harmonium makers producing reproductions of Western-style reed organs for the export trade.

Vidyadhar Oke has developed a 22-microtone harmonium, which can play 22 microtones as required in Indian classical music. The fundamental tone (Shadja) and the fifth (Pancham) are fixed, but the other ten notes have two microtones each, one higher and one lower. The higher microtone is selected by pulling out a knob below the key. In this way, the 22-shruti harmonium can be tuned for any particular raga by simply pulling out knobs wherever a higher shruti is required.

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