A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts


by Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish and Ashwin Batish

Brief History

In the previous lesson, I covered the topic of singing with the Tanpura. Now let me deal with how the Harmonium has become a very popular and a very proficient tool for the singer in today's music.

The Harmonium comes to India via the missionaries. The original form was that of a pedal organ. Religious Christian hymns were often accompanied with this instrument. It was easy to move and it kept its tuning, unlike its popular counterpart, the piano, that were notorious for being hard to transport and keep well tuned.

Indian musicians must have shown a facination for this instrument since the day it first arrived. One has to just imagine and visualise the first encounter of an Indian musician with the pedal organ. The whole experience of having to sit in a chair, pedal, and play with both hands must have seemed intriging but strange. Ofcourse it would not take too long for some genius to convert this instrument so they can play it in a squatting position at ground level :-)

There was a trade off to this. The pedals were moved to the back of the instrument thus having to devote one hands to the constant pumping of air. The other hand then can be used for playing.

This didn't seem to matter as the one playing hand was plenty for playing the melody. Singers found this very helpful and powerful. Each note provided a strong yet soft tone that filled the air in unison with their voice.

So it is that this became an industry. There were serious outcrys from the traditional music faternety. But the Harmonium was headed towards a successful co-existence with the traditional instruments as more and more singers showed preference for its versitility.

Many experiments were done to make it more compatible with the Indian music traditions. Including creating Harmoniums that were tuned to just intonation and even hybrids of just and equal temperament. Some even tried to tune them with the 22 shruti octave. The traditional system of tuning in Indian music. All these basically fell by the wayside. Today's Harmonium retains its equal temperament Western tuning. They get around this some what by adding 2 or three reeds per note and detuning them around the actual frquency. This creates a shimmering effect to th tone and also hides the true pitch. This is often the case in tuning the piano also.

Self Accompaniment on the Harmonium

For self accompaniment on Harmonium, it is assumed that a vocalist is already in the know of at least some basic rudiments of Indian music. He or she may not be an expert musician, he may be an amateur singer who wants to be on the top of a social gathering of his friend circle, with a view to entertain them with his favorite songs, heard on the radio or records, or viewed them on the television screen or for that matter, enjoyed them while viewing them in full action in some cinema hall. Or perhaps, he has started taking lessons in singing.

The good news is that persons from all the above categories are endowed with the sense of perception and comprehension. All they need is a good and well tuned harmonium.

Here are some steps when taken, would usher them in the door of technical knowledge, after learning which they can self accompany themselves to what ever they are singing.

(Note: For learning to play on the harmonium, please consult the video specially made by the institute in this connection).

Before playing, the harmonium instrument can be either placed on a stool along side of which the vocalist may sit on a chair of the equal height. Or if the gathering of listeners is organized in the Indian style of sitting position, on a carpeted floor, the instrument may be put in front of the vocalist.