Until recent times, the harmonium was commonly called a baajaa, a baajaa ki peti or a peti, reflecting popular notions about the physical shape of the instrument and its supposed musical capabilities. Originally introduced by Christian missionaries from the West as a table-harmonium or a leg-harmonium played with both hands and operated by pedals,  the instrument was adapted by Indian craftsmen for the traditional seating arrangement in Hindustani music concerts.

But since the time that the harmonium was introduced in Hindustani music, there have been accusations and criticism from various quarters about its ability to produce tonal contours that are integral to this system of music.   Meend (or a glide between notes) and gamak (or rapid oscillation of a note) are two important embellishments that cannot be produced on this instrument.  It was for this reason that the instrument was banned for broadcast on the All India Radio in 1941.  Lionel Fielden, the Controller of Broadcasting, took this initiative after John Foulds, a pracitioner of Western music, mentioned in an article that the instrument was not suitable for reproducing the microtones that were a necessary aspect of Indian music.

However, over the years, performers have sought to evolve new ways of representing vocal technique and of developing instrumental technique best suited for the instrument.  Today, the harmonium has emerged not just as a viable option for accompanying vocal music, but is also established as a solo instrument.  But this could not have been possible without the creative genius of harmonium players in the past.

Here are a few early recordings of harmonium solo recitals.

Govindrao Tembe
Raag Multani

Govindrao Tembe was a well-known composer and theatre personality in Marathi theatre.  He plays a composition in the evening raag Multani set to a drut or fast-paced Ektaal, a cycle of 12 matras or time-units.  The recital demonstrates his virtuosity in the execution of taans or fast melodic runs across the gamut.

Govindrao Tembe
Raag Tilang

The next track also features Govindrao Tembe playing a composition in raag Tilang set to Teentaal, a cycle of 16 matras.  Tembe demonstrates layakari, which involves manipulation of the original taal canvas to fit different varieties of rhythmic phrasing.

Vitthalrao Korgaonkar
Raag Todi

Vitthalrao Korgaonkar plays a composition in raag Todi set to Teentaal.  The variety of taans that he plays in different speeds displays his virtuosity.