Whispering Melodies traces the journey of MB Prakash, India's only accordion tuner

The English-Kannada documentary has been directed by Adithyaa Sadashiv, whose earlier films have covered subjects such as poet Dodda Range Gowda and farmer and social reformer GH Kashinath.
Accordionist MB Prakash in a still from the documentary Whispering Melodies
Accordionist MB Prakash in a still from the documentary Whispering Melodies
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Did you know that Raj Kapoor was inspired by Romanian music, and that's how the accordion came to be used in the number ‘Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan’ in the film Mera Naam Joker? With interesting tit-bits such as this and beautiful European music playing in the background, the recently released English-Kannada documentary film, Whispering Melodies (Midimididu Hrudaya) showcases India’s self-taught accordionist, MB Prakash, who went on to start the only accordion band in India, ‘The Tremolos.’

The 35-minute-film that is playing on YouTube has been directed by Adithyaa Sadashiv, and produced by Bijapure Harmonium Foundation. It traces accordionist MB Prakash’s passion for the foreign instrument. A musical instrument that is rarely discussed here, in spite of its presence in Indian cinema and often used to provide background music. Whispering Melodies comes at a time when rare artistes such as Prakash – who is not only an accordionist but an instrument specialist who has delved into its make-up to gain mastery – are being documented by many institutions for the intrinsic research value they hold.

The film features observations from acclaimed harmonium expert Ravindra Katoti, accordionists and Prakash’s students Ravi Benne and Sanjeev Das Mohapatra. It is shot against the backdrop of beautiful green surroundings and brings in fantastic world melodies.

“It took me two months to complete this film,” says Adithyaa, the director of the film, who is the co-founder of Vinyas Studios and the son of the artist and former chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, MS Murthy. He adds that Prakash’s ancestral home at Basavanagudi, near Shankar Mutt, was a visual paradise for his camera to pan and take in all the natural surroundings.

Filmmaker Adithyaa Sadashiv

Why did the director choose to make a docu-feature on Prakash? “You know me, I prefer to go off the beaten track and feature unusual subjects,” says Adithyaa, who not only directed the film but also did the camera work and editing. His earlier films have covered subjects such as poet Dodda Range Gowda, farmer and social reformer GH Kashinath, and Bengaluru’s percussion instrument makers Shantha Tabla Works. This is apart from his experimental films, such as Black and Vyoma. The former was part of the first-ever international pandemic self-isolation short film fest 'Corona Short Film Fest', where it was selected for the Audience and Jury Award categories. 

Passionate instrumentalist

Mysore Bhimasenarao Prakash’s recollections in the film bring out the passionate instrumentalist that he is, someone who decided to make the accordion his soul mate, rather than a harmonium, cottage piano or a harmonica that he was familiar with. “I was inspired by my neighbours, the Isaacs, whose accordion sounded magical during Christmas,” says Prakash. Feeling nostalgic, he explains how he would be able to hear an accordion being played a few buildings away in old Bengaluru where traffic, people and buildings were far less.

Adithyaa has managed to get in many interesting facets of Prakash's life into the film. It explores how Prakash followed his heart to "simply converse" with the accordion and take it to the people. “My craze even made me tie a string around an old harmonium to feel the accordion. Its dynamic range varies from gentle speaking accents to loud and booming bellows-driven concord of sounds,” says Prakash.

“The range is overwhelming on an accordion – from foot-tapping to contemplative, melancholic or meditative music,” he says in the film, as he plays on his first German accordion that his parents sourced from England through a relative. "I used this in all my college competitions. There are no musicians in my family, but my parents encouraged me to pursue my passion,” he adds.

An important aspect of Prakash’s journey, which is brought out in Adithyaa's film, is his determined path to learn the instrument and progress even without having anyone to teach him. “There was no one to guide me, so I was learning by identifying mistakes and trial and error. I will always regret the fact that I did not have a teacher to identify my mistakes. I had to develop a lot of patience to do this,” he says.

Prakash had studied the mechanics of the instrument along with his father, who helped him collect and restore old and unused instruments from all corners of the world. "Tuning is arduous as the instrument is complex. A standard accordion has over 450 reeds, easily putting anyone in a daze as spare parts are literally impossible to find, and I had to fashion them myself," says Prakash, who has restored more than a dozen at his home.   

The septuagenarian Prakash's modesty belies his supreme virtuosity with the accordion. Being the only accordion tuner and composer he enthralled guests at the ITC Windsor where he was appointed as an accordionist for 15 years. The candle-lit lobby was filled with his soulful renditions, until a few years ago, and often turning it into an impromptu ballroom with guests dancing the Waltz and Tango. Prakash gave up working in the lubricant business to follow his passion and play the accordion full time.

In the film, the inimitable Prakash talks about the emotions of visitors from all over the world who enjoyed listening to “their music” in India. "It is so gratifying,” says Prakash.

Regarding the instrument’s roots, the film says that the accordion has an Austrian patent. However, the use of reeds to produce vibration was invented in China and used in an instrument called the Shang – a wind instrument using bamboo. So the time between the patent and the invention of reeds is not clear, according to the film

Association with harmonium master, Ravindra Katoti

In the documentary, Ravindra Katoti, of the Bijapure Harmonium Foundation, points out that the film has come out at the right time. “There is a necessity for people to realise the focus with which Prakash etched out a career as an accordionist for himself. Apart from being a musician, he pursued his passion by studying the instrument make-up to acclimatise himself with its tuning and repairing. He mastered it,” says Katoti.

He further recalls how Prakash’s group of accordionists and his own harmonium initiated a fusion experiment dealing with many minor and major scales. "The interesting melodic exploration was even featured in the Bijapure Harmonium Foundation’s first ‘Harmonium Habba’, and later we even came out with an album ‘Dhatri’" says Katoti.

While Ravi Benne recollects how his association with Prakash started off with receiving accordion lessons, it led to him accompanying his master on stage years later. He also adds that Prakash has been asked to judge competitions abroad many times.

Another student, Sanjeev Das Mohapatra says in the film that he was awe-struck when he heard “the two play accordion as it should, with typical European music” at the Alliance Francaise. “For people who were denied good accordion music and the right teachers, Prakash was there to fill the gap,” he says.

It was only a matter of time that Prakash with Ravi and Sanjeev – who were making serious inroads with the instrument –  started the band ‘The Tremolos’. This is India's only accordion ensemble that boasts a vast repertoire of music for Tangos, Polkas, Mazurkas, Waltzes and Tarantellas. “Prakash can write scores and arrange music. He can assign scores for lead, second and third accordion and put them together harmonically,” says Ravi in the film.

The documentary film is available to watch on YouTube in Kannada and English.

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