The Status of the Harmonium


We are in the midst of celebrating 60 years of independent India and since we always celebrate with fanfare, there have been the usual concerts, aka Azadi Express, with a turbaned actor-cum-truant-MP Govinda doing his characteristic dance moves, TV clips on almost every channel with a stylized version of the tricolour tacked on to one or the other part of the screen and, of course, cross-border debates and discussions leading nowhere, or more often than not ending in the perhaps-never-to-be-resolved issue of Kashmir. But there have been few, if any, discussions on colonial hangovers that we haven’t been able to rid ourselves of.

Take, for instance, the issue of the use of the harmonium in Hindustani classical music. The harmonium is a keyboard instrument brought to India by missionaries in the second half of the 19th century. Today, virtually every Hindustani classical vocalist specializing in khayal and thumri-dadra is accompanied by the harmonium, despite it being considered inappropriate for Indian music by many, including a certain John Foulds, who headed the Western music section of All India Radio (AIR) in the 1930s.

Foulds stated in an article that the inability of the harmonium to produce microtones or shrutis rendered it inappropriate for Indian music. His opinion led Lionel Fielden, controller of broadcasting for AIR (earlier known as the Indian Broadcasting Company), to ban the harmonium on AIR broadcasts in March 1940. This indictment by the British has continued to shadow the journey of the harmonium in India long after the nation became independent. If this isn’t a classic case of a colonial hangover, what is?

The British declared that the harmonium is unsuitable for Indian music without bothering to consult an expert in Hindustani music. We, like humble and obedient servants of Her Majesty, accepted the ban and continued to declare it unsuitable long after it became a part of mainstream concert performances and music-making.

While the ban on the harmonium was lifted and most broadcasts on AIR feature harmonium accompaniment, harmonium players could never enjoy the same status as other musicians. Till recently, AIR followed an audition system whereby every musician had to submit a recording to an audition committee, which then selected candidates after considering their broadcast worthiness and also assigned a grade to each selected candidate.

Grades ranged in ascending order from B, B High, A, to Top Grade, assigned only to the most exceptional musicians. But when it came to harmonium players, they remained in a special category called “ungraded” and even the most proficient and experienced weren’t assigned even a B grade, which was normally reserved for novices. It is only in the last few years that harmonium players have been auditioned and graded like other musicians. But, even now, broadcasts of harmonium solos remain unheard of.

For decades now, harmonium players have worked tirelessly on both the instrument and playing techniques. As a result, they have been able to overcome many of the problems that were the cause of the harmonium being considered unfit for Hindustani music. While two senior harmonium players, namely Appa Jalgaonkar and Tulsidas Borkar have received the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards in recent years, it was disappointing to note that the harmonium has still not been given its due respect.

In the concerts that followed the presentation of the Akademi awards, Borkar featured only as an accompanist to vocal music and was not invited to present a harmonium solo despite the fact that his gharana is known to have developed and enriched harmonium technique and repertoire immensely.

On the other hand, the electronic keyboard and synthesizer has faced no opposition whatsoever and gained widespread acceptance in Indian music. No one ever questions the use of an electronic keyboard in bhajan performances, garba, or other forms of folk music, ghazal, geet, qawwali or any traditional Indian music.

The electronic keyboard, I guess, was never banned as it came to India after the British had left. And, perhaps, that is why we made an independent choice to accept it so freely as opposed to the harmonium, banned by the British and, therefore, stigmatized even today, long after we are said to have become independent.

Originally published in The Mint (livemint.com) on Sept 1, 2007. URL: Harmonium

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

14 Comments

  •    Reply

    Beautiful article, Shubha. I have just submitted an academic article about the history of harmonium hating for publication which comes to more or less the same conclusions that you do. If you’re interested, please email me at mrahaim {at ] gmail [dot] com.

  •    Reply

    Thank you very much for that very generous offer. I would really like to read your article, and will write to you at your Gmail address to request a copy.

  •    Reply

    While I agree it is certainly a perceptively written article, certain aspects of your main premise might not be borne out by facts. I have heard that Tagore himself campaigned to ban the Harmonium. Vinayak Purohit’s ‘Arts of Transitional India – Twentieth Century’ cites (aat 992-93) several other sources, including Tembe’s ‘Jeevan Vyasang’, that indicate Ananda Coomaraswami and even Nehru (!) had raised their voices against the instrument.

    Furthermore, it is widely known that after independence, the ban was sustained largely at the initiative of I&B minister B V Keskar, who happened to be a student of Bhatkhande.

  •    Reply

    Abhik ji, I would like to first thank you for taking the trouble to read my piece and also responding to it on the blog. I will send a comment in greater detail shortly, but other than that I would also like to invite comments from contemporary harmonium players with regard to your response. I am therefore going to request them to respond because I think their views on the developments that have been made vis a vis playing techniques and the instrument itself will be of significance in establishing that the bias against the harmonium should by now have become redundant.

