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Melody in his pocket

One of the finest soloists of his time Milon Gupta took Harmonica to its majestic heights

Arijit Mukherji
Mon, Aug 11 2014
Photo Coutsey: Arijit Mukherji, Video: YouTube

About Arijit

Groomed by musically-inclined parents and enriched by his father’s vast collection of Western Classical, Jazz and Latin records, Arijit learnt the art of playing mouth organ from his uncle Milon Gupta and his two solo albums, “Down Memory Lane” and ‘Tribute to Kishore Kumar’ (iTunes, Amazon etc.) has over million downloads. Arijit recently played in films like “Hemlock Society” and “Phoring”

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It is not easy to capture the personality and talents of a master musician, who happens to be my uncle and ‘guruji’, within a defined framework. It’s best that my tributes are played and heard.

Milon Gupta was born on the 22nd of November 1930 in Calcutta. As a young boy he would play the ordinary mouth organ till one of his friends from the city’s Deodar Street (where he lived) got him two Hohner Chromatic Harmonicas. And thus began the journey of this great artist.

A self-taught musician with absolutely no formal training, he single-handedly took the instrument to majestic heights. His mastery showed how a pure Western instrument, with such complex non-legato structure and limitations, can be adapted to play Indian melody, which is primarily legato in nature, with its perfect nuances.

Such was his repertoire and mastery over that instrument that he soon got noticed by the great composer Salil Chowdhury, whilst performing at a local concert in 1950. Soon he was playing for the film 'Pasher Badi', a very successful Bengali movie, later remade as ‘Padosan’ in Hindi. It marked his tryst with the cine world.

An integral member of Chowdhury’s musical team, with films like ‘Bhor Hoye Elo’, ‘Aaj Shondhay’, ‘Mahila Mahal’, ‘Rickshawala’ and many more to his credit, the versatile music director took him to Bombay (now Mumbai) for Bimal Roy’s ‘Naukri’. Soon Anthony Gonsalves and Sebastian, the leading arrangers then, introduced him to other music directors, and offers started pouring in - CID, Dost, Dosti, Roti, Kashmir ki Kali, Patita, Ek Hi Raasta, Baap re Baap, Solva Saal, just to name a few.

Milon Gupta played with all leading composers like Chowdhury, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, SD Burman, Shankar Jaikishen, OP Nayyar, Mukul Roy, Sudhin Dasgupta, Manna De, Shyamal Mitra, Hemant Kumar and others. He was OP Nayyar’s assistant till he was in Bombay.

In one of their sittings at the Famous Studio, Nayyar asked him to play a particular Western tune and Majrooh Sultanpuri, the acclaimed poet and lyricist, wrote the lyrics on the spot….’Yeh Hain Bombay Meri Jaan’ got created. Milon Gupta played the harmonica in the film for Johnny Walker. In an interview he narrated that the producer asked him to show Dharmendra how to hold the harmonica properly in the film ‘Dost’.

His command over Western music on the instrument was unparalleled. With learners across all ages and all over India, he had a school of students who would only learn Latin and Western music from him. Even though he had no formal training, he was equally fluent with both the Indian as well as the Western notations. The great American musician Larry Adler met Milon Gupta when he visited India.

Not many people know that Milon Gupta was the only person in India who knew how to repair and retune the mouth organ. He spent one day every week to provide this service to his students at no cost.

Every year on the 4th day of January, on my grandfather’s death anniversary, he used to come and play ‘kirtans’ and ‘Rabindrasangeet’ for my grandmother, quite unbelievable for this instrument. Such was his command that even in his early days he mesmerized the audience with songs like 'palkir gaan', 'gnayer bodhu', 'ayega anewala', 'jago mohan pyaare' and many more, which till then were unheard of being played on a mouth organ.

He had innumerable 78 rpms, LPs, EPs, cassettes and CDs to his credit. Songs played by him like 'o sajna barkha bahar ayi', 'ajeeb dastan hain', 'aj koi nahin apni', 'zindagi kaisi hain paheli', ‘jaago mohan pyaare’ and many others sound as if they were composed keeping him and his instrument in mind.

The mouth organ, as he always used to call it, became a household instrument because of him and after his death on the 18th of February 1995, the instrument has almost faded into oblivion from the Indian film and music industries.

A perfect gentleman, who was lovingly referred to as Milonda by one and all, last played some breathtaking interludes with Nachiketa, one of Calcutta's popular singers, a few months before his death, demonstrating the influence of Larry Adler on him. He is still referred to as the finest harmonica soloist India has ever seen.

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