As far back as 1956, when bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson 2 and Howlin’ Wolf were introducing American audiences to the harmonica, Badruddin Kazi, otherwise known as Johnny Walker, was seen playing it in “Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan”, in the movieCID. Two decades later, Dharmendra pursed his lips around one while perilously perched on Amitabh Bachchan’s shoulders in “Yeh Dosti” in Sholay.
The musician playing the harmonica in both films was Milon Gupta, a self-trained artist from Kolkata, who in turn taught and inspired an entire generation of Indian harmonica players, including RD Burman. Milonda (as he is fondly referred to by his many students) is credited with adapting the Western instrument to play Indian melodies. However, after Gupta’s death in 1995, the instrument lost favour with Bollywood composers and slipped into obscurity. Harmonica players from around the country are hoping to change that. They recently formed an online group called HarmonicaIndia to restore respect to the instrument and to remove its “picnic toy” tag.
HarmonicaIndia, which now has 444 members, was formed in 2006 by the Bangalore-based purveyor of musical instruments, Abe Thomas. Thomas admitted that his motivations spring in part from his business interests – he represents the Suzuki Musical Corporation in India, which manufactures harmonicas. “It’s called market development!” he said. “We must first teach a person to drive before selling him a car. Once you get the harmonica bug, it’s very hard to shake it off.”
The group, which started off as a marketing exercise for Thomas, has now grown to an exhaustive online pool of resources, where members come to discuss techniques (vibrato, head shaking, bending, tongue blocking, vamping, chording and so on), types of harmonicas (chromatic, diatonic, tremolo and the like), tablature for popular songs, and to comment on harmonica recordings by other members. Debashis Dutta, a Bangalore-based aerospace and materials engineer and a self-taught harmonica player, said he has benefited enormously from the interactions on the group. “I learnt a lot about music theory, harmonica types, playing styles, and how to play songs of different scales on a single harmonica of a particular key,” said Dutta, who was gifted his first harmonica, a Hohner, by his cousin when he was 14 years old. “From the comments by group members on my own performances, I have learnt and improved my own playing.”
One person who has managed to do this without the website is Vishwananth Shirali, a 71-year-old who taught himself the harmonica. Shirali uses the internet to look for instrumental versions of popular Hindi film songs. He plays his Hohner by ear along with the music, the reed instrument standing in for the vocal parts of songs like “Raat Ke Humsafar” from An Evening In Paris. “It was very popular when I was in college, especially during The Beatles craze,” said Shirali. He moved on to playing the synthesiser and forgot about the harmonica until 2005, when saxophonist and RD Burman’s assistant Manohari Singh came to his show. “I happened to be playing the harmonica,” said Shirali. “Mr Manohari enjoyed it so much he invited me to accompany his saxophone at an RD Burman tribute where I shared the stage with musicians from Burman’s orchestra.” That performance led to more, including an OP Nayyar tribute organised by Pune’s Harmonica Club in 2009. Last year, Shirali’s harmonica was part of a song sung by Shreya Ghoshal and Kunal Ganjawala for the Kannada film Jothegara.
Notwithstanding bit parts in films, the harmonica is still in danger of disappearing altogether, said Sudheendra Muralidhara, a software entrepreneur from Bangalore. He lauds the launch of HarmonicaIndia but is a little disappointed with the quality of discussions in the online forum. Unwarranted criticisms frequently mar proceedings. “I’d love to see a more open-minded learning attitude,” conceded Thomas. He is also hoping that an offline initiative he proposed, to get 60 harmonica players from around India to play the national anthem together, will take off. With inputs by Aditya Kundalkar
Visit www.harmonicaindia.com for more information and to become a member.
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