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The Harmonium hails from Germany and it is not an Indian instrument. Also, it is an equal tempered instrument. But the harmonium is a very common accompanying instrument in Hindustani Classical (North-Indian tradition) and Bhajan.

Whilst the harmonium is not used for South Indian Carnatic Music, violin is commonly used. The violin was also adopted from western world.

Why did Hindustani music pick harmonium and Carnatic Music pick violin? Why did we adopt Western instruments even though we have a lot of Indian instruments?

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  • Pretty much every musical tradition in the world has adopted Western instruments at this point. The reasons for the dominance of "Western" (perhaps a more accurate term might be "European") culture in the world as a whole are many and outside the scope of this site. You might try asking this question instead on the History stack. Apr 16, 2018 at 16:35

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My uneducated guess is that they each filled a void in the instrumentation available to musicians at the time when European influence was becoming stronger in India.

The harmonium is inexpensive, easy to build and repair with hand tools and easy to transport. For bhajans and qawwalis an even tempered scale is fine, so the harmonium is a good choice for a traveling musician or a rural, agrarian community without a lot of cash flow, such as those where bhajans and qawwalis were and still are produced by folk musicians for popular entertainment and worship.

The violin, being fretless, is one of the few western instruments capable of playing the melodic intervals and embellishments common to the Ragas of Carnatic music, and provides a timbre and register that were not being represented already by stringed instruments in Indian classical music.

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I had always assumed that the harmonium entered Indian culture via Western missionaries. But, according to this source:

Harmonium Indian Culture

the table-top version with hand bellows was created by one Dwarkanath Ghose of Calcutta in 1875.

Though I don't suppose he thought of the piano-style keyboard and method of sound production ALL by himself :-)

Fun fact: in 1995 I got a call to go down to Garsington Manor near Oxford where the movie 'Carrington' was being shot. They required someone to play a tune on harmonium for an outdoor party scene. The instrument that appeared on screen was a full console instrument, but what they gave me to record the track was a half-size 'ship's harmonium'. I wonder if this is the sort of instrument Dwarkanath Ghose saw?

The production company had wasted some time looking for professional harmonium players in the Musicians' Union directory, and finding only Indian classical musicians. Then they realised that a keyboard was a keyboard, and what they really needed was a hooligan who could busk something based on a WW1 era song. That fitted me just fine. Nice little gig.

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The harmonium is not specifically a German instrument. As "pump organ" you can also find it in England and the US. It was popular has a home replacement of a church organ, which is why you would often find it in religious households for singing hymns. Thus it is not unlikely that missionaries took it with them, including to India, where they re-engineered it to have a hand bellows.

Note 1: searching around I find no definite history to this effect.

Note 2: the hand bellows is actually part of the medieval / renaissance "portatif" pipe organ. However, given the multi-century gap between that instrument's use and the rise of the harmonium in India I doubt there is a connection.

Note 3: why so popular? I guess a combination of the gentle tone that does not interfere with the soloist, the fact that it can be played sitting on the floor, and that it's not fatiguing.

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