The Humble Harmonium

- Written by : Onkita Adhikary

Swati madam touches the black and white keys on the harmonium with her nimble fingers before touching them to her forehead with a sacred prayer as she starts her class in the morning. One hand on the harmonium, she starts her class with the incantation of “Om” followed by her first “Sa”. The harmonium sometimes is played to align the shruti, sometimes to recall a taan that she wishes her students to attempt, or at other times it remains as a companion for her outstretched hands almost as if it was an extension of herself. This is a common sight in most academic institutions where the harmonium along with the tabla and the tanpura chisel and carve voices to strike the correct notes with effortless ease.


Unlike other instruments which have their signature shapes, the harmonium is an unpretentious, unassuming rectangular instrument kept inside a wooden box. Though it looks like a mini piano, it is a complex instrument which uses a series of metal reeds to pump in air called “bellows” coupled with a series of black and white keys, each capable of producing an unique sound along with stops, coupler and a scale changer to bring to life a soothing melody that compliments the singer’s tone and breathes life into complex compositions with pitch perfect élan.


However, in perfect contrast to its simplistic appearance, its history is riddled with complexities that one might be intrigued to know. Though the harmonium is ubiquitous in its presence in the arena of Indian classical, semi classical, devotional, ghazal and light music, you may be surprised to know that this instrument was invented by the famous German-born doctor and physicist, Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein and the first prototype was patented and named “harmonium” by Alexander Debain in 1840 in Europe. Thus, this very popular Indian instrument was a gift that the colonial regime brought to the Indian shores.


Once in India, maestros like Dwarkanath Ghose of the Dwarkin company in erstwhile Calcutta modified it to make the harmonium a hand-held instrument that could be played by musicians and singers sitting on the floor as most Indian soirees were informal gatherings where all musicians, singers and even the audiences were seated on the floor. Though the hand-held harmonium took the Indian subcontinent by storm, the uprising of the freedom movement coupled with the fact that the harmonium was not quite capable of reproducing the exact sounds of sliding notes or meend and gamak, the erudite society revolted against the use of the harmonium in baithaks and performances. In a letter to Shri Ashoke Sen, the Calcutta Bureau Chief of Akashvani, Rabindranath Tagore asked for a complete ban of the harmonium from all performances of All India Radio which was seconded by none other than Pandit Nehru and art historian Ananda Coomaraswami who too looked at the harmonium as a foreign influence that just did not do justice to the beauty of Hindustani Classical music. This ban was put in place right away and the harmonium exited the hallowed halls of Akashvani on March 1, 1940. It was only in July, 1974, after almost 30 years in exile, harmonium maestro, Shri Montu Bannerjee along with stalwarts like Pandit Bijapure started a crusade to bring back the harmonium into mainstream Hindustani music and the harmonium yet again started to ripple on AIR soundwaves, though with a lot of tentativeness mostly as an accompaniment. The AIR still was reluctant to allow solo performances of the harmonium to perforate the national airwaves and it was as late as 1st April 2018, that Pandit Ravindra Katoti, a harmonium maestro from Karnataka got permission to pierce the ban and set afloat the melody of the humble harmonium to ripple through the airwaves across the nation in a solo performance, thereby creating radio history in India.


Years have gone by and the harmonium has not only found its place beside some of music’s magic makers like Faiyyaz Khan, Begum Akhtar, Aamir Khan, Ghulam Ali, S. G. Kittappa, B.S. Iyengar, etc. but has been quite a revolutionary instrument that has bellowed from gurudwaras and mehfils to churches and temples bringing people across religions together in the folds of its unspoken word. So, as Swati madam starts her class by a pranam offered to the wooden box, she also salutes the spirit that this humble instrument has shown over the years to rise over defeat, suppression, embargo and still retain its ability to sing whenever it is touched and unleash its unpolluted, unfazed, untarnished melody.


Sangeet Sadhana
#720, 9th main, 4th Block, Koramangala, Bangalore - 560034 Landmark: Sony World Signal

Email: sangeetsadhana09@gmail.com

 Contact Us

Ms Anindita Mukherjee -(Guru/Founder): +919900251018

Ms Swathi: +919686950505


Recaptcha Failed Please Try Again......!