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The Harmonium is a popular instrument for kirtan singing. However, the Sikh Gurus, early Gursikhs and Baba Banda Singh Bahadur never saw a Harmonium. In fact, Maharaja Ranjit Singh never saw, or used, or even heard of a Harmonium. So, why have some Sikhs discarded the Guru's instruments for a western creation?

Origin And Development

Harmoniums are pressure system free-reed organs invented in the 19th century (from around 1840). Where did they come from and what is a free-reed? A free-reed is a small strip of material such as bamboo. Free-reed instruments produce sound by blowing air across a reed making it vibrate, however, the reed must vibrate freely, that is, not touch anything when vibrating. The free-reed has an opening where, when pressure (or suction) is applied, the reed swings freely (though a slot) to set up a vibrating column of air which gives voice to the instrument. Air pressure is typically generated by breath or with a bellows.

Various free-reed instruments appear to have been invented since antiquity. Exactly when and where the free-reed was invented will never be known, although it is almost certain to have happened in South East Asia, perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. The free-reed is most likely to have evolved from the mouth-resonated plucked idiophones (or lamellophones) generically termed guimbardes and more commonly known as Jews harps (no relation to the children of Israel), or Jaw harps.

Among the ancient instruments, the Khene of Laos, the Shēng of China and the Shō of Japan have survived to modern times. The Shēng is a Chinese mouth-blown free-reed instrument consisting of several bamboo vertical pipes bound together with ropes or wooden frames. It is a polyphonic instrument. Polyphony is a property of musical instruments that means that they can play multiple independent melody lines simultaneously. Instruments featuring polyphony are said to be polyphonic. Instruments that are not capable of polyphony are monophonic or paraphonic.

The Earliest Free Feeds in the West

In his book The World's Earliest Music, Hermann Smith suggests that the free reed was known to the ancient Greeks. This is quite possible, as many Asian instruments were brought to the West via the Silk Road, although this was established during the 2nd century BCE and by this point the Greek Empire had fallen into decline. With no real evidence to back them up, Smith's ideas have to be considered mere speculation.

Also without any real evidence to support them, are the claims that a Chinese Shēng was brought to Europe by Marco Polo towards the end of the 13th century, or that one was brought to Western Russia by the Tartars. By no means impossible, but by no means fact.

Development of Modern Western Free Reed Instruments

During the first half of the 18th century, a Chinese Shēng was brought to Russia. That instrument received attention due to its use by Johann Wilde. The instrument's free-reed was unknown in Europe at the time, and the concept quickly spread from Russia across Europe. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723–1795), professor of physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with the first free-reed instrument made in the Western world, after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. According to Curt Sachs, Kratzenstein suggested that the instrument be made, but that the first organ with free-reeds was made by Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler in Darmstadt.

Alexandre Debain's Harmonium from 1865

Alexandre Debain's Harmonium from 1865

The earliest instrument of the harmonium group was the physharmonica. Anton Haeckl was a musical instrument builder in Vienna, who built the first physharmonica in 1818. Two of his instruments from 1825 (refs. Inv. Nr. 19.480 (20 white keys) and Inv. Nr. 38.956) can be seen in the Vienna Technical Museum. A patent for improvements to this type of instrument was granted to Anton Reinlein 1824. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann also built similar instruments at least by 1828.

Around 1820, free-reed designs began being created in Europe. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann is often cited as the inventor of the harmonica in 1821, but other inventors developed similar instruments at the same time. The accordion's basic form is believed to have been invented in Berlin, in 1822, by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann. The accordion was introduced from Germany into Britain in about the year 1828.

The Harmonium was first invented by Alexandre Debain during 1840 in Paris, though there was concurrent development of similar instruments elsewhere. The main improvements after 1850 were made by Victor Mustel in Paris and Jacob Estey in the United States.

The harmonium's design incorporates free-reeds and derives from the earlier regal. A harmonium-like instrument was exhibited by Gabriel-Joseph Grenié (1756–1837) in 1810. He called it an orgue expressif (expressive organ), because his instrument was capable of greater expression, as well as of producing a crescendo and diminuendo. Alexandre Debain improved Grenié's instrument and gave it the name Harmonium when he patented his version in 1842.

Harmoniums generally weigh less than similar sized pianos and are not easily damaged in transport, thus they were also popular throughout the colonies of the European powers in this period not only because it was easier to ship the instrument out to where it was needed, but it was also easier to transport overland in areas where good-quality roads and railways may have been non-existent.

An added attraction of the harmonium in tropical regions was that the instrument held its tune regardless of heat and humidity, unlike the piano. This "export" market was sufficiently lucrative for manufacturers to produce harmoniums with cases impregnated with chemicals to prevent woodworm and other damaging organisms found in the tropics.

