The first known mention of the harmonium in Indian literature dates back from 1868. Assuming the import of a fully developed European harmonium, the earliest possible date could be the early 1840s, since Alexandre Debain patented his (pressure system) harmonium in 1842, and none of the many parallel developments could have been exported much earlier. The idea of an indigenous Indian development can be abandoned: although the free reed principle is a South-East.
Asian development and its manufacture in Europe a reaction to knowledge of the corresponding instruments, this type of reed played no veritable role in India at the time. What seems to be another "novelty" for Indian instrument manufacture - the keyboard - is a different case. Independently from the not yet entirely explored use of keyed instruments, they had a certain representative function as diplomatic gifts. In 1579, an organ was presented at the court of Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri, and organ music played a certain role at the Mughal's court during the following decades. These European instruments, becoming highly symbolical objects of prestige, initially had a neutral function of cultural ambassadorship, starting with the onset of European presence in India.
A close relationship between musical instrument and cultural identity is evident in the situation the first British settlers were faced with in the Indian colonies: they were a small minority of great affluence, only starting to appreciate the cultural past and present of India. This situation fostered an environment that even much later, in the mid-19th century, was favourable not only for the harmonium, but for all types of European instruments.
As an alternative to the piano, the harpsichord and other common European instruments suitable for soloist domestic performance, the harmonium offered a decisive advantage: stringed instruments certainly were problematic export goods, since the fragile and tightly fitting woodwork showed little tolerance for the abrupt change of climate and high humidity. In addition, termites posed a real threat to wooden piano frames at that time, as piano builders' attempts to create instruments suitable for the tropics had not yet yielded any satisfying results. Nevertheless, the pianoforte remained a status symbol with a function within the British households that was not to be relinquished easily. Still, instruments with free reeds could be used as substitutes, being more robust and therefore offering a long-term alternative to the piano, also for musical purposes. And even if the abrupt change of climate had an effect on the harmonium's tuning, it was much less severe than with the piano.
In academic literature, the possibility that the harmonium's introduction to India could have been outside the context of Christian proselytisation is hardly considered. The harmonium gained a firm foothold early on and in many missionary stations - for want of a church organ the harmonium presented an alternative for several reasons: its tuning was robust, it was comparatively easy to transport, and no calcants were required - for all these reasons it was most suitable for Christian music. But from a historical viewpoint, one cannot assume that the missionaries brought along harmoniums from the start: the missionaries were sent out before the harmonium was developed, which means that the instrument's establishment must have been brought about by some directive from the mission headquarters. This could not be substantiated yet. Independently from that, it is also possible that diverse keyed instruments (e.g. portative organs) were assumed to be harmoniums at a later stage, which may have contributed to the association of the harmonium with Christian missions.
What can be verified is the import of many instruments for a different purpose, namely for domestic performance in the European households in India (as mentioned earlier), especially in Calcutta (Kolkata). Jotindra Mohan Tagore (born 1831) is said to have imported the first musical boxes and barrel organs, but it most likely means that he was the first Indian to import these instruments.
By the 1880s, the import figures for harmoniums had increased impressively - initially the instruments were imported from Britain, later also from the USA. The main reason for rise of a local harmonium manufacture was probably that the bulky pedal Harmonium manufactured by Alexandre and other French makers were expensive and unsuitable for the average Indian homes. Nonetheless, the occasional import of European musical instruments that had begun some decades earlier developed into an independent branch of trade, which no longer (as opposed to the apparent situation before that) was firmly in British hands, but offered British, Anglo-Indians (Indians with Anglophone education) and Indians an opportunity to do business to an equal extent.
What is meant is firstly the families of the British Raj, i. e. European households of the upper social class, but also (especially as far as the Kolkata firms are concerned) members of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist-religious society situated in Bengal whose progressive members mainly cultivated European thought and culture. The Brahmo Samaj used the harmonium to accompany songs at religious meetings and to perform Western music privately.
The history and formation of the Bengal middle class (as it is often called and to which the Brahmo Samaj belongs) is a phenomenon of social history that has been described often, and this group can be seen is a second link between British and Indian circles, along with the missionaries. The Brahmo Samaj seems to be one of the first institution-like Indian circles that adopted the harmonium This correlates with the fundamentally progressive attitude of the society, an attitude also extremely open towards the West, and which was accompanied by the patronage of indigenous musical traditions and the cultivation of Sanskrit literature and poetry as well as the study of traditional local music and European concert music with equal open-mindedness, not only in the Samaj households.
|More Articles in Harmonium (9)|