A Complete Guide to the Harmonium
Soft, flowing, and the kind of music that transports you to another world! The harmonium has been around for centuries and is an Indian musical instrument that is always a part of the classical musical ensemble. The harmonium is popularly used for religious ceremonies, and other festive occasions that require sombre and serene musical compositions. Intricately designed and unique in every way, playing the harmonium is not just a skill, but an art that requires tremendous dedication and practice!
Harmonium In A Nutshell
One look at the Harmonium and you almost think of it as a miniature version of a piano. Despite the similarity, the sound quality is entirely different. The Harmonium is also known as the ‘pump organ’ or a reed organ that produces sounds that contain ‘bellows’.
This instrument is widely used in various Indian music genres, but is primarily the sole instrument for religious congregational singing called ‘Bhakti’ or ‘Kirtan’. The harmonium is also one of the prime instruments in Hindustani Classical music.
In order to understand the functioning of the Harmonium more closely, one can compare it to the Accordion, wherein air is similarly pumped into a closed space. The reeds that are affixed to the opening that produce the vibrating sounds.
History Of Harmonium
- The harmonium is not of an Indian origin, although it has been associated with and used in Indian music for a long time. In fact, the Harmonium has its origins in Europe wherein it was used in the churches during the middle ages.
- Back then, the Harmonium looked much like a Piano as it had more keys, a foot pump and a chair as well.
- Earlier, a musician was able to play the harmonium with both hands, whereas today playing the instrument is feasible with only one hand. The reason why we do not need to play the harmonium with two hands is because the chords are used more harmonically in western music.
- India was introduced to the harmoniums in the 18th century when the British arrived in India. However, at that time the instrument had the foot pedal, but the new version with the hand pump was simultaneously introduced.
- When North Indian musicians came into contact with the harmonium, they immediately took a liking to it.
- Firstly, the hand pump version helped them retain the Indian tradition of sitting on the floor while performing, hence a floor organ worked perfectly well.
- Secondly, the harmonium almost mimicked the voice of the singer and went very well with the musical flow.
- Thirdly, it was very easy to learn how to play the Harmonium as compared to the bowed instrument Sarangi.
- Even though one hand was used to pump the air, playing the harmonium was never difficult. Moreover, Indian music is more melody-based and therefore one hand was enough to play.
- Although the harmonium is European in its origin, it has taken very well to the Indian musical culture. Except for South Indian /Carnatic music, the Harmonium is used in most of the Indian musical genres.
- With the passage of time, Indian music has witnessed a metamorphosis, as it has employed a lot of chords. The harmonium too has been revisited by various composers and has grown in its popularity.
- The first harmonium was invented by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795) who was the professor of physiology at Copenhagen.
- The design of the harmonium was altered by Gabriel Joseph Grenie between the years 1756-1837, and he called it an ‘orgue express’, since it produced diminuendo and crescendo sounds.
- Grenie’s instrument was then modified by Alexandre Debain who improvised it further and named it ‘Harmonium’ which he then patented in 1840. However, other alterations and improvisations shaped the harmonium further as the firm of Mason & Hamlin from Boston introduced suction bellows in it during 1860, which became popular in America.
- Eventually, harmoniums attained great popularity in the west during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as these inexpensive instruments were widely used in small chapels and churches. Since, they weighed less; they were also not susceptible to damages in transportation.
- The other positive side to the harmonium was that the instrument was not negatively impacted by heat and humidity and still managed to hold its tune, unlike the piano.
- The harmonium was at the peak of its popularity in 1900 and this is when various versions of harmoniums were produced. There were simple models that had plain encasements; bigger harmoniums with intricate cases and other mechanisms. Some were built with two keyboards while some had a pedal keyboard and an electrical pump.
- Largely, the harmonium was used for small scale ceremonies at home, and were more apt for hymn singers who required a low pitch.
