The Harmonium

And its checkered history in India

It would surprise many readers that this musical instrument, so common to the music scene today, had such a troubled past. Born in France and further modified to meet Indian requirements at Calcutta, to be mass produced and sold in in the thousands, this humble hand powered instrument had a difficult history, to say the least. So many people have tried hard to erase it off the Indian musical scene, and persons of great repute have been credited in banning it from the AIR for all of 30 + years. John Fielden, John Foulds, Anand Coomaraswamy, Jawaharlal Nehru, Keskar, Rabindranath Tagore, etc. have all been named as the people behind the ban, while the instrument itself not only gained in popularity in the drama stages and music composing studios, but also ported instrumental music and accompaniment from the performing stages to many households.

Not all details of the ‘anti harmonium’ movement have yet come to light. Though for all practical purposes, the final death knell came through Fielden based on an article by Foulds, there is a story behind it, and surprisingly, hidden in plain sight, a very persistent lady, who hated the instrument. Not only did she influence many of the above-mentioned persons, but was interestingly a true exponent of Carnatic music, and the first person to take it to the London music scene. Why did so many Europeans rally against what was essentially a European music concept? To start with, let us take a quick look at the development of the instrument itself, how it came to India and why it became popular.

One may conclude that Alexandre Debain the Frenchman invented the first of the harmoniums, a smaller version of the great Church organ, but using air, pumped with foot pedals. Large Victorian homes had space to accommodate this new contraption. The Harmoni-flute (organ accordion or flutina polka) was the next development, a cross between the small French accordion and the larger free reed organ. Two inventors vie for credit, Constant Busson and Mayer Marix, though it was Busson who presented it first and won an award in 1855. Marix advertised it as an instrument which could mimic the human voice. Over time, music enthusiasts as well as European missionaries in India carted large harmoniums to India and it slowly entered the performing scene as well, however it was unwieldy, and difficult to maintain in India’s heat and humid environs.

One of the companies trading in European harmoniums was Harold and Co at Calcutta, where a bright repair technician named Dwaraknath (Dwaraka) Ghose worked. Dwaraka is credited with the mass manufacture and supply of an Indian version. As the story goes, Dwaraka left Harold to open shop as D Ghose & sons in 1875, renaming it as Dwarkin and Sons, in 1878. Many of the versions available today are still based on a Dwarkin design dating to 1887, with minor modifications. The naming of the company as Dwarkin, sounding quite European, and so chosen for that very purpose (to get a larger and quicker acceptance) is credited to his assistant and the music maestro Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury. Chowdhury apparently suggested it by combining the name of Thomas Dawkins and Dwaraka. The latter is hardly mentioned in the accounts floating round, but Thomas Dawkins, a musical equipment dealer is listed as the patent holder of the polychord, (US Patent 243,861 dated July 5, 1881). Perhaps he had a manufacturing agreement with Ghose. UpendraKishore went on to write a couple of instruction books on playing it, before becoming an entrepreneur (printing), writer and painter, himself.

The Dwarkin-flute as it was called then, was well received. Instruction booklets were written on playing the device and its price was pegged between Rs 75/- and Rs 150/-, quite modest in perspective. It was further developed and while the first version covered 3 octaves, with 4 stops and 2 sets of Parisian (or cheaper German) reeds, the next version came with additional stops and covered 3 ½ octaves, with options for organ or celeste tunes, made of teak wood (British and French wood were options). A simple design, the Indian Harmonium as it was known those days, consists of a bank of brass metal tongues called reeds which vibrated when air passed over them. A bellow apparatus pumped air over the reeds, while stops controlled the airflow. There were also stops for drone effects (continuous tones) as well as a keyboard, all built into a wooden box (for this reason it was called box harmonium ‘Petti’ in many places), typically teak to last longer and resist termites and humidity. As it was built to a European design, it covered the usual 12 western notes. A newspaper advertisement proclaimed - “Drive out your sorrows and worries, with a Dwarkin Harmonium.”

