The Sound of Magic

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Photo Courtesy: facebook.com/Bansuriguruthefilm
Photo Courtesy: facebook.com/Bansuriguruthefilm

There is enough to celebrate about a new documentary on Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. That the Film Divisions commissioned it, that PVR screened it for a week and, of course, that it gave us a glimpse into the maestro’s lifelong relationship with his flute. The hour-long Bansuri Guru – that played all of last week at PVR Director’s Rare across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and Allahabad – has been directed by Chaurasia’s son. Rajeev Chaurasia is not a musician (“I couldn’t even blow into a bottle of Coke with any success, so I knew I had no hope with the flute”) and he considers this a blessing. He feels he has been able to approach the film with more objectivity. The film, with narrations by Amitabh Bachchan (who, like Chaurasia, hails from Allahabad), traces the maestro’s life from Allahabad through Cuttack (where he spent formative years as a musician), up to Mumbai, which has been his home since 1960. Two of Chaurasia’s closest aides, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Ustad Zakir Hussain, also feature in the film.

Chaurasia’s life and achievements are difficult to capture in an hour. He is beyond awards and platitudes, at a stage where the world sees him as an embodiment of his instrument. All instrumentalists aspire to reach that elusive state where they can appropriate their instruments as extensions of themselves. A few seconds of his bansuri, whether heard as a raga or in sporadic wafts, is enough to tell us that it is Chaurasia, as surely as if we’ve heard his voice. What is it about that sound?

Rupak Kulkarni has been a disciple of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia since 1977. As a rare gesture, the maestro had once handed Kulkarni one of his own flutes. The disciple was thrilled. At last, he had the chance to blow into the magic flute. Perhaps the mystery door to the tone that eludes all other flautists would finally yield. “But every note sounded besura”, says Kulkarni. He looked up to his guru. “How do you play this?” he asked. Chaurasia’s response was succinct. “I adjust”. It’s not known if anyone has had the audacity to tinker with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod or Ustad Vilayat Khan’s sitar, but one can assume that the outcome would have been similar to Kulkarni’s attempt. Like the two Khans did to contraptions of wood, steel and hide, Chaurasia breathes that enigmatic something into a piece of bamboo. Reams can be written about him, but in the end, it is this ‘Chaurasia sound’ that makes him synonymous with his instrument. For more than 50 years now, nobody has bothered contesting that when it comes to the bansuri, there is Chaurasia and then there is everyone else.

The bansuri is a relatively young instrument in the Hindustani canon. Pandit Pannalal Ghosh was the first to introduce it to the classical stage in the first half of the twentieth century, before which it was a folk instrument. Ghosh was not just a pioneer; he is considered to be one of the greatest Hindustani musicians of all time. Flautists unanimously claim that it is impossible to escape his influence while shaping their playing styles. Ghosh passed away in 1960. Chaurasia was 22 at the time. The shadow of Ghosh should have dwarfed any other flautist for the next couple of decades. But by the mid-sixties, listeners were already warming up to the young Chaurasia. In 1967, with the release of his album Call of the Valley (along with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra), he became a national phenomenon. By the mid-seventies, he had become the byword for bansuri. Listeners at concerts were flinging themselves at his feet; there were many who, quite vocally, believed that he was an incarnation of Lord Krishna. Flute maestro Pandit Rajendra Prasanna says, “He did with the bansuri what Pandit Ravi Shankar did with the sitar”.

Chaurasia conjured a playing style that was unheard on the bansuri. More significantly, his style was easily distinguishable from that of Ghosh. This ensured that right from when his music started reaching listeners, his flute was not categorised in the existing  ‘Pannalal Ghosh style’. An anecdote wouldn’t be out of place here. At the time when Ghosh was the reigning maestro of the flute, Chaurasia, in his late teens then, was keen to become Ghosh’s disciple. At that time Chaurasia worked at All India Radio, Cuttack, so getting to Ghosh wasn’t easy. On one occasion, when he was in Delhi, he learnt that Ghosh was also there. But all his efforts to meet the maestro were foiled by a few of Ghosh’s existing disciples.

The disciples did Chaurasia a favour. By staying out of Ghosh’s way, he was compelled to imagine a new grammar for the bansuri. He had received his initial training from Pandit Bholanath Prasanna in his hometown, Allahabad. When he moved to Bombay (from Cuttack) in 1960, he became a disciple of sitar and surbahar exponent Annapurna Devi, daughter of Baba Alauddin Khan, who was the founder of the Maihar gharana. The Maihar style essentially pertains to plucked instruments like the sarod and the sitar. Under Devi’s tutelage, Chaurasia brought the Maihar style to the flute. Ghosh and Prasanna’s styles followed the pattern of a vocal recital, starting with a bada khayal and proceeding through the contours of slow vistaar like it is done in khayal. Chaurasia introduced a full-fledged alap-jod section and perfected sitar-sarod elements like dir-dir on the flute. Perhaps for the first time, the bansuri got an intrinsic style, one that was designed for the instrument rather than derived from vocal music. This is not to say that Chaurasia chose to forsake vocal elements. Within the larger framework of a Maihar-style presentation, he continued to use several vocal-style embellishments (just as Ghosh used sarod-sitar embellishments in his vocal-style recitals). What is ironic is that Ghosh had learnt from Baba Alauddin Khan, so he and Chaurasia should have had a lot of common talim. But they internalised that talim in different ways and, as is the way with maestros, used their individual imagination to create their own idiom.

Chaurasia’s style, coupled with his persona, brought him a degree of mass popularity that one doesn’t usually associate with Hindustani musicians. He worked hard to earn it. He was part of the brigade, alongside the likes of Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, that was adamant on fighting elitism in Hindustani music. He did not perform only for the connoisseurs, but shepherded a whole new group of listeners into auditoriums. He joked and chatted with his listeners. Once, at the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, the audience kept asking for more, not letting him finish. He smiled and said that he did not want to annoy the next artiste. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he extended his elbows on both sides, indicating the girth of the artiste who was up next. For the audience, it was refreshing to see a maestro who was on the same plain, engaging with them as equals, rather than staring down at them from the usual lofty places that Hindustani musicians like to inhabit.

He teamed up with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and the music director duo, Shiv-Hari, produced musical blockbusters like Lamhe, Chandni and Darr. Hindustani musicians go to absurd extents to protect their ‘purist’ image and here was Chaurasia, proud of his association with Jadu Teri Nazar. But he never allowed Bollywood to seep into his classical recitals and his listeners knew better than to request these numbers in classical shows. Not many Hindustani maestros have straddled popular and classical with as much ease and fewer still have embraced music so liberally. As the artistic adviser to the World Music department at the Rotterdam Music Conservatory, he has inspired several foreign music students to pursue Hindustani music.

Chaurasia turns 75 this July. Listening to his music with eyes shut, you wouldn’t believe that. He remains as accurate and hypnotic as he was two decades back. But what is astounding is that he can still hold his breath as if he is in his 40s. One is left wondering from where he draws this strength. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that he owes it to his wrestler father, who found music abhorrent and had forced him to practice at the akhada every day. He ran away from the pit, but not before he built up a wrestler’s stamina.

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