How This Musical Instrument from Europe Became Indian

Harmonium is a European instrument and not an Indian instrument.
This statement might surprise, shock or perhaps even make some people laugh and think that this blog is talking crazy stuff.
At this moment, you might be saying to yourself,‘’How can Harmonium not be Indian?’’, ‘’I’ve grown up witnessing Harmonium in nearly every Mandir (Hindu temple) and schools’’, ‘’How can it not be a desi (local) instrument’’?
To understand the answers to all these questions, it is important to know the origins and track the journey of this wonderful piece of musical equipment. Although people these days make music on computers and iPads and digital mp3 free music, the Harmonium still holds a special place in many music lovers’ hearts.
The Origins
Today, the harmonium is manufactured (almost exclusively in India), but have you noticed a difference between a harmonium and other widely used Indian musical instruments? It is different than a Swarmandal or Sarangi or Sitar and rather has a keyboard, the way western instruments have with a twelve note scale similar to western instruments.
  • In 1770, a person by the name of Kirschnik, built a free reed organ which had an organ style keyboard played with one hand, and bellows at the back, played with other hand. Just like the Indian harmonium.
[Note: A reed is a thin strip of material that vibrates to make sound while Bellows are made to supply a strong air pressure] 
  • About 20 years later and near the end of the 18th century, a man named Rakwitz made a much bigger organ with four keyboards of 63 notes in it.

  • Efforts were then made in the 19th century to make the instrument more affordable and smaller in size. And then, nearly around the year 1840, a reed organ was designed by a French person, named Alexandre Debain. This device was called by him as ‘Harmonium’.
  • As years passed, this device made by Debain grew in popularity. So much so that it was then taken by the Britishers to America where it became a popular instrument in the churches (which could not afford the pipe organ). By the end of the 19thcentury, the harmonium found its way to Hollywood. In the days when films did not use to have sounds in them, the harmonium was used for musical depiction in some movie scenes.
  • Around the year 1930, a rapid decline was seen in the once rising industry of harmoniums. The invention of electric instruments such as musical telegraph, the accordion and electronic keyboards led the harmonium to be considered as ‘’old-fashioned’’ for the western society.

Journey to India

  • The British introduced the harmonium to India during their rule. However, the typically large instruments were found to be difficult to adapt to the Indian situations. It is here that the contributions of an Indian personality are not known by many.
  • A Calcutta man by the name of Dwarkanath Ghose redesigned this western apparatus and turned it into a more practical device for his fellow countrymen.
[Note: He introduced the hand-held harmonium that could be played by sitting on the floor since all Indian instruments are played by sitting on the floor]
  • Just like the way harmoniums became popular in churches in the West, the Indianised version of harmoniums became synonymous with devotional Indian music used in Bhajans (devotional songs with spiritual themes) and Kirtans (musical recitation of religious ideas)

In the end, in an age of digital tracks and computerized music on online portals and Indian social networking sites, this humble and unique instrument can be seen as much more than a facilitator of music and songs. In it we find, a combination of two cultures; of east and west, we find a harmony and balance of two different faiths from two different lands, and we find the hope of everybody coming together to unite the society with love and peace.
Visit Sabakuch Music to enjoy free hours of unlimited Indian and Hollywood music in more than a dozen genres.


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