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Sarasota man finds fulfillment with his main squeeze

82-year-old University Park accordionist lifts spirits with his sweet sounds.

Arun Bhagwat said he shut things down during the pandemic, but now is back to playing outdoor gigs.
Arun Bhagwat said he shut things down during the pandemic, but now is back to playing outdoor gigs.
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Arun Bhagwat received the call, a friend had fourth stage lung cancer and was spending his last days in a hospice in Ottawa.

He had a request, though. He wanted Bhagwat, a master of the accordion and keyboards, to play a song for him — "That's Amore."

So University Park's Bhagwat set up a Facetime session, and connected with the man. He launched into the song made famous by Dean Martin.

"He's sitting on his bed and waving his hands," Bhagwat said. "Two days later, he was gone."

Arun Bhagwat still plays gigs at 82-years-old.
Arun Bhagwat still plays gigs at 82-years-old.

For those few minutes, though, the man was covered in joy, and Bhagwat helped that happen.

"If I can connect with people who are uplifted, in some small way, I can give back," Bhagwat said.

Giving back has kept the 82-year-old Bhagwat young, but doing it through his music the past year has been tough until a month ago, when the pandemic's grip had eased enough Bhagwat felt comfortable performing again at outside venues.

Some of those performances have been at assisted living facilities.

At one of those shows, a man who showed very little movement before the music started, eventually made his way to his feet, dancing to the beat as a relative watched in amazement.

"The music is therapeutic," Bhagwat said.

The fact Bhagwat can move people with an accordion adds to his story.

In 1952, as a 13-year-old boy growing up in Pune, India, Bhagwat was attending a Jesuit school when Father Oesch, who was Swiss, brought an accordion to school. Father Oesch (Bhagwat doesn't remember his first name) knew Arun was taking classical piano lessons and he thought the accordion might be a fun change of pace.

Bhagwat took the new instrument home with him on a Friday, and by Monday was playing tunes. It opened a new avenue of music for him, and by the time he entered college, he had put together a band — the Silhouettes — by recruiting musicians to play the piano, bass, trumpet and sax. 

He said Pune was somewhat of a melting pot at the time, with Portuguese-speaking transplants from Goa, India, Parsee residents who were Westernized from Persia and Hindu who were receptive to the new music from the West, albeit music that has sifted over from the United States five years after it had originated.

"In the Mood," was a big one," Bhagwat said of the time.

Eventually, though, Bhagwat had to get serious about his work life, and so he headed to the U.S. for more education and eventually landed a job in Poughkeepsie, New York, that began in 1962 a 40-year career with the company. His music became more of a hobby, although his passion burned strong and led him to play at many jam sessions. As a fan, he attended Woodstock.

In 2004, Bhagwat had retired from IBM and he was considering a move to Florida. When I friend urged him to move to the east coast of Florida, Bhagwat fell in love with the Sarasota area. 

"The attraction was the people," said Bhagwat, who said the area had a international and cosmopolitan flavor that intrigued him.

He fit right in as he began a new musical career in retirement. An accordion player from India.

"When I played, people would look at me and ask, 'Are you from Hawaii?' They just kind of wondered."

What they didn't know is Bhagwat could actually adapt his musical performances to most languages. He played special events at the Swiss Club, the Italian Club, the Scottish Club and the Asian Women's Club of Lakewood Ranch, doing musical numbers where he would incorporate songs from those particular clubs. 

Most probably don't know he is a huge John Denver fan.

And six years ago, he composed two songs — "Sarasota Bay" and "Anna Maria Island" — that were picked up by local radio stations and played on a regular basis. He played keyboards on the songs.

"I like most when I am in a creative mode, composing songs," he said.

He wants to perform and compose more, if COVID-19 subsides and allows him. 

"It rejuvenates the mind," Bhagwat said of performing. "You are doing something for yourself, but you also raise spirits ... that's fulfillment."

To be able to deliver, he plays tennis, takes brisk walks and lifts light weights to stay in shape. He sees his music career stretching to age 90, and beyond.

He hopes people understand how important music can be. 

He talks about doing a special music performance at the 100th birthday of his mother-in-law (Irma Schrader) in Hamburg, Germany.

"We told her, if she made it to 100, we would come, and we had to honor that promise," he said.

Arun and his wife, Gisela Bhagwat, realized it would be a special moment, and it was.

"Music has enriched my life," Bhagwat said. "I hope my music has enriched other lives as well."


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