Some purists may instantly point out that the harmonium isn’t actually an Indian instrument. They are surely right, as its ancestral form was created in Denmark in the 18th century, and soon, began to be played in many regions of Europe.
The truth, of course, is that the harmonium has played such an important role in various genres of Indian music, including Hindustani classical, ghazals, qawwalis, bhajans, semi-classical, folk and film music, that it is now accepted as an Indian instrument.
In fact, the first versions to be used in India were made in France and brought in by missionaries in the late 19th century. Over the years, Indian musicians incorporated many changes in keeping with Indian melodic styles. Today, the words ‘samvadini’ or ‘peti’ are also used to describe the harmonium.
The instrument is hugely popular and is kept in many homes, played in group songs and even by street performers and underprivileged people in trains. Many children are in fact initiated into music through the harmonium.
However, on the concert circuit, it is used more as an accompanying instrument. Though some musicians have successfully played it solo and even recorded albums, it has most often been used to provide assistance to vocalists.
Those who have seen legendary vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi perform live would have also admired the way harmonium greats like Appa Jalgaonkar, Tulsidas Borkar and Purushottam Walawalkar created their own aura in the concert.
Here, we shall talk about the features of the instrument, its limitations, how it became popular in Indian music, its use in various genres and the main players associated with it.
Features: The Indian harmonium is normally played with the musician seated on the ground, pumping what is known as bellows with the left hand, and playing the notes with the right (in case he/ she is right-handed). In Sufiana music, it is sometimes played by keeping one end on the musician’s lap and the other on the ground. Some people even wear it around the neck using a strap and play it while standing or walking. All these styles differ from the western technique where the musician is seated on a chair, pumps the bellows with both feet, and plays the notes with both hands.
The harmonium belongs to the family of free-reed aerophones, where the sound is produced when air passes a vibrating reed or strip in a frame. Besides the harmonium, such a free-reed feature is used in various global folk instruments, and also in the harmonica and accordion. The biggest advantage of the harmonium is that, like the basic keyboard, it is relatively easier to learn. One can get a hang of the notations fast, as one can see all the keys up front. However, it takes a huge amount of practice to actually make it sound more melodious and reach levels of perfection. A high-quality harmonium can have 39 keys and therefore a range of up to three octaves.
Drawbacks: The limitations of the harmonium are more technical by nature, and revolve around its inability to produce meend (the slides between notes, typical in Indian music) and the fact that, once tuned, it cannot be adjusted during the course of performance. Some connoisseurs of Indian music, and even some traditional-minded musicians are against the instrument because of its foreign origins and prefer the bowed string instrument sarangi which sounds closer to the human voice.
Because of its disadvantages, it was banned by All India Radio for many years in the mid-20th century, a move that still raises huge debates.
Growth in Indian music: After being brought to India, the harmonium was first used as an accompanying instrument for stage musicals and in devotional music like keertan. But its ability to play sustained notes was seen as a benefit by some classical vocalists, who began using it as an accompanying instrument.
The harmonium as one currently knows it began to be manufactured in India around 1925, but became commercially available only after 1940. Among the instrument-makers, H.P. Bhagat is considered one of the pioneers, and his make pleased the connoisseurs too.
Use in different genres: We’ve already mentioned that the harmonium is used across various genres. Let us talk briefly about how it is used. In a Hindustani classical concert, the harmonium player often accompanies the main vocalist, sitting to his or her left.
Besides providing the accompanying music, they often repeat or improvise upon the phrases sung by the performer after they have completed the line. The harmonium is also used to provide the ‘Lehera’ or melodic accompaniment in a tabla recital.
In ghazals and bhajans, the singer usually plays the harmonium himself, as we’ve seen in performances by Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota, Talat Aziz and others. Some singers may have an extra player for providing contrasting melodies. In a qawwali, two or three harmonium players perform simultaneously and add vibrancy to the performance.
In Hindi films, the harmonium has been filmed in song sequences, often with the player standing and playing. Two well-known examples are ‘Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar’ from CID and ‘Deewane Hai Deewane Ko Na Ghar Chahiye’ from Zanjeer. It has also been in countless songs, one weird example is the intro to ‘Sheela Ki Jawani’ from Tees Maar Khan.
Main players: Though there were many accomplished harmonium players before, Pandit Govindrao Tembe was the first to popularise it as a solo instrument, an effort which he passionately pursued till he passed away in 1955. He was also a renowned accompanist to many great vocalists and wrote many compositions for Marathi Natya Sangeet (drama music).
Jnan Prakash Ghosh (known more for his mastery of the tabla), P. Madhukar and Bhishmadev Vedi were also responsible in popularising the instrument in the middle of the 20th century. From the 1950s onwards, some of the great players were Appa Jalgaonkar, Tulsidas Borkar, Purushottam Walavalkar, Rambhau Bijapure, Govindrao Patwardhan, Montu Banerjee and Manohar Chimote.
Many years later, Aravind Thatte and Vidyadhar Oke created fresh innovations. While the former played the complicated form called the tappa on the harmonium, the latter created an improvised and more intricate variety of the instrument called a melodium, which can play 22 microtones.
Later-day harmonium players include Jyoti Goho, Sudhir Nayak, Ravindra Katoti, Seema Shirodkar, Deb Kumar Banerjee, Kedar Naphade, Maharaj Banerjee, Suvendu Banerjee, Niranjan Lele and Shriram Hasabnis.
At classical concerts across India, one can see many talented harmonium players. Some of them may not be famous but play with true passion and genius. The harmonium, after all, has its own melody and charm.
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