By now it was called the Dwarkin - Gramola harmonium, advertised as a masterpiece in tone, and unmatched in quality and finish. As is often the case, competitors such as Ahuja, Pal & sons, Harold & Co, Mundal & Co, Biswas & sons, National Harmonium Co, Mohkam Singh and Sons, Ghose & Co etc., rushed to make similar versions. In a few decades, telling on its popularity, the market was saturated, and prices dipped as low as Rs 28/-. Many became proficient in the simple instrument and bridged its 12-note deficiency with skillful playing. The instrument was the mainstay for Hindustani music vocal accompaniment, though it found an entry into the Southern Carnatic music scene, comparatively difficult. A scale-changing mechanism was added, and it became well suited for the seated Indian musician, for it could be played while placed on the ground, one hand handling the bellows with the other on the keyboard and suiting both right and left-handed players. Dwarkin meanwhile, branched off into other ventures such as phonograph records, commercial recording, professional harmoniums, complex music organs (bulbul, folding) and what not.

One could safely conclude that almost all the musicians in Bengal perfected their music, with a Dwarkin harmonium to accompany, be it the Ray’s, the Tagore’s, or stalwarts like Pankaj Mullick, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and KL Saigal. The Indian music populace had taken the instrument to heart. It was made in India, cheap enough for budding musicians who could neither afford a piano nor other western instruments. People like Rabindranath Tagore and his brother Jyothirindranath Tagore played the harmonium at home, and a young Rabindranath Tagore even featured in its promotion – with his certification that he enjoyed playing the instrument and felt it ideal for Indian music. Hindustani musicians loved it, it was easy to play and sing along and regardless of its reduced quality, it filled gaps when the singer needed a little break, or when he paused to take a breath. Gharanas created their own Dwarkin fingering styles. But while some of the stalwarts felt it an integral part of their repertoire, others grew up to hate it and that is the story, we will get to, next.

The traditional Hindustani music performance was by then linked to the natch (Anglicized Nautch) dance which had descended from the Mughal times, an event complete with singing and dance. A nautch girl was also known as a Naachwali, Tawaaif, a Kothaywali and/or devadasi (south). The imposition of Victorian morals in the 19th century British India resulted in the anti-nautch movement. Devadasis and Nautanki’s (dancing girls) were given a short shrift, and instruments used during their performances, such as the sarangi and tambura were frowned upon. In the pre-harmonium days, Indian vocalists would usually be accompanied by musicians playing the sarangi. Though said to approximate the human voice, the sarangi was quite difficult to master and had to be tuned for each raga. Some Hindu performers shunned it because it was historically associated with courtesans and titillating music, and a mainstay of Muslim Hindustani gharanas. Together with support from Christian groups and missionaries, these age-old practices were quickly disallowed.

Simultaneously music practice was moving from organized gharanas to the house, and when there was a shortage of accompaniments or accompanying artistes on the Tambura or the Sarangi, the emergence of the ‘easy to learn and use Harmonium’ was a great boon. Moreover, the Harmonium could additionally provide a drone effect or shruti using the additional stops provided by Dwarkin, and it gained popularity. But the harmonium had its own limitations as a western note-based instrument, it could not generate the meend or gamaka (a glide from one note to another) in the way a veena or a sitar could. Thus, the harmonium cannot produce alankars which are part and parcel of Indian classical music, be it North or South Indian. Additionally, the times were tough and Swadeshi or anti-British feelings were on the rise. The ‘European’ harmonium was soon going to ‘face the music’.

But before we get to that, let us go to Madras, where a Ukrainian Émigré, named Helena Blavatsky (together with American Henry Olcott) had established what we know as the Theosophist movement during 1880, allied to Dayanad Saraswati’s Arya Samaj, something that quickly gained traction among the educated, who were impressed with these foreigners championing Indian religion and heritage. Their monthly magazine ‘The Theosophist’ was well received, though quite unpopular with the Christian missionaries and the British colonial administration. By 1883, Blavatsky had departed for Europe, and in 1893, Annie Besant, an ardent supporter of self-rule in India, travelled to Adayar, to later become the organization’s head. I will not get into details on all these, for it will lead us far astray.

What earthly connection would the Theosophist have with the lowly harmonium? Well, the Theosophists thought of music differently and connected it to vibratory influences. They also argued that Indian music performed in the truest way, with Indian instruments, was one way of properly creating what they called ‘thought forms’. Annie Besant was quite clear that she believed Eastern music forms were far superior – she said, “A chromatic scale in the West gives the limits on a western piano; in the East, many notes are interposed, and the gradations are so fine as to be indistinguishable to a western ear until it is trained to hear them. Eastern music is a succession of notes, a melody, while western music consists of notes played simultaneously, and yielding harmony."

