Evolution of the Indian Harmonium

March 28, 2016

As a six year old, I often accompanied my mother (strapped to her waist as she rode her Kinetic Honda) to her weekly music lessons. The other disciples and my mother tuned their instruments, sang, took notes, and talked and laughed as their guru, whom they called Panditji, interspersed the lessons with funny and witty anecdotes. Amidst this happy, musical gathering, I sat cross legged and drew pictures in my mother’s diary.

Sometimes, quite rarely, Panditji would ask me to push and draw the harmonium bellows to help with the tuning (“Gently, gently now” he would say as I obliged enthusiastically) and the next few moments would be filled with notes from the disciples’ tanpuras rising and falling… each note struggling to find resonance with the harmonium, until all at once, the sounds seemed to blend and melt into a single all-encompassing hum which filled up the little room; calming and deeply satisfying.

My part done, I would resume my drawing, letting the music wash over me, not realising that I was in the presence of  beauty, and melody; not knowing that before me was a person of remarkable ingenuity, and that he and the instrument before him, were on a lifelong journey…

The original Harmonium is not native to India, although it has permeated into Indian classical music and is used extensively as accompaniment. But having western origins (I believe it was made in France in 1840), it was tuned as per the tempered scale of western music, which is different from the Gandhar tuning of classical Indian music. 

It was an instrument well criticised by Indian musicians for its lack of versatility. The Marathi name for the Harmonium is ‘Peti’ (literally meaning ‘box’) and Panditji thought this name very unsuitable for a musical instrument.

He spent many years modifying the Harmonium (a process first begun by his own guru Pandit Bhishmadev Vedi), realigning the keyboard to aid speed and for continuity of distinct notes, even introducing pressure controls for varying tonal quality. He added a ‘Swaramandal” or a string box, to sustain the ‘aasa’ for resonance. The modified instrument could balance air pressure to focus on any particular note as required, changing drastically the quality of sounds produced.

At the end of his efforts, the Harmonium was transformed into an instrument perfectly suited for Indian music, and able to access the range of notes that the Sitar, the Santoor, or the Sarod enjoy.

The changes are nothing short of genius; a brilliant blend of physics and aesthetics; and it does not end there. It is not the instrument, but the artist, who can create good music.

By his passionate and continuous dedication, he was able to introduce adaptations of the sitar anga gat presentation, jod-zala, and dhrupad styles of music to this refined instrument.

The evolved version of the Harmonium was named Sur-Darpan with the introduction of the Swaramandal, and with other modifications it came to be called Sur-Manohar. But Panditji kept looking for a better name, for naming the instrument after himself did not appeal to his nature.  And one day, as he headed home in a train, the Sanskrit word ‘Samvad’ (meaning ‘harmony’) gave him the word ‘Samvadini’ (meaning ‘she who creates harmony’) ending his quest and christening his beloved creation.

The Indian Harmonium has evolved in stages, and at each stage, the Peti becomes less of a Peti and more of a Samvadini, and there is still a difference of opinion about what a particular version is to be called. It matters not, for in the hands of a skilled musician, any harmonium is a Samvadini.

Yesterday was the 88th Birth Anniversary of the great man named Pandit Manohar Chimote.  This is a small tribute to his unforgettable contribution to Indian classical music.

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