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A name synonymous with the flute

PARTHO DATTA


his versatility has ensured him a permanent place among the legendary instrumentalists of this country


HARIPRASAD CHAURASIA — Romance of the Bamboo Reed: Uma Vasudev; Shubhi Publications, 15, AKD Towers, Sector 14, Gurgoan, Haryana. Rs. 495.

The haunting call of the flute hits straight at the heart, but despite its religious, folk and romantic associations it was only in the 1940s that the brilliant Pannalal Ghosh, a disciple of Allaudin Khan, gave it a status worthy of Hindustani classical music. The well-known music critic, Chetan Karnani, has written that this was so because instrumental music in general was never held in high esteem. The unwritten code held vocal music to be more organic and therefore superior and supreme. Even the shehnai, the other woodwind instrument, with its close ties to temple ritual had to wait for a Bismillah Khan before being accepted as a concert instrument.

Distinguished flautists

Pannalal Ghosh's innovations with the flute opened a new world of possibilities and his example produced many distinguished flautists. His disciple and son-in-law Devendra Murdeshwar, Vijay Raghav Rao, Raghunath Seth, and lately Rajendra Prasanna and Ronu Majumdar are all well known. Yet, Hariprasad Chaurasia's name is virtually synonymous with the classical flute today. This is indeed an outstanding achievement; for sheer dedication, virtuosity and genuine popularity Chaurasia has few peers. There is no doubt that his versatility has ensured him a permanent place among the legendary instrumentalists of this country. No music festival is complete without Chaurasia's presence and whether it is in India or abroad, the house is always full.

Chaurasia's dexterity has tackled all the technical challenges of the bamboo flute and whether he is presenting the ever-popular ragas Bageshri or the folkish Desh or the more serious Darbari or Marwa he has always managed to convince his audience. Chaurasia's style draws on the staccato instrumental tradition of the sitar and sarod and this has distinguished him from his illustrious predecessor, the late Pannalal Ghosh, who drew inspiration from vocalism. This difference is striking since both draw on the fountainhead of the Maihar gharana of Allaudin Khan.

Less well known is Chaurasia's superb command over laya and his penchant for difficult talas, a trait that he shares with his contemporary and friend santoorist Shiv Kumar Sharma. It is another matter that their popularity in the concert circuit and among recording companies has willy-nilly reduced their efforts into elevator music. In the 1960s Chaurasia, Sharma and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra produced a runaway success in the album `Call of the Valley', whose melodic strains was a sure presence in the homes of nostalgic NRIs, airport lounges and five star restaurants. Uma Vasudev's biography is rather thin on Chaurasia's music. It is difficult to gauge Chaurasia's musical influences from this book, his relationship with other instrumentalists and vocalists, the development of his technique or what his contemporaries and critics made of him in his early struggling years.

Empathetic account

Missing too are the larger background and politics of patronage from the state and AIR and private sponsors. Even Chaurasia's contribution to Hindi film music is not well fleshed out. This is surprising since there exists a wonderful set of talks by Chaurasia himself, frequently broadcast over Vividh Bharati on his relationship with famous music directors. Vasudev is more concerned with the man than his music. Her narrative is imaginatively written. It reads very well and the author's empathy for her subject shines throughout. Shorn as it is of the critical apparatus of modern biography it actually comes across more as an autobiography written in the third person. What prevents it from becoming hagiographical is the candid account of Chaurasia's life. Chaurasia was the son of a wrestler and came from a family, which had no connection with music. His relationship with his principal guru, Annapurna Devi is interesting to read.

To persuade her to accept him as his disciple he switched to playing the flute from the left side, an extremely difficult and challenging decision midway through his career. His personal life too was tumultuous. As a young staff artiste in All India Radio, Cuttuck, he fell in love, but tamely submitted to marriage on a trip to his hometown Allahabad. Success in Bombay enabled him to live with both his wives — an open secret that was only acknowledged among close friends.

The book is heartening to read as it shows how vulnerable top-ranking performers are, whose public careers despite success are often driven by self-doubt.

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