The interaction between India and the West did not displace the raag-taal paradigm that is integral to Hindustani music, nor did it change the Hindustani concept of tempo. However, it did influence the way Hindustani musicians identified their chosen tonic note – the first note or Shadja or Sa in a scale.

Before the introduction of the harmonium to Hindustani music, the tanpura, sarangi, pakhawaj and tabla, were perhaps tuned to the tonic selected by the vocalist on a particular day. The vocalist probably arrived at this selection based on his or her preferred vocal range and the pitch memory. If on a given day, this range was not achievable due to physical problems associated with the vocalist’s throat, he or she must have made minor changes in the selection of the tonic.

Naturally, each instrument had its own range and that could also have helped in leading the vocalist to determining the tonic.

But when the harmonium was included in the Hindustani vocal music ensemble over a hundred years or so, it became incumbent on the vocalist to select a tonic that could be produced by this keyboard, an instrument with a definite Western origin. The selection could change only by semi-tones offered by the instrument. All other instruments in the ensemble were then tuned to this tonic. This practice continues even today.

White one

Equally important, the reliance on the harmonium as the arbiter of the tonic, gave rise to terms that were in consonance with Western terms for each of the keys on the keyboard. The new Hindustani terms were practical and matter of fact. Thus, the Western C was called saphed ek (white one) because it was the first white key, D was called saphed do (white two), E was called saphed teen (white three), and so on for the seven white keys between one C and the next C.

Likewise, C sharp was called kali ek (black one) because it was the first black key, D sharp was called kali do (black two), and so on for the five black keys between C sharp and the next C sharp. These terms are now taken for granted by the Hindustani fraternity, so much so that even those who criticise the harmonium for its Western origin or for its inability to produce all the nuances of Hindustani vocal music, have been using these terms in regular parlance.

Further, instrument makers began using tuning forks and pipes, and later electronic tuning machines, to determine the tonic range of their instruments.

But does this mean that vocalists do not make minor variations in tonic selection between one and the other concert? As I mentioned earlier, they can make their selection from among the semitones available from the harmonium at the concert venue. But at times, some harmoniums may not adhere to the universally accepted frequencies of notes that are indicated by tuning forks, tuning pipes, or electronic tuning machines. In other words, the C of one harmonium may not match the C of another harmonium.

In such cases, a vocalist with C as the preferred tonic, needs to match his or her C with that of the available harmonium even if the latter does not produce a C at the same pitch frequency as the one that the vocalist may be otherwise accustomed to. I must add that if the same harmonium player accompanies the vocalist on all occasions, he or she will in most cases use the same harmonium on each occasion with the result that the tonic will not change due to a change in instrument. Also, dhrupad vocalists who do not use the harmonium for accompaniment do not have to depend upon the instrument for their choice of the tonic.

I have chosen two tracks featuring renowned vocalist Jitendra Abhisheki, to illustrate his choice of the same tonic D or saphed do on two different occasions. The first of these two tracks has a composition created by eminent composer Ram Ashreya Jha “Ramrang” in Badhans Sarang, a raag prescribed for the afternoon. It is set to the ten-matra Jhaptaal. This was recorded in 1991 during a concert tour of the US and accompaniment is provided by Mangesh Mulay on the tabla and Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium. Vocal support is from Shaunak Abhisheki.


The next track is recorded in 1992 at the Sawai Gandharva Festival held in Pune. The composition is a raagmala set to the 12-matra Ektaal. This is composed by respected vocalist Bholanath Bhatt. The accompanying musicians are Subhash Kamat on the tabla, Sudhir Nayak on harmonium and Shaunak Abhisheki for vocal support.


Well-known vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar chooses different tonics on separate occasions, both recorded at the Sawai Gandharva Festival held in Pune in two consecutive years. The first track features his presentation of a composition set to the 16-matra Teentaal in Basant Bahar, a raag prescribed for the spring season. He is accompanied by noted tabla player Suresh Talwalkar and by popular harmonium player Sudhir Nayak. Kashalkar has chosen E or saphed teen as the tonic in this concert.


Listeners will note that Kashalkar has chosen D sharp or kali do as the tonic in the final track. He sings a composition set to Teentaal in the raag Sohini. The same set of accompanists are part of this ensemble as well.


The situation is different for instrumental solo recitals, as there is no presence of the harmonium in the ensembles, and the tonic can therefore be chosen by the soloist without having to depend on the harmonium or any other instrument for that matter. Of course, the musician has to take into account the tonic range of the instrument and can only make minor variations within this range.

One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.