One man struggles to keep alive the dying art of playing the harmonica
Small enough to fit into your back pocket, big enough to bring a party to life. That was the quaint musical instrument, the mouth organ or the harmonica. Boys glued it to their lips, girls danced to its tune and revellers loved it. But for Phiroze Damri, 83, founder of the Hohner Harmonica Club in Mumbai, the mouth organ is more than just a picnic toy. For six decades now, it has been Damri's only means of livelihood. The passion remains strong even today -- as a recent concert in Mumbai proved.
It was a moment steeped in nostalgia last November when greying men and young boys gathered at St Xavier's School in Mumbai for the grand finale of the Hohner Harmonica Club's diamond jubilee celebration. Conducted by Damri, the 35-member band gave rousing renditions of old favourites, and the encores followed loud and clear. Says the beaming conductor: "It was a success primarily because of my 'big boys' (his earliest pupils and fellow musicians)." Says Rusi Mulla, Damri's compatriot and one of the oldest members of the band: "I felt like jumping on to the stage for a medley of La Paloma, Pack up Your Troubles and Shirley Temple's Polly Wolly Doodle. It was just like old times."
Speak about old times and Damri becomes excited. It all started in 1937. He was eking out a living as a part-time violinist when he was introduced to a representative of Matth Hohner, a leading German harmonica manufacturer. "I knew nothing about the instrument then," he recalls. "They just thrust a step-by-step guide -- How to Play Harmonica: The Easy Way -- in my hands and asked me to teach the children!" Undaunted, he took up the challenge for a fee of Rs 80 a month.
In 1938, Damri held his first class in his alma mater, St Xavier's. Within a year, his students had progressed enough for him to organise a concert of the Hohner Harmonica Band at Regal Theatre. But the sunny days did not last long. With the outbreak of World War II, Damri's ties with Hohner in Germany were severed. With his honorarium gone, he was forced to accept fees from his students. He began by charging his students eight annas per month; today, his fee stands at Rs 60. Says his wife and former student, Piloo: "Those days were rough, but the band also thrived by playing for a number of charities."
In the 1950s, Damri renewed his relationship with the Hohner company, which invited him to the first ever World Harmonica Festival in Germany as a guest player. He recalls in amusement: "There I was, dressed in a Parsi dagli playing Indian tunes with world-class harmonicas." But in 1955, the government banned the import of musical instruments. There were no harmonicas to pass on to the students. But that didn't deter the dedicated teacher, who continued his work with cheap instruments collected from street corners and grey markets. Occasionally, the harmonicas would be supplemented by "gift parcels" from fellow musicians abroad, or rejects from the likes of Larry Adler, renowned performer "who threw away his harmonica after each concert". Adler also sent Damri harmonicas regularly. Damri is thus the proud possessor of the rare harmonicas like the tiny Song Bird, Puck and West Pocket as well as bass instruments like the 64 Chromonica and the Acromatic.
But Damri's memories are tinged with sadness at the growing apathy to the instrument and the consequent decline in the number of pupils. Damri once taught in more than 14 schools in Mumbai, but today his students number just 25. The club members meet "once a while", but no one's keen to carry on the trade. "This is not paying enough," laments the octogenarian. It's been a long haul from the 1920s, when, as a pesky child, Damri was entranced by Parsi wedding bands. "I only knew then that I wanted to be a part of the bands." Despite the setbacks, the music plays on because Damri remains determined: "I will teach till I have breath in my lungs."
(Courtesy India Today)