- In the mid 1930s, the invention of the electronic organ hastened the end of the harmonium era in the west. However, in other places, the harmonium continued reaching higher levels of mechanical complexity with its compact dimensions and tonal range.
- Some manufacturers patented their version of the Harmonium, which resulted in abundant shafts, rods, cranks and levers in this instrument.
- The last company that manufactured harmoniums in North America was the Estey company, which however ceased operations in the mid 50s. There were only a few Italian manufacturing companies that continued making Harmoniums till the 70s.
- Over the course of time, the Harmonium started losing its sheen and popularity, and was sold or scrapped as the ageing instrument spare parts were difficult to source.
- Even though the harmoniums in the west are now possessed by a few enthusiasts, South Asia continues to nurture a legacy of harmoniums.
Construction and Components Of The Harmonium
Harmonium is made up of different parts that give it a different sound:
- Bellows: These are basically a series of metal tongues that permit the air to flow. The bellows need to be hand pumped to enable the air to flow and produce the sounds. The left and right ends of the bellow are affixed with a latch or a metal bar to help both left and right handed musicians.
- Keyboard: This enables the musician to play melodies and is also known as the unique aspect of the harmonium. Each key produces a different and unique sound. Although the structure and format of the keys are like a piano, the keyboard is relatively smaller in the harmonium.
- Main Stops: These are actually the big knobs on the side of the harmonium that direct air flow. In fact, these main stops impact the way the sound is produced. For instance, if the knobs or stops are not pulled out, then the harmonium will produce no sound at all.
- Drone Stops: These stops help to produce the constant sound of a single note. This is one feature that not all harmoniums possess.
- Coupler: This is another special feature in some harmoniums. If a key is played a similar key of a lower octave will be played simultaneously to produce a rich sound.
- Scale Changer: Some harmoniums might have this feature which helps to change the positioning and pitch of the keys. Even though this is a nice feature, it often results in problems for the harmonium.
Types Of Harmonium
There are various types or models of harmonium that are available:
- Foldable Harmonium and Standing Models: A lot of people prefer the folding variety as it is more portable and people can carry it easily. However, the standing model comes with a stand and is quite apt for those who wish to perform while standing.
- Compact Harmonium: This one is very small and has a carry case. It is much smaller than the standard harmonium, yet produces a similar sound with the entire range.
- Harmonium with Coupler: This harmonium produces sound that incorporate the next lower octave to give a powerful and richer sound altogether.
- Scale Changer Harmonium: This model allows a full sound pattern and is very harmonious with a complete sound pattern. It has 42 keys and 5 adjustable drones. There is also the possibility of using a coupler in this as well.
- 22-microtone Harmonium: This was developed by Vidyadhar Oke in which 22 microtones, crucial to Indian classical music, can be played. This can be used for any raga.
- Samvadini Harmonium: The harmonium was then improvised with a ‘swarmandal’ (harp-like box) which helped to render cut notes and high speed passages.
Cultural Context Of Harmonium
Harmoniums were quite popular on the western music scene since the 60s with John Lennon from the Beatles fame using it for their hit single ‘We can work it out’ in 1965. However, coming back to India, it is primarily been used as an instrument for Hindu and Sikh devotional songs or hymns called ‘Kirtans’.
Jai Uttal, Snatam Kaur and Krishna Das are all Kirtan musicians who have been nominated for the Grammys in the New Age Music category.
- The harmonium is a prominent instrument that is used in various Indian genres, particularly Hindustani classical and semi classical music concerts.
- Harmonium is also associated with Marathi and Parsi stage music.
- The harmonium has its technical implications which have prevented it from producing ‘meend’ or a slide between notes which are important in many ragas to produce ’svaras’. Because of this, the All India Radio banned the use of Harmonium from 1940-71. Harmonium solos are banned till date.
- On the other hand, the new generation classical music of the 20th century preferred using the harmonium. Not only was it easy to learn but it also supported group singing with its loud and audible sound.
