Ravindra Katoti pumps the bellows of his harmonium and runs his fingers over the keys in a smooth action as he plays Raga Madhuvanti. A student joins him in a lower octave to produce an effortless tune. “The harmonium is an easy instrument to learn but to be able to play solo and create expression is the challenge," Katoti says.

Katoti, who was introduced to the instrument at the age of 8 by his teacher Rambhau Bijapure in Belgaum, insists that the role of the harmonium isn’t properly understood. Despite its limitations, says Katoti, the full potential of the harmonium hasn’t been exploited.

In an attempt to do just that, he and other harmonium lovers have been organizing Harmonium Habba, an annual festival, since 2003 in Bangalore; this year’s edition was held in June. The popularity of the instrument has picked up and the number of visitors to the festival has grown steadily. The festival promotes solo performances, as well as jugalbandis between players of the harmonium and other instruments, with the harmonium at the centre of the performance.

Notes in the air: (clockwise from above) The introduction of the harmonium in Delhi Belly’s Nakkadwale Disco is situational; Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle at a session; and the late R.D. Burman, who composed music on the harmonium. Hindustan Times

It’s remained an integral part of both, as well as ghazals, but now the harmonium, or peti, is making a comeback in popular music as musicians scramble to find “new" sounds. So the harmonium is heard in the throaty instrumental strain just before Sunidhi Chauhan proceeds to plead Sheila’s case in the popular Tees Maar Khan song, Sheila ki Jawani; it’s less audacious in Haule Haule in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and more recently in Delhi Belly’s Nakkadwale Disco.

“There are the ghazal singers who cannot sing without a harmonium. But more recently in Bollywood, where there seems to be an ongoing revival in music, directors are looking for new ways to grab attention," says Bangalore-based music director Ricky Kej. Delhi Belly’s music director Ram Sampath agrees: “There is a revivalist movement going on right now where we as an industry are trying to reinvent our aesthetic; the harmonium is in a way undergoing a subtle renaissance." In the past couple of decades, Sampath believes, the harmonium has often been used in understated and unimaginative ways.

Revival: Ravindra Katoti has been organizing Harmonium Habba every year since 2003. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Sampath believes that despite being a foreign instrument, the sound of the harmonium is one that Indians are familiar with. The late music director Rahul Dev Burman, known for his radical experimentation with different sounds, used the harmonium not only to compose music, but also positioned it at important junctures in his music. “Burman in the 1960s was heavily inspired by other music directors and began to develop a sound of his own only by the end of that decade and in the 1970s," says Anirudha Bhattacharjee, co-author of R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music. “Though I wouldn’t say that he was partial to the harmonium in particular, you will see it occupy centre stage in films like Amar Prem, Buddha Mil Gaya and Padosan, where the situation has the instrument, or where the music, as in the case of Amar Prem, has a classical backing," says Bhattacharjee, adding that Amar Prem had a recurrence of harmonium motifs in keeping with actor Sharmila Tagore’s background as a singer. His co-author Balaji Vittal adds that Burman used an orchestra of 50-60 instruments and was fond of experimenting. “So he tried sounds like the piano accordion which, if you see, sounds much like the harmonium" says Vittal.

Predictably, the instrument was pushed into the background with the arrival of electronic instruments like the synthesizer, but it continued to be part of Hindustani classical, though it exited Carnatic music sometime in the 1940s when the violin took over as the primary accompanying instrument. “Unlike in a Carnatic kutcheri where each instrument player is given a chance to display their rendition of the composition, Hindustani music simply has to follow the khayal or the thought of the main vocalist," says Katoti.

That said, there isn’t a dearth of players in the country, just not enough opportunity. “There are around 2,000-3,000 harmonium players because it is easy to master at the basic level. To develop it later as a solo instrument is another thing," says Prakash Sontakke, a Hindustani classical expert and classical guitarist who has often gone head-to-head with Katoti’s harmonium. “If you look at a harmonium technically, it has its limitations. In fact the instrument was banned on AIR (All India Radio) between 1940 and 1972 as even an accompanying instrument (because it wasn’t smooth and didn’t have the ability to slide between notes) and to date is not allowed to go on air solo," says Sontakke. He explains that creating a glissando or a smooth switch of pitch in a harmonium which has abrupt sounds to each key, with no aura to each note, makes it an imperfect solo instrument. It’s imperfection that’s now catching on.