Today he is a maestro but as a young boy he was told that his voice was not “powerful enough” for Hindustani classical. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, born in a family of wrestlers, loved music and chose the bamboo flute as his instrument of expression. “I had seen it in a mela. I could not possibly buy a sitar or a tabla but I bought a bansuri (flute) and then there was no turning back,” recalls the 74-year-old artiste on the phone from Mexico.
In the Indian cultural context, the flute has many avatars. Its folkloric origin makes it an instrument available in the countryside as well as cities. It holds a mythological significance since the Hindu god Krishna chose the flute to charm Radha.
To celebrate this versatile musical instrument, flautists from different parts of the world—Turkey, Tibet, Germany, Brazil and India—will take part in the third chapter of the Raasrang World Flute Festival being held in New Delhi from 9-11 August and in Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram on 12 August. Organized by the New Delhi-based Krishna Prerna Charitable Foundation, which works to conserve India’s cultural heritage, the Raasrang World Flute Festival aims to promote the flute’s meditative qualities. So one initiative that will be part of the festival is “Bansiyog”, which combines the principles of yoga with the therapeutic qualities of the sound of the flute. “The sound of the flute draws you to the centre. Just blowing through a hollow dry bamboo helps to empty yourself. It’s aalom vilom,” explains Arun Budhiraja, founder of the Charitable Foundation.
According to legend, the bamboo flute is the oldest instrument. But its assimilation into Hindustani classical music is recent, making it the youngest instrument, a little older than half a century. Pandit Ranendranath Majumdar, popularly known as Ronu Majumdar, explains the bansuri’s journey from folk to classical. “In folk music there is no barrier of scale, cord or structure. Of course, it’s within the parameter of the seven notes. But when the late Pannalal Ghosh pioneered this instrument into classical music, we first found out its possibilities. It has an immense amount of range,” says Majumdar.
The flute has been used liberally in Bollywood music. The composer duo Shiv-Hari (Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia) not only elevated their instrument to a world concert stage, but brought it into the limelight through cinema. More recently, the A.R. Rahman and Naveen Kumar team has composed memorable tunes, like the film Bombay’s theme.
Flute also figures in Western classical, in jazz quartets and in unlikely places like rock bands. British rock band Jethro Tull’s frontman Ian Anderson single-handedly made the humble flute an instrument of power.
India has had a tradition of flute-making; the best bamboo is found in the upper reaches of Assam and Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, known as the Bansuri Nagari, is the manufacturing hub of flutes in the country.
Today artistes can get their flutes made to order. New Delhi-based Subhash Thakur, who has been a flute-maker for 12 years and is known for his customized flutes, says: “Earlier, artistes had to play according to the flute they could get their hands on. Now artistes tell us what kind of a flute they want—the tonal quality, pitch balance, whether you like a strong sound or a soft one—and we create it.”