Kasriel's Harmonium from 1848-1852

This harmonium was made by Louis Maurice Kasriel
in Paris, France, around 1848-1852

During the mid-19th century, Christian missionaries brought French-made hand-pumped harmoniums to India. The instrument quickly became popular there: it was portable, reliable, easy to learn and had a low price. Louis Maurice Kasriel (1815-1899) was a Polish-born musical instrument maker. He moved to Paris in 1839, setting up a shop making harmoniums, harmoniflutes, and guide-chants. The firm continued to make harmoniums until 1984.

Though derived from the designs developed in France, the harmonium was developed further in India in unique ways, such as the addition of drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism. Harmoniums reached the height of their popularity in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

They were especially popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ would be too large or expensive. The invention of the electronic organ in the mid-1930s spelled the end of the harmonium's success in the West, although its popularity as a household instrument had already declined in the 1920s as musical tastes changed.

So, from South East Asia, free-reed instruments migrated to the Middle East, Russia and Europe, then finally back to India by British Christian missionaries.

In 1954, Late Jogesh Chandra Biswas first modified the then-existing harmoniums, so it folds down into a much thinner space for easier-maneuverability. Prior to that, if the instrument was boxed, it used to need two people to carry it, holding it from either side. This improvisation became a generic design in most harmoniums since then and coined with the term "Folding Harmoniums".

More recently, Vidyadhar Oke has developed a 22-microtone harmonium, which can play 22 microtones as required in Indian classical music. The fundamental tone (Shadja) and the fifth (Pancham) are fixed, but the other ten notes have two microtones each, one higher and one lower. The higher microtone is selected by pulling out a knob below the key. In this way, the 22-shruti harmonium can be tuned for any particular raga by simply pulling out knobs wherever a higher shruti is required.

Bhishmadev Vedi is said to have been the first to contemplate improving the harmonium by augmenting it with a swarmandal (harp-like string box) attached to the top of the instrument. His disciple, Manohar Chimote, later implemented this concept, also making the instrument more responsive to key pressure, and called the instrument a Samvadini — a name now widely accepted. Bhishmadev Vedi is also said to have been among the first to contemplate and design compositions specifically for the harmonium, styled along the lines of "tantakari"—performance of music on stringed instruments. These compositions tend to have a lot of cut notes and high-speed passages, creating an effect similar to that of a string being plucked.


The harmonium was widely accepted in Indian music, particularly Parsi and Marathi stage music, in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, however, in the context of nationalist movements that sought to depict India as utterly separate from the West, the harmonium was portrayed as an unwanted foreigner.

The Harmonium is a small, manually-pumped musical instrument using fixed reeds to create the basic sounds. There are two main types of harmonium: a foot-pumped version that resembles a small organ, and a hand-pumped portable version that can fold up for easy transport. The hand-pumped portable version is very popular with Kirtan Jathas along with the Tabla and these form the main type of instruments used by Ragis during the performance of Kirtan.

Harmoniums consist of banks of reeds (metal bands which vibrate when air flows over them), a pumping apparatus, stops for drones, and the keyboard. The harmonium functions mostly like an accordion. In order to play the instrument, one must pump air into the instrument and press the desired keys. The sound of the harmonium is unique, and improves over time as the instrument ages.

The keys are played and bellows are compressed simultaneously. When the bellows are compressed, the air passes through the reed, causing it to vibrate. This produces sound. The reed regulates the tone/pitch whereas the bellows produce and control air and the volume. The harmonium can produce up to 12 surs and 22 shrutis. The number of reed banks is up to the particular person. Some harmoniums use 1 reed, 2 reeds, and 3 reeds. This refers to the number of reed sets there are in the instrument. Classical instrumentalists usually use 1-reed harmonium, while a musician who plays for a qawaali (Islamic devotional singing) usually uses a 3-reed harmonium.

Technical Concerns

Technical concerns with the harmonium included its inability to produce slurs, gamaka (playing semi-tone between notes) and meend (slides between notes) which can be done in instruments like Sitar and Sarod, and the fact that, as a keyboard instrument, it is set to specific pitches. Unlike a stringed instrument, its pitches cannot be adjusted in the course of performance.

The inability to slide between notes prevents it from articulating the subtle inflections (such as andolan, gentle oscillation) so crucial to many ragas. Being set to specific pitches is a different musical concept than the Indian svara, which doesn't focus on specific pitches, but a range of pitches. The fixed pitches prevents it from articulating the subtle differences in intonational color between a given svara in two different ragas. For these reasons, it was banned from All India Radio from 1940 to 1971; a ban still stands on harmonium solos.


