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About three-and-a-half years ago,Ajay Shelatkar was walking out of his office building when he heard strains of merry-sounding music. He found himself following the sound until he reached a room on the ground floor of the building,where he saw a bunch of men enthusiastically playing mouth organs. The music,and the sight of those men enjoying themselves stayed with him,and it wasn’t long before he went and asked whether he could join them as well. There was just one problem – Shelatkar didn’t know how to play the mouth organ. He didn’t even have one.
That didn’t seem to matter at all to the Royal Harmonica Club. As far as they’re concerned,all it takes to be one of them is a passion for the harmonica’s sound. And the club members are nothing if not passionate about the mouth organ,carrying it with them everywhere they go. There’s Mandar Gadre,for example. He keeps a harmonica ready in his car,and every time there’s a long and annoying wait in a traffic jam or at a signal,he pulls it out and begins to play tunes from old Hindi movies. And Mohan Khire,who can play entire ragas on his mouth organ.
But there’s one person they all look to,when you ask them about the origins of the club Nandu Belvalkar. Belvalkar founded the club five years ago,but his own love story with the harmonica began over 50 years ago. I heard O P Nayyar’s Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan when I was about eight years old. The song had a portion played on a harmonica. I pestered my mother to get me a small one,and within ten days,I could play the tune myself, he recalls. Belvalkar continued to play through school and college,but once he began working,his mouth organ lay shut in its box for more than 35 years. Then in 2007,a group of local mouth organ enthusiasts decided to get together and perform in public spaces like parks once a month. I found that though everyone was very passionate about it,many did not know the correct techniques and were making mistakes. That’s when I decided to set up the club, he says.
Now,Belvalkar teaches over 50 people in the club,divided into four batches based on how advanced their skills are. The youngest club member is nine,while the oldest is 74 years. They meet once a week,in his brightly-painted classroom at the intersection of Bhandarkar Road and Law College Road. Belvalkar takes the class through music theory,and also teaches old Hindi and English songs. And every now and then,the club visits parks,old age homes,medical centres and other public spaces for peformances.
Belvalkar is looking forward to the next performance later this month,when the group will trace Bollywood songs that have used the harmonica,starting from the very first one,the 1947 song Aana Meri Jaan Sunday ke Sunday. Movie songs used to have harmonicas in them all the time before. But after R D Burman passed away,people stopped using it. Now it seems to be making a comeback,with new movies like Nautanki Saala and Life in a Metro, says Belvalkar. The group’s performance is on August 29,at Yashwantrao Chavan Auditorium,starting 9.30 pm.