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Role of the Harmonium in Indian Classical Music

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Hello Classicals,

In the previous article, my friend Kuldeep has discussed about ” How tanpura helps classical singer?”  Many readers like that article. Today I am going to write about “Role of the Harmonium in Indian classical Music” Hope you will like this article also, and you are free to share your valuable thoughts to make it more meaningful.

Then, I was a school-going kid, when Pandit Shri. Appasaheb Jalgaonkar, the Harmonium maestro had visited our small town for his Harmonium performance. I still remember the evening, when in a hall crammed with music lovers, how his fingers moved miraculously swiftly on the keys. Though, I’ve forgotten his exact words about the keyboard instrument, yet still the understanding of those words about the role of the Harmonium in Indian Music lingers in my mind.

A harmonium is a keyboard instrument that came into fashion not very long ago. It is one of the most flexible instruments in Indian Music. It blows air through the air vessels reeds and thus produces musical notes. It is used as an associated instrument in Indian classical music, Sufi music, Bhajans and other varieties of music. You might have seen roaming singers in trains also, who rope it and wear it around their necks.

What Is Harmonium?

In the nineteenth century, the Harmonium was introduced in India by the missionaries. However, many people believed that it had originated in the country. Since then, as the instrument is handy, easy to learn and handle, it speedily became admired. The harmonium plays a central role in the Indian music. Thus it has become a very popular accompanying instrument. Yet, as it can’t capture the beautification (like Shruti, Meend, Gamak etc.), pure Indian classical music performers avoid it.The Harmonium has two types, a foot-pumped harmonium and a hand-pumped harmonium. In the first type, the player pumps a foot pedal and in the second type the player pumps a hand bellows. Both the hands of the performer are free to use the key board in the first type, yet in the second type, only one hand can be used. There are some experts, who pump sufficient air with one hand, take it out and play with both hands wherever needed.

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As said earlier, when the missionaries brought the instrument to India, a hand-pump version was introduced in India itself. This became more popular for the Indians, as they largely sit on the floor to play their instruments. Habitually Indian musicians sing while playing their instruments, and the harmonium resonances well with vocals. Usually Indian music is tuneful, and musicians typically don’t play chords on their instruments. Therefore, as it was the need of the Indians that only one hand should be used to play individual keys on the instrument, with the other hand free to pump air, the whole process of using the harmonium became very easy to learn. This is the key factor that made the Harmonium an important thing in Indian Music. Some musicians play the harmonium as a solo instrument.

For playing the Harmonium, a sitting position is followed. In this standard position, the harmonium is kept on the ground. A right handed player uses the right hand for the keys and the left hand for pumping the bellows. It is the most favored pose in India. The other position is the qawwali, where the instrument is partly placed on the player’s lap and partly on the floor.

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About Pratik Kashallu

Hey Cassicals , I am Pratik Kashallu and I am steady followers of Indian Classical Music…just like you. I’ve have a passion for collecting antique classical gramophone records and record players. Thousands of antique gramophone records and many record players are available in my collection. With this zeal, I am a Admin of world famous Facebook fan page "Indian Classicl Music Fan Club" which is loaded by more than 22K facebook fans and it's total weekly reach is around 90K

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  1. I have very poor fund of knowledge as regards music or indian classical songs.however i have read the article and have been enriched by knowing a lot of unknown to me information on harmonium which is a very instrumental innstrument for anybody startt taking basics on music. I have known today only about foot pumped harmonium. Thanks a lot.

    • Being a solo harmonium player, i may like to add a bit about your desire to know more about harmonium. The harmonium as a a full fledged solo instrument capable of being like the Sitar or the Sarod was developed my GURU Late Pandit Manohar Chimote. ( 1929 – 2012 ). He devoted entire pf his life on this single instrument harmonium which he renamed it as SAMVADINI. To get more information about Pandit Manohar Chimote, please visit him on You Tube. And to listen recordings of Samvadini, please visit Pandit Manohar Chimote Samvadini and Bhanu Joshi Samvadini.

  2. The harmonium is not ideal for a vocalist of Hindustani style because raga rendition places huge importance to nuances and shrutis. Few know that there are 12 and not 7 notes in music. Fewer still know that of these 12, four descend (komal) from standard position (Shuddh swar) and one ascends (tivra). Fewer still know that in between the 12 standard notes as present in the harmonium/keyboard there are 22 shrutis.
    There are many ragas that have an identical note sequence but just by shifting emphasis and phrases, the ragas assume distinct identities.

    Swar ki sadhana parmeshwar ki

  3. Good article.

    Point must be noted also that the Harmonium was modified was the foot pedal to its current state.

    Reason being that music for Indians is very reverential, so the sitting position on the ground was seen as the best playing position.

    While there were improvements over the years in terms of sound quality and making the harmonium a more robust instrument, there was only one modification so far, that is the Samvadini.

  4. The much bigger problem with Harmonium (or for that matter any keyboard style instrument) is the fact that they are typically tuned on the equal temperament. Every time you play a note on a harmonium, you technically play the wrong note. For instance for a given SA, the PA in equal temparament is 2^(7/12) times the frequency of the SA. In just tempered systems (like all of Hindustani Classical Music), its exactly 1.5 times the frequency.

    Think about it, every single time, you play the wrong notes.

    There is of course the massive problem that you cant even pick an arbitrary real number frequency as your Sa, you have to pick from the concert pitches that westerners use.

  5. Hello,

    I am a student just in my initial phase of learning to play Harmonium. Can anyone please share the booklet of Alankars, Thaats and Raags that should be practised and followed in proper Indian classical way.

    Many thanks in advance.


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