This argument was connected directly to the harmonium by a brilliant violinist who arrived on the scene, a person hardly known to Indians, a young lady of Irish extract, named Maud McCarthy. She started out as a child prodigy, enrolled in the Royal college of Music at London aged just 9 and performed all over the world to become a violin virtuoso, only to retire from performing aged 23, due to the onset of neuritis. In 1900, she joined the Theosophical society and married William Mann, a Theosophist writer. She traveled to India 1907-08, traveling through the north and south of the country – and living at Banaras and Mussoorie and then Adyar, experiencing the glory of Indian music. MacCarthy then experimented with what she described as the magical, occult effects of music on the human mind and body, and practiced what she called ‘phonotherapy’, a medical procedure consisting of healing through the power of sound vibrations alone. According to her, Western music had reached its technical limits and needed to be revitalized by the ecstatic music of India. She returned to London in the 1910s and started to popularize Indian music in London and it was at this juncture that she met and started a relationship with the musician John Foulds.

Let’s now bring back the focus to the Harmonium. Maud MaCarthy hated the Indian harmonium and perhaps goaded by Annie Besant, started the initial tirade against it. In April 1911 she wrote - What, then, are the materials by which we may establish the fact that music is still a living art in India? Not the conventionalisms, if I may use the term, of the mass of Indian musicians; not their disputes over the authenticity of this note or that note of a raga; not the woeful attempts to copy brass bands and missionary hymns which we hear in most Indian schools and households today; not the modern Indian music-schools, wherein the pupils are carefully trained out of their capacities for natural intonation, and their tonal ideas are stifled by tempered pitch on screeching harmoniums; not even the songs of the old composers, if they are taken only on the evidence, ipso facto, of the remaining records.

In 1912 she rallied a call to abolish the instrument with a full-blown article in the Modern review, and her hatred for keyed instruments was strident - It is only a make-shift portable instrument which the missionaries brought to India, no such thing being used in the West, excepting at streetcorner meetings in the slums of our cities, where no other keyed instrument would be possible. This, then - a degraded form of a degradation-is what Indians have elected to use for the accompaniment of their divine ragas and raginis! The public house corners of the West wedded to the soul of Indian music! Some Indians have even gone so far as to make what they call a sruti harmonium-to fix the srutis as one might try to fix the echoes of the ocean! It is in the nature of music that the srutis should not be fixed: mathematically perfect sounds, as I have indicated above, being always in a state of change and adaptation, under the sole guidance of intuition and aesthetic sense-the only infallible standards of musical tonality. Any attempt therefore to determine the srutis must end in failure.

It is obvious. There are seventy-two modes, for instance, in South India. How can any fixed standard of srutis be made to fit all of these? What is the use of trying to count the drops in the ocean of sound? What utter fatuity is it that impels Indians to try to make a harmonium to register those sounds? The quality of harmonium tone, loud and rasping, is ruining the capacity to hear delicate grades of pitch (srutis). How can murchchhanas (fainting-notes) be heard or sought after in that din? Noise kills music. All soft gliding effects are also precluded. The drums-copying the harmonium—grow louder and louder, and the singer must shriek if he is not to drown. So, with these things Indians are ruining their splendid vocal heritage…

A.H. Fox Strangways in his 1914 - Music of Hindoostan asked - if the Mohammedan ‘star’ singer knew that the harmonium with which he accompanies himself was ruining his chief asset, his musical ear… in India the harmonium, has a unique power of making an unharmonized melody sound invincibly commonplace. He then went to Trivandrum and listened to the famous lullaby - Omana Thingal kidavo and writes - The songstress wanted to accompany herself on the inevitable harmonium, until I pointed out that it would be much in her way when she pulled the string of the cradle, and that the sound of it might prevent the baby from going to sleep... adding - Hence the serious menace to Indian music of the harmonium, which has penetrated already to the remotest parts of India… I was present for an hour at a concert in Trivandrum at which this appalling instrument never ceased.

John Herbert Foulds incidentally, was an English cellist and composer of classical music, a notable in the English Musical Renaissance. His gigantic composition - World Requiem (1919–1921), in memory of the dead of all nations, was performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1923 by up to 1,250 instrumentalists and singers!! Maud continued her tirade - and she found a keen listener in John Foulds whom she married later. She trained him on Indian music traditions and her special mystic concepts. Foulds seemingly mastered the art of receiving divine music as taught by his mentor and partner MacCarthy, directly from gandharva’s!!