  •    Reply

    While the sources mentioned by Abhikji did indeed express their displeasure at the inclusion of the harmonium in Hindustani music, I don’t think this in any way tells upon the merits of the instrument or on its popularity outside the government broadcasting network. The harmonium has made tremendous strides in terms of the tonal quality, tuning, technique, performance style and more. Setting aside personal likes and dislikes for the moment, we need to analyse the instrument’s scope in greater detail. Harmonium players like Tulsidas Borkar are already doing this through their writings and lecture-demonstrations. Many of these are in Marathi, and hence, not easily accessible to non-Marathi listeners. But I think this is an area worth looking at for anyone who is interested in knowing more about the instrument in its totality.

  •    Reply

    As a lay listener/rasika, what sounds best to me are the sarangi and violin. The harmonium is ok only if it’s in the background, quite often it sounds loud and intrusive in the context of a Hindustani concert. I feel this even while recognising the skill of the harmonium artiste. By itself, I have no objection to the instrument itself or the sounds it produces and would be interested to learn more about it.

  •    Reply

    Aneeshji’s comment compels a clarification on my part, I feel.

    Compelling arguments have been advanced both for and against the harmonium as an accompanying instrument. Regardless of the respective merits of the respective stances, I feel banning it from AIR was a wholly inappropriate response, an attempt to mould culture according to personal proclivities instead of allowing it to grow organically. Something like making bonsais out of banyan trees. While the results might be considered “pretty” by some, they are partly artificial and undeniably stunted.

    Where I would differ with Shubhaji is in her pinning responsibility on our erstwhile colonial overlords. I believe the Indian government machinery has been far more devastating in its indifference to the Indian ethos. And not just in music – a friend working on biodiversity once informed me that about fifty years of post-independence agricultural experiments had rendered extinct virtually all indigenous strains of cotton, something 150 years of colonial administration could not achieve.

    It is a fact that in matters that did not concern their interests, the British administration had been very receptive to the sentiments of India’s indigenous elite (an example can be gleaned from JDM Derrett’s work on how Hindu personal laws were treated by the colonial administration and judiciary).

    And so it is with culture. Since it did not directly affect them, they were content to leave it alone, by and large. And only when influential members of the Indian intelligentsia spoke against it did they see fit to ban it from AIR.

    Let us also not forget that the ban was effected in 1940, only seven years before independence. After 1947 we independent Indians had every opportunity to revoke it. That we did not was due to the intransigence of people like Keskar (who I believed was essentially well-intentioned if deeply misguided and flawed in his perceptions). Like much of Nehru’s legacy, this too engendered a powerful and mindless bureaucratic stranglehold.

    If all this (and the harmonium ban is only a small fragment of the story) has harmed India’s cultural development, maybe it’s time we acknowledged we have only ourselves to blame for it. And stoped blaming the Brits!

  •    Reply

    While on the topic, maybe you’d care to have a look at this ongoing debate on recent experiments with fixed 22 shruti harmoniums and keyboards:

    http://tinyurl.com/5mcrvv

    I confess the second part of my response is well overdue, and shall do something about it as soon as I can.

  •    Reply

    Abhikji, I couldn’t agree more with you about the problems of bureaucratic stranglehold, and I daresay, these exist even outside the Nehruvian legacy! In fact, even this is a colonial hangover.

    The Indian Broadcasting Service changed to the All India Radio only in 1936, which is when it came under the control of the Government of India. Consequently, if it was only seven years before independence that the harmonium was banned, we also need to note that it was only four years after the Government took over control on the broadcasting network.

    Indeed, we have ourselves to blame for the present state of affairs, and I don’t think Shubha is ‘blaming’ the British or in any way pinning responsibility on them. The observation about the ban is a mere statement of fact, and needs to be treated as such. The British were receptive to the sentiments of the Indian elite when their interests were not challenged, and yet, they remained passive with regard to music and dance at a time when princely patronage to these arts was at an all-time low. The Anti-Nautch movement and British legislation related to prostitution adversely affected tawaifs, who played a crucial role in Indian music and dance.

    I think we are all in agreement about the fact that events in history need to be seen as multi-layered.

    I will check out the link you have sent.

