As we have pointed out, we are celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the most accomplished flutists in the world, the doyen of North Indian, or Hindustani, classical music Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
As part of the celebration of this landmark anniversary, Hariprasad, known as Hariji, came to London to give a concert. It was my great pleasure to receive an invitation to the event, including an opportunity to meet with Hariji the following day.
The concert took place in a North London venue known as the Islington Assembly Hall, a room that is used for both concerts and local council meetings. I am not sure how many it holds but there were very few, if any, empty seats. As for the acoustics, kudos to the staff controlling the sound; I had no trouble hearing the music. (I have run a sound board for Indian music concerts and it is not as easy as it may seem.) There was also some interesting lighting that gave an attractive sheen to the proceedings without ever being obtrusive.
The evening was opened by the group Kefaya, an award-winning musical collective led by UK-based musicians and producers Giuliano Modarelli and Al MacSween. Described as “An eclectic group of immigrants, travellers and international artists, [that] seek to find common ground between global folk traditions [and] a cutting-edge sound rooted firmly in the 21st century,” they have recently been joined by Afghan vocalist Elaha Soroor who adds another dimension to their already intriguing sound, well worthy of the name World Music.
Nest came Hariji. For those who have never experienced it, a recital of Hindustani Classical Music seems remarkably free of the grand trappings of Western classical music performances. This was no exception. Just four people on the stage, performing essentially one piece, centered on the sound of a simple bamboo flute, yet utterly absorbing and spiritually transforming — the achievement of a purity and simplicity that evades all but the most accomplished artists. In an article for Down Beat Magazine about the composer Alan Hovhaness I described his work as ‘. . . a music which transcends technique in striving for