The harmonium. So organic and familiar is its sound that few Indians would imagine that its origins lie outside their country. Yet, packed into its compact box-like shape is a fabled history that meanders from 19th century Europe to 20th century colonial India.
An instrument invented — and patented — in Europe by a Frenchman, the harmonium was reinvented in colonial Calcutta by Dwarkanath Ghose, a Bengali instrument-maker, to suit Indian climatic conditions, musical playing styles, and affordability. While its sound drew congregations together, it equally irked nationalists and patriots who warned of its propensity to pollute the refined musical ear of Indians. Despite the opposition, the popularity of the harmonium spread like wildfire as it accompanied folk musicians of various persuasions across the country, and thereafter into the world as a cultural export with the Indian diaspora.
Unpacking this fascinating tale for Radio Azim Premji University is Sharmadip Basu, who teaches history and social science at the university. Tune into Unboxed — The Harmonium In India, an absorbing two-part series.
Akshay Ramuhalli, Bijoy Venugopal, Bruce Lee Mani, Harshit Gogoi, Narayan Krishnaswamy, Prashant Vasudevan, Sananda Dasgupta, Seema Seth, Shraddha Gautam, Supriya Joshi, and Velu Shankar
- Book: The Harmonium in North Indian Music authored by Brigit Abels (1 January 2010)
- Journal Article: That Ban(e) of Indian Music: Hearing Politics in The Harmonium authored by Matt Rahaim | The Journal of Asian Studies
- Journal Article: The Harmonium and Indian Music authored by BC Deva (Sep 1, 1981)| Journal of Indian Musicological Society; Baroda. Vol. 12 Iss. 3.
- Journal Article: Tracking the Harmonium from Christian Missionary Hymns to Sikh Kirtan authored by Gurminder Kaur Bhogal (2022) Yale Journal of Music and Religion. Vol. 8 No. 2
- Research Paper: The introduction and use of the harmonium in North Indian classical music authored by John James Napier (1994)
- The Harmonium was Born in Europe – so how did it become synonymous with Indian music? | Scroll, August 19, 2016
- The Birth, Death, and Reincarnation of the Harmonium | Serenade Magazine, January 18, 2018
- The Rise and the Sudden Fall of the Harmonium | Open Magazine, June 10, 2022
Explore the series
How Indian Is The Harmonium?
Once scorned by purists as ‘harm-omnium’ and criticized by nationalists as an assault on the Indian musical ear, the harmonium has firmly entrenched itself in India’s musical landscape. Join Sharmadip Basu, faculty in history and social science at Azim Premji University, as he presents this engaging two-part series on the history of the harmonium in India
Why Indians Equally Loved and Hated The Harmonium
In the second part of our series on the story of the harmonium, Sharmadip Basu explains why some Indians hated the harmonium while many others loved it, why some banned it, and others patronised it. Listen to know more.
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