In 1935 Foulds travelled to India, where he collected folk music, became Director of European Music for All-India Radio in Delhi, created an orchestra from scratch, and began to work towards his dream of a musical synthesis of East and West, composing pieces for ensembles of traditional Indian instruments. Foulds took the case of the Harmonium to the press, writing many articles and rebuttals on the topic.

Now we come to Margret Cousins, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Coomaraswamy. Cousins agreed in 1935 that the instrument, suited only to Central European beggars, was a bane to Indian music. Gandhi believed that the music of the spinning wheel was better than the execrable harmonium. Nehru suggested a ban in his book. Coomaraswamy was more vocal stating- For no man of another nation will come to learn of India, if her teachers be gramophones and harmoniums and imitators of European realistic art.

As Bob van der Linden explained, this was also a period when Hindu musicians more aligned to the western concepts of music, decried the takeover of Hindustani music by the Muslim Ustads. As the harmonium was used often by the Muslim stalwarts, Harmonium promoters such as Sourindro Mohun Tagore now joined the outcry to dismiss Muslim musicians as unwilling and ‘illiterate’ teachers. Tagore’s case is interesting, for he had used several Harmoniums and promoted the instrument itself for a while, later deciding that it was not good, and getting rid of all of them from Shanti Niketan. On the other hand, his brother Jyotirindranath was quite proficient in playing the harmonium and many a song was composed by the brothers, using it. Was it his anger against the Ustads, or his anti-European or Swadeshi feelings behind the request for a ban? Was it due to MacCarthy with whom he collaborated (he thought highly of her) on occasion and performed together (1914)? Difficult to conclude!

Tagore too wrote to the AIR in Jan 1940 asking them to ban this tool of British domination as he saw it. I have always been very much against the prevalent use of the harmonium for purposes of accompaniment in our music and it has been banished completely from our asrama. You will be doing a great service to the cause of Indian music if you can get it abandoned from the studios of All India Radio..

That all of them had correspondence or and knew MacCarthy, make it even more interesting. Did she during her meetings with them (Nehru, Tagore, Coomaraswamy and Foulds) bring up the topic? Also strange is the fact that each of them knew the other and mentioned the problems with the instrument over approximately 25 years before a ban could be enacted!! Dr Zakir Hussain  commented that the instrument was contemptible, Raza Ali, Gul Mohammed Khan, and Lakshmana Pillai agreed that it be banned. Earlier, the American writer & composer David Rudhyar, in his ‘The Rebirth of Hindu Music’, influenced by Coomaraswamy, too had called the harmonium a ‘cancerous growth’ in the body of Hindu music. The lobby against the Harmonium was too powerful and the Ustads in the Gharanas were powerless in the corridors of Delhi.

In June 1938 Foulds, now at the AIR, published an article called "The Harm-onium" in which he suggested that it be banned because its tuning was incompatible with Indian classical music stating -  Instead of the pervasive tambura, the lovely sarangi, the lordly vina, the charming sitar and dilruba, the naive bamboo flute— instead of these new and intriguing tone qualities, what did one hear upon all sides? One heard a contraption that il would be a compliment to call harmonium. The thing in question, which imposes itself upon music throughout the length and breadth of India, is no more a harmonium than a motorcycle is a Rolls Royce limousine. He added - It is strangling vocalisation, fettering rhythm, fouling both tala and raga, ousting the subtle and lovely Indian instruments. debauching the sensitivity of the ear, checking and stifling improvisation, and, in every way, I can think of, doing incalculable harm. For effect, Foulds also quoted Nehru’s comment in part, from his Autobiography. Foulds also noted his delight in seeing a notice in a broadcasting studio (Bombay as I understood) not long ago, offering an increased fee to those who sang without the harmonium!

Nehru had written - They (the middle class of the cities) glory in cheap and horrid prints made in bulk in Germany and Austria, and sometimes even rise to Ravi Varma’s pictures. The harmonium is their favorite instrument. (I live in hope that one of the earliest acts of the Swaraj government will be to ban this awful instrument).

Fielden, just arrived from the BBC to head the AIR (previously ISBS) in 1935 and knew Nehru personally, was eventually involved in the formal ban on the harmonium w.e.f. March 1, 1940. Even though the matter was raised in the Station Directors Conference in 1939 and endorsed by it, the decision came from Fielden’s initiative and formal approval. A procession of pall bearers ceremoniously took some harmoniums for a burial (echoing the music ban by Aurangzeb) and its final rites were conducted. The puritans had ruled.