The Harmonium was developed from instruments like the Accordion.
In western countries the Accordion is used to beg on the streets.

The twelve notes of the harmonium are not natural notes but are a tempered scale. In the saptak, the difference between Sa and Re and again between Re and Ga and so on has been (figures) to consistent and equal degree. The main defect of this instrument is that it has twelve artificial notes though they correspond to the twelve natural notes (as for instance on a sitar). With the accompaniment of harmonium-notes, the svaras of vocal music also tend to be artificial.

By playing the harmonium, the human voice becomes artificial, because according to the tradition of Indian classical music, the real notes of 22 shruties should be produced. There are certain notes in classical music which cannot be reproduced by the harmonium, for example _G_ in raga tod, M in raga Lalit, etc. Therefore, practice of svaras on the harmonium tends to make the svaras unnatural or unreal. Many classical singers frown at the use of harmonium.


The Tabla is the most popular percussion instrument used in the classical and popular music of the northern regions of South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, northern India, Pakistan).

The term tabla is an Arabic word which means 'drum'. The origins of the word tabla come from the arabic word 'tabl', and this attests to its status as a product resulting from the fusion of musical elements from indigenous Hindu and Central Asian Muslim cultures that began in the late 16th century.



The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century. Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography.

The different traditions of tabla playing go back to the 18th century. The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to a more sophisticated instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the music of North India.

In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists; however, they developed a sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings.

The Pair

The two drums of the tabla are called the dayan and bayan, the names came from the words dayn and baya which mean right and left in hindi.

The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is called the dayan It is made from a conical piece of wood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bayan. It is a bowl shape made of metal (or sometimes clay or wood, although not favored for durability). It has a much deeper bass tone.

The Technique

The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds. On the bayan the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that thepitch is changed during the note. This “modulating” effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.

Both drum shells are covered with a head (or puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. This skin is bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is fixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small hammer.

Nomenclature and construction

The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is sometimes called dayan (literally "right"), dāhina, siddha or chattū, but is correctly called the "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of mostly teak and rosewood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. The drum is tuned to a specific note, usually either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key and thus complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dāyāñs are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. Cylindrical wood blocks, known as ghatta, are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved while striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small, heavy hammer.

The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bāyāñ (literally "left") or sometimes dagga, duggī or dhāmā. The bāyāñ has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum. The bāyāñ may be made of any of a number of materials. Brass is the most common, copper is more expensive, but generally held to be the best, while aluminum and steel are often found in inexpensive models. Sometimes wood is used, especially in old bāyāñs from the Punjab. Clay is also used, although not favored for durability; these are generally found in the North-East region of Bengal.

The name of the head areas are:

chat, chanti, keenar, kinar, ki
sur, maidan, lao, luv
center: syahi, siaahi, gob

Both drum shells are covered with a head (puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin (keenar) is overlaid on the main skin and serves to suppress some of the natural overtones. These two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that gives the assembly enough strength to be tensioned on the shell. The head is affixed to the drum shell with a single cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum.

The head of each drum has a central area of "tuning paste" called the syahi (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shāī or gāb). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from starch (rice or wheat) mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area is responsible for modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch (see inharmonicity) and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument which has a bell-like sound. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.

For stability while playing, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta or guddi, consisting of plant fiber or another malleable material wrapped in cloth.

Basic strokes

Some basic strokes with dayan on right side and bayan on left side are:

Ta: (on dayan) striking sharply with the index finger against the rim
Ghe or ga: (on bayan) holding wrist down and arching the fingers over the syahi, the middle and ring-fingers then strike the maidan (resonant)
Thin: (on dayan) placing the last two fingers of the right hand lightly against the syahi and striking on the border between the syahi and the maidan (resonant)
Dha: combination of Ta and Ghe
Dhin: combination of Tin and Ghe
Ka or kath: (on bayan) striking with the flat palm and fingers (non resonant)
Na or ta: (on dayan) striking the edge of the syahi with the last two fingers of the right hand
Tete: (on dayan) striking the center of the syahi with the middle finger
Ti: (on dayan) striking the center of the syahi with the index finger (resonant)


Some talas, for example Dhamaar, Ek, Jhoomra and Chau talas, lend themselves better to slow and medium tempos. Others flourish at faster speeds, like Jhap or Rupak talas. Trital or Teental is one of the most popular, since it is as aesthetic at slower tempos as it is at faster speeds.


There are many taals, some of the more popular ones are:





Tintal (or Trital or Teental)     



X 2 0 3




X 2 0 3




X 2 0 3




X 2 0 3

Ektal and Chautal



X 0 2 0 3 4




X 2 0 3




X 0

Rupak (Mughlai/Roopak)



X 2 3




X 0

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