- You would always find a harmonium in any Hindu temple or Sikh Gurudwara, which is often accompanied by the tabla or dholak. Some call it the ‘vaja’ while others refer to the harmonium as ‘peti’.
- The harmonium is also integral to Sufi Qawwali music which is often the sole musical accompaniment. This form of music was popularised by the famous Pakistani music artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Famous Harmonium Players
Bijapure was an Indian harmonium player who carried on the Hindustani classical music tradition. He was born in 1917 in Karnataka and took his training in harmonium from Rajwade. His first guru was Annigeri Mallaya from whom he also took training in vocal music. Bijapure started his career as a music director and was a harmonium player for Venkobrao Shirahatti’s drama company and later for the HMV Company.
He was eventually the music examiner for the Akhila Bharatiya Gandharva Mahyavidyalaya for Karnataka Government. Bijapure had a unique style of rendering solo harmonium pieces and has performed at major music centres of the company. He started the Shri Ram Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in 1938 and has taught over 10 thousand students successfully. He died in 2010 and was actively engaged in teaching music to his disciples.
Bijapure was awarded many awards and honours such as the Karnataka Kala Tilak, Rajya Sangeet Vidvan, Mahamajopadhyay and Nadashree Puraskar.
He was born as Jeffrey Kagel and is an American vocalist who is a great performer of Kirtan or Hindu devotional music. He was born on May 31, 1947 and is popularly known as the ‘Rockstar of Yoga’ with his performance at the Grammy Awards in 2013.
He has 14 albums to his credit. Krishna Das first came to India in `1970 where he studied under Guru Nee Karoli Baba and went on to study Bhakti Yoga. He travels around the world and is devoted completely to singing and teaching. Das has recorded many different variations of the devotional poem Hanuman Chalisa. His Harmonium bears the image of Lord Hanuman.
Borkar is an Indian musician, more popularly known for his style of playing the harmonium solo and combining it with Hindustani raga sangeet. He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2016 by the Government of India. Borkar was born in Goa on 18th November, 1934 and has a vast body of work which includes many different awards that he has received.
Important Events Where Harmonium is Played
Although it is very rare to find harmonium solos in classical or semi-classical Hindustani music, yet it is the one instrument that is prominently played in Hindustani vocal renditions and in devotional Sufi hymns called Qawwalis.
There are many different festivals and events that take place in the Indian metro cities where one can go and enjoy musical renditions with the harmonium being one of the prominent musical instruments:
- Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav: Held in Pune, Maharashtra since 1953 during the month of December. It is a one day event.
- Teen Prahar : Held in Mumbai which is organised by the Banyan Tree since 2007. It is a one day event.
- Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan: Held in Mumbai since 1952.
- Sabrang Utsav: Held in Delhi since 1968.
- Chaturprahar: Held in Mumbai.
- Qutub Festival: Held in Delhi.
- SwaraZankar Music Festival: Held in Pune.
The harmonium requires no additional accessories. Earlier it was transported with the help of two handles on its either side, however, now things have become easier as far as portability is concerned with a Harmonium Case.
Records In Harmonium
Although the harmonium is an instrument that is widely associated with Hindustani classical music and has little to do with Carnatic music, it is the effort of Karnataka Kala Sree C Ramadass hailing from the city of Bengaluru in Karnataka who has been performing Carnatic concerts using the harmonium for the past 5 decades.
In fact, this septuagenarian has also earned an entry in the Limca book of records for having rendered 590 performances using the harmonium. He continues adding on to his record. His first performance was on January 23, 1980 and since then he has continued giving Carnatic concerts using the harmonium as the main instrument. He is also a Grade ‘A’ artiste with the All India Radio, Bengaluru.
The Harmonium is a very famous instrument in India, not only because it plays an important role in Indian music, but because it is easy to learn as well. If you know some interesting facts about the harmonium or have a question about this musical instrument, then do feel free to ask us in the comment section below! At YoGems, we have experts who can counsel you on this instrument and provide you with trainers and instructors who can guide you in playing the harmonium.