Down south in Madras, the violin had become the favored instrument for Carnatic musicians. CS Iyer gave many lectures based on Maud MacCarthy’s and Fould’s observations on why musicians should stay away from the harmonium and remarked that it was Tamil genius to take on the Violin, even exhorting listeners to burn harmoniums. While a few musicians did use the harmonium (In Kerala and Madras film composing studios, composers like Baburaj and singers such as Abdul Khader did favor the harmonium) it never took off, especially in the traditional Madras music circles.

Nevertheless, Harmonium sales continued to rise, and budding musicians found it an able ally. It was often used as accompaniment in impromptu bhakti sangeet sessions and small mehfils throughout India, and was by and far the most popular instrument for everyday musical practice in India.

Keskar by the way, became the I&B minister in 1952 or so, well after the ban, but kept it going, was also against the gharana concept dominated by Muslims and took steps to try and ban film music, which he thought was Urdu based and too erotic. Anyway, all that resulted in the popularity of Radio Ceylon and the creation of the Vivid Bharati, a subject for another day. The harmonium came back into unrestricted use at the AIR in 1980 after the ban was partially lifted in 1971, and top-grade artistes were allowed to use it.

Nevertheless, the instrument remained popular in the film, drama and performance theaters and many thousands were manufactured and used since its inception. It remains the favorite teaching accompaniment and tool for music composers in India, even today. But the instrument faces newfound challenges, for Sikh factions who always used it in their gurudwaras, are now thinking of getting rid of the ‘British’ origin instrument. While the harmonium remains quite popular in India, its use in the West declined, though we come across some fine compositions by Gurdjieff in the late 1920’s using a top bellow style harmonium.

Along the way came the 22 tone Shruti harmonium developed in 1911 by Earnest Clements, and Krishnaji Ballal Deval. The Shruti-Harmonium or the Indian (Hindu) harmonium was ironically, manufactured in London by the ‘Moore and Moore company’. This proved to be a market failure and faced a lot of public opposition. Recently another version was developed by Dr Vidhyadhar Oak.

The music scene is changing rapidly, and today cheap and portable electronic keyboards, synthesizers using tone and sound libraries seem to be taking over, as older instruments become antiques. As it is, the shruti box, shruti apps on your phone, rhythm apps etc., rule the roost, entire orchestras have been replaced by tracks and AI streams, and tone correction software removes all imperfections, off-line and sometimes even on-line. It is a world different from the one Maud MacCarthy and other purists saw, but then again, that is perhaps ‘development’ - Who knows what the future holds?

All I can say is, Be open to it…

The Indian Listener – Various volumes
Theosophist – Various volumes
Pioneering Spirit: Maud MacCarthy, Mysticism, Music, and Modernity
Some Indian Conceptions of Music - Maud Mann (Maud MacCarthy)
Abolish Harmoniums - Maud MacCarthy (Modern Review)
Enchanted Music, Enchanted Modernity: Theosophy, Maud MacCarthy, and John Foulds - Christopher M. Scheer
From “harm-omnium” to harmonia omnium - Neil Sorrell
Composer John Foulds: The lost requiem - Jessica Duchen
Resonances of the Raj – Nalini Ghuman
The life of Music in North India - Daniel M Neuman
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern – A J Weidman
Music and Empire in Britain & India – Bob van der Linden
Indian Broadcasting – H R Luthra
Tangled Tapes K S Mullick

For those who want an in depth understanding of the theory behind tones, semi tones and such, read this well written, two part article, by Dhanya Subramanian




Paddy said...


Akmar said...

What a brilliant article.. The harmonium is a most hated and most accepted instrument in Indian music, very strange..

துரை ராஜ் said...


Pradeep Nair said...

Hi, I am coming to your blog after a very long time. Glad to see that you are still putting up very interesting and informative posts. I, too, have been blogging but somehow lost track of you.

I don't think many people here in India know harmonium was invented in Europe.

Maddy said...

Thank you Paddy, Akmar and Durai Raj,
appreciate your taking the time to peruse this. Please check out the other music related articles on this site.

Maddy said...

Thanks Pradeep,
yes, continuing the painstaking work...and I enjoy doing all this research!