FEBRUARY 19: When Rabindranath Tagore opened Gitanjali with the plea, `Make my life a reed for thee to fill with music', he had chosen the most apt metaphor to invoke God's mercy. The flute has established itself as the most sweet-sounding of all musical instruments.
It has been immortalised in Indian tradition by Lord Krishna who used it to gather his flock after the day was done. Of course, the effect his call had on Radha and the gopis is legendary. In recent times, Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vijay Raghav Rao, Ronu Mazumdar and Rupak Kulkarni have taken the instrument to households all over the world.
The youngest of the tribe, 30-year-old Rupak Kulkarni has been a flautist with All India Radio (AIR), Mumbai, for the last 10 years. His is fast becoming a name to reckon with, and his shows within and outside the country gather large audiences.
This is how he introduces his favourite instrument. "I would say the bansuri is the most natural and ancient musical instrument. Apart from the conch or shankh, that is. All the others have some form of man-made addition, either strings or skin. But the flute is just a piece of bamboo in which holes have been bored.
In fact, the story runs that an insect bored a hole in a piece of bamboo and hid inside to escape a strong gale. When the wind blew, a pleasant sound emanated from the bamboo, and thus the instrument was born."
As for his association with it, his father, Pandit Maihar Kulkarni, taught the tabla and the flute. "As a child, I started off playing the tabla. But I happened to attend a concert by flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia when I was around nine, and that changed my choice of instrument. His bansuri was so melodious, it seemed to lead me into another world," says Rupak.
"I became Panditji's disciple and have been training under him ever since. Even though I am a professional player now, I still find Guruji has so much knowledge to impart that I could learn until my last breath and still have so much left to learn from him in terms of technique, improvisation and raags. He is not only the best artiste today, I think he's the best of the millennium," he extols.
What makes the flute different from other instruments in a musical concert? "Well, for one, it is akin to vocal music. You uses your entire body force while singing and while playing the bansuri. You have to coordinate your finger movements with your breath," he says.
Last week, Rupak returned from Delhi where he held two successful shows. "The concert season begins in October and lasts until April," he informs us. Of course, recording at AIR's studio is a different experience. "Here you have a solo performance by the flautist, with the tabla and tanpura for accompaniment. The basic notes are tuned in the tanpura. I listen to them and play the flute accordingly. The taal or rhythmic cycle is provided by the tabla."
The kind of work Rupak does requires creativity and concentration. How does he keep up motivation levels as he records regularly for AIR or does concerts? "Well, there was this instance when a concert was scheduled for 11.30 am. But my flight was delayed and only touched down around 1 pm. So I had to proceed straight to the venue from the airport, without shaving or sprucing up. So one does have to play whether one is in the mood or not! But most of the time, I just pick up the flute and feel the urge to play."
"I think the flute is the easiest instrument to reach out to people with, for it is God's own creation. Which is why even when I perform abroad, I don't have a problem connecting with the audience. In fact, they know the Western flute and when they see Guruji or me play the bansuri, they know what other sounds can be derived from it. We introduce more staccato beats to keep them interested, of course, improvising only within the raag being played," he explains.
Many instruments have developed certain associations over the years. The sitar is used to convey happiness, while the plaintive strains of the shehnai are associated with wedding ceremonies. Which is the flute, a happy or sad instrument? "Happy!" replies Rupak. "The small flute is a happy instrument, though a long one can also convey sadness very well. But mainly, its mood is devotional. The bansuri evokes the Bhakti ras very well."
It is here that Hindi cinema has made extensive use of the flute. "But other pieces that readily come to mind are Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia's renditions in Hero, Ek Duuje Ke Liye and Silsila," says Rupak, who himself has recorded for a forthcoming film titled Tapish.
Though his father has taught music all his life and has even set up a music institute, Rupak has no plans to teach. Not so far, at least. "Well, I think you can either be a performer or a teacher. I am happy touring and playing the instrument I love. If I teach, I am not likely to find the time to pursue my interest. Of course, at times I do feel I need to repay my debt to my art and my Guruji. If I ever teach, it will be my gurudakshina to Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. And since he never charged me a penny, I won't charge my students either," he says.
Innovator and traditionalist
Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia began his musical training as a vocalist under Pandit Rajaram. Within a year, he switched to the flute after he heard Pandit Bholanath, a noted flautist from Varanasi. He tutored under Pandit Bholanath for eight years, and in 1957, barely out of his teens, he joined the Cuttack station of All India Radio, where he performed and composed.
He received further guidance from surbahar player Annapurna Devi, who was the daughter of the late Ustad Allauddin Khan and sister of Ali Akbar Khan.Panditji ranks among the few Indian classicists who have made a conscious effort to reach out and expand the audience for classical music. He is a rare combination of innovator and traditionalist, and has significantly expanded the expressive possibilities of classical North Indian flute playing through his expert blowing technique and his unique adaptation of alaap and jor to the flute.
In 1984, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to music, he was given the National Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. In 1992, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Konark Samman. The Yash Bharati Samman came two years later.
Panditji tours the world regularly. He has recorded with artistes like John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek, and composed music for many Hindi films in collaboration with santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He continues to teach interested students free of charge.
Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.