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Mritunjay Sharma: Calling the tune

Mritunjay Sharma is out to set a world record for the longest piano session. The author looks at how he beat the odds to get this far in life

Debarghya Sanyal 

Mritunjay Sharma: Calling the tune

As we talk, a train passes by, rattling the small brick-and-mortar house. Sitting under a tin shed, which serves as a ceiling to the one-room house, Mritunjay Sharma speaks on, unperturbed. Such quakes, I realise, would be a routine affair for inhabitants of this narrow lane in Sector 18, Rohini, which is located close to a railway track and the upcoming Metro corridor to the Samaypur Badli village in Delhi. The setting though, says nothing about the person.

Sharma, 19, has dared to dream big. He holds a place in the Limca Book of Records for the longest piano session in India and has completed a similar attempt for the Guinness Book of World Records last week. He played on his synthesiser for 104 hours to break the previously held record of 103 hours and eight seconds. Three days after that, last Sunday, he went on to extend the lead to nearly 130 hours. The exact time in seconds and minutes would be decided only when Guinness officials review the recording, which will be sent to them by the end of this month.

The room is stacked with books, across shelves, almirahs and tabletops. I spy a tiny mouse making merry in the massive sheaves of paper. Sharma's laptop, a small desktop and the synthesiser are the only gadgets visible. This room is where the pianist exercised his fingers, playing tune after tune, preparing for the big record. "My initial target was to keep playing for 155 hours," Sharma tells me. "But on Sunday morning, I simply could not go on. Even as my body urged me to continue, my mind would not let me carry on, and I decided to leave it at that."

Is he disappointed? "I am happy that I could try and bring the record to my country. But I would say I have failed in achieving my personal goal." So, would he like to make a second attempt? "No. This is not like a test, where, if you don't score well, you can appear again. I would rather like to move on," he says.

Sharma is a third-year BCom (Honours) student at Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), Delhi. After almost a year of arduous training and two record attempts, he is now devoting all his time to pending assignments and coursework. This, however, has nothing to do with his future plans.

"I believe in the power of music. My performance from October 11 to 18 was not only an attempt at breaking and making records, but also a mission to compile tunes for music therapy for autistic children," he says. The compilation would be conducted by Anshu Gupta, CEO of NGO Goonj and an SRCC alumnus. "After this, my aim is to apply to Trinity College, London, where I can learn the intricacies of playing the piano."

For his family, friends, teachers and mentors, the young pianist has become an example of planned and focused approach to life. Sudhanshu Bahuguna, Sharma's music teacher and mentor to singer Kailash Kher, says, "He has an uncanny knack of setting himself an aim and working towards it with all his being, before moving on to something else. He lives life one byte at a time."

Sharma's will power shows in the rigorous diet regime he maintained for the record attempt. Since the attempt would not allow him time for meals, he trained himself to survive on a liquid and semi-liquid diet. His day would start with porridge, almonds and other energy boosters. The heavy breakfast kept his energy levels intact while he played the synthesiser continuously all day long. Lunch and dinner were light. Meanwhile, aerobics and yoga helped him keep his muscles loose and fatigue-free. It was because of this regime that during the course of the Guinness record attempt, Sharma could manage with only three hours of sleep and two tablespoons of black coffee at regular intervals.

Sharma's father, Nageshwar, a practitioner of ayurveda medicines, was the first to introduce him to music. "My father had initiated me into the world of ragas," says Nageshwar. "I have passed on my knowledge to all three of my children."

Sharma's elder sister, Sweety, is preparing for the BEd exams, while the younger one, Priyanka, will be appearing for the Class XII boards this year. A single room, and their brother constantly playing the piano - is it not a hindrance to their studies? "Not at all," says Sweety. "Mritunjay has been providing us with background music from very early days. He learnt all the basic notes when he was only four years old. It does not bother us. Music can never bother us."

Sharma has in his bag a vast array of tunes - from popular Bollywood numbers to classical ragas and old melodies.

Though his school, Junior Model School, had no music classes, "we would sing prayers during the assembly," he says. "I never liked standing stiffly with my eyes closed and hands folded. The only way out was to play the harmonium," he recalls. His father had introduced him to the harmonium and by the time he was in kindergarten, he could play bhajans on it with ease. Over the years, Sharma became the go-to person for co-curricular activities in his school, which kept challenging him with greater responsibilities, urging him to experiment with music.

The boy's first mentors were, of course, his parents. His mother, Veenadevi, a homemaker, would accompany him to workshops and music classes, waiting in parks, on the road or at bus stops while he trained.

After his parents, Sharma credits his primary school English teacher, Ramesh Chandra Sharma, who encouraged him to focus on his music and not ignore it for his studies. It was Ramesh Chandra who guided him to Sangeet Bhushan, a scholarship-funded, four-year diploma course in classical instrumental music, from Rukmani Devi Lalit Kala Kendra. This he completed in 2010.

It was while he was still enrolled in the diploma course that Sharma first met Bahuguna at a Sahitya Kala Parishad summer workshop. The music guru was instantly drawn to the pianist's skill, but felt Sharma needed to finish his schooling before he could take him under his tutelage. "After Sangeet Bhushan, getting into my academy became his next goal, it seems," says Bahuguna. "He would keep calling me, visit my programmes, and follow me on the Internet." This went on for five years. Bahuguna kept telling the boy to wait for the right time.

Sharma had wanted to play the harmonium for an uninterrupted stretch of time ever since he was in Class III or IV when he heard about a college student playing the guitar for 66 hours. The dream resurfaced by a chance mention of the Limca Book of Records in 2014. Sharma called Bahuguna, begging him to guide his training sessions for the record attempt. Bahuguna realised the boy was ready and agreed. That was in March 2014. A year later, Sharma successfully attempted the Limca record.

His teachers at SRCC chipped in by allowing him to skip classes to practise; a 1964 batch alumni, Billy Gupta, gifted him the synthesiser on which he would go on to make both his record attempts; and a classmate gave him the precious Rs 200 to make the journey from college to Bahuguna's Swarnim Sangeet Mahavidyalay.

Sharma is a BHEL Foundation for Academic Excellence and Access scholar. The scholarship covers his expenses of studies, while also providing a maintenance allowance till he graduates.

"You would think our financial condition would make it impossible for us to help him reach where he has," says Sharma's father. "The truth is, we only supported him to the extent we could. He paid us back with his successes. Everything else was a gift from god."

“If Mritunjay has a worthy goal, and he works hard enough for it, the lord will keep sending and resources to open the doors one by one,” the boy echoes his father, speaking in third person. I cannot help but smile. The ecstasy of victory shines across the family’s five faces. Their belief remains strong. I shake Mritunjay’s hand saying, you have a long way ahead, all the best. In reply, the pianist stuns me again. “I don’t know if I have long way to go. I am not thinking about the long way. I am thinking about the next step, learning piano in Trinity College. I have spoken to them. They seem enthusiastic about my application. Now I need to gather funds. That is the next step.”

Living life one step at a time. All I can do, is wish him luck.

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First Published: Sat, October 24 2015. 00:29 IST