Once, the saxophone could be heard in Mumbai’s posh clubs, and at Koli weddings. But a documentary finds that the instrument is dying
In 2014, award-winning filmmaker Praveen Kumar (52) (he won the National Award in 2011, for his documentary Naina Jogin, on Madhubani artists in India) set out to learn the saxophone. He had just turned 50 and wanted to try something new. He bought a second-hand saxophone, and started hunting for a teacher.
The search came as a reality check: to find a professional saxophonist in the city was next to impossible. “I knew music composers from my previous films, but even they had not employed a saxophonist over the last few years. I had no leads to anybody who played a saxophone,” says Kumar.
The struggle inspired Kumar to make a film — The Sax in the City — on the legacy of the saxophone in Mumbai. “The sax gradually disappeared by the ’70s, when the introduction of the synthesizer (keyboard) replaced most wind instruments, and made musicians who played them, redundant,” says Kumar. The 60-minute documentary takes viewers on a journey to meet the remaining saxophone players in Mumbai.
It runs in the family
Though he struggled to find professional sax players, the one community where Kumar traced the instrument to, was the Koli (fishermen) community of Mumbai. A close-knit society, the saxophone features regularly at Koli wedding processions and other community parties as part of the live band.
It’s interesting to note that the instrument has penetrated the community’s musical culture, much like India’s Western music culture, thanks to the British Raj. “A lot of Indians played in the Raj’s official marching bands. After independence, they passed down the skill to the younger generations,” says Kumar.
However, what’s remarkable about the Koli bands, in today’s time, is that despite having minimal facilities to explore their talent, they are vigorous in their music. “They mostly practise on the roadside. And yet, they are proficient at it,” says Kumar.
The community also organises competitions, where saxophonists compete with each other. But you can participate only if you belong to the Koli fraternity, a factor that has helped them maintain the sax-playing tradition for generations.
“Children as young as eight have access to the saxophone. They know people who can teach them and help further their skill. This ensures that a chunk of the younger generation will always be drawn to the instrument, and the saxophone will not completely escape Mumbai’s legacy,” says Kumar.
Search and you will find
From the professional lot of sax players, one of Kumar’s biggest find was Luke Poswaity (78), a Goan musician, in Bandra. “He was the senior-most musician, who played the sax, the oboe, the clarinet, and the flute. He encouraged me to continue learning the sax, and was a strong reference point for the film,” recalls Kumar.
Poswaity, unfortunately died before the film’s completion, something Kumar deeply regrets and is saddened by. “He died in extreme penury and left behind a tenor sax and a flute. It’s sad that some of the finest musicians are unable to make ends meet,” says Kumar.