  •    Reply

    […] become one of the standard instruments of accompaniment in Hindustani classical music and vocalistsdefend it’s use and point to the many strides it has […]

  •    Reply
    Neelesh Viswanathan February 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    The Harmonium uses the equitempered scale, whereas Indian Music uses the Natural scale or the scale of Just intonation. For instance, in the Natural scale, the ratio of frequency of pancham to shadja is 1.5, whereas in the equitempered scale it is somewhat less at 1.4983. Another example is the Shuddha Gandhar (antara gandhar), whose frequency is 1.25 times that of the shadja in the Natural scale, but is as high as 1.2599 in the equitempered scale.
    In the natural scale, the notes used are naturally harmonic notes (which were used in Europe too, before the advent of keyboard instruments), whereas in the Equitempered scale, each key has a frequency which is 1.05946 times the frequency of the preceeding one.
    It can also be said that the ratios of 22 shrutis in Indian Music are related to each other as well as with the shadja by rational numbers. However, in the Equitempered scale propagated by Europe in the last 3-4 centuries, the ratio is an irrational number (twelfth root of 2). The notes of the equitempered scale are highly discordant and can never match the pleasantness caused by the notes of the Natural scale. The author is advised to pore deeply into this aspect before defending the Harmonium which is essentially an instrument which is based on the Equitempered scale.
    More importantly, Indian music uses graced notes: notes which are embellished by gamaka and meend, which are impossible in the Harmonium, but which can be produced on a Electronic Keyboard having a pitch-bender. Even Bharatha muni has mentioned that music without alankara (gamaka) is base. This is another reason for unsuitability of Harmonium in Indian Music. Please study the works of various eminent musicologists and try to comprehend the subtle differences in the 22 srutis which are used even today, before sympathising with the Harmonium.

  •    Reply
    SUDHIR NAYAK May 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Dear Nileshji,
    Read your comments on the article. The arguments that you have stated about the Harmonium with relation to the equi-tempered scale and the natural scale are quite obsolete and I feel one needs to also have a look at the many developments and modifications that the Harmonium has gone through, endorsed and supported by the practitioners of Hindustani Classical Music. The present day popular Harmonium players in the Classical Music scenario, are quite concious about the tuning aspect and use Harmoniums tuned to a particular pitch in the natural scale, which conforms to the shruti structure adopted by contemporary vocalists.
    I don’t know if you have heard about or seen the 22 shruti Harmonium that has been invented by Dr. Vidyadhar Oke. He has done this in consultation with many acclaimed vidwans and performers including Pandit Tulsidas Borkar, one of foremost harmonium players in the field of Indian classical music.
    In fact, the shruti positions played in such Harmoniums becomes so distinct due to the discrete note structure in the Harmonium, that it may not be at times displayed as distinctly by many other instrumentalists or even vocalists.
    Further, I have many a times witnessed many performers talking about the intricate structure of our shrutis, especially the Gandhaar in “Kanhara” or the shades of Nishad used in Hindustani Music who fail to sing even the basic swaras tunefully. Of course, these arguments, however true, cannot be generalised, since there are also quite a few performers adept in the use of Shrutis, many of whom have prefered the Harmonium to any other instrument because of its rich tonal quality, drone support and the continuity of sound that it provides to the vocalist apart from the many other qualities that it has.
    Although the harmonium cannot exactly reproduce alankaars like gamak, meend or ghaseet, many proficient Harmonium players have attempted to play the Harmonium using innovative techniques that could very closely represent these alankaars , which is why they have been able to establish their Harmonium playing styles very well, giving it the status of a solo instrument too.
    Also, the alankaars mentioned here are some of the devices actually used to ornament one’s music and I feel music a capable musician can certainly embellish his music well with the many other ornamentations that are available, using his aesthetic sense effectively in the music making process.
    Besides, the Harmonium is quite new compared to the many other musical instruments that have established since ages in the world of Indian music and I am sure that in the forthcoming years, there will be much more experimentation in the direction of enriching and making the Harmonium more suitable and acceptable to the field.
    The inherent limitations and demerits that each one has, differ from one musical instrument to another or for that matter even from one vocalist to another too, but looking at the varied and wonderful aesthetic dimensions that each of these instruments or vocalists has brought in and contributed to the field as a whole, needs to be assesed before negating its usage or condemning it.

  •    Reply
    Kaushik Kulkarni January 18, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Shubhaji ,
    This article is extreamly nice & it gives a joyful information about Harmonium/ Samvadini !!! I am a avid lover & learner of this instrument . Though Originally Harmonium is western , Hindusthani shastriya sangeet cannot be imagined without this Beautiful Instrument !!!
    Thank you very much for posting this . & what to say about your singing & voice … :-) .. No need .. Thanks again .
    —— Kaushik Kulkarni .

  •    Reply

    Shubhaji has thoughtfully ignited an exchange that has lasted five years, so far- great! Kaushik has last voiced a sentiment, without harking to logic, and I could not agree more. I’ll add, imagine Marathi Sangeet Natak music without the ‘peti’. How will ‘marmabandhatali thev hi’ sound with the soft echoes of the harmonium substituted with the strident sarangi? Finally one is always left wondering why the leaders of this music have to be so paternalistic..Can’t the listener decide anything? It’s as if it’s an either-or situation..As Shubhaji indicates, India becoming a democracy did not make the then rulers of Indian Classical democratic…

Leave a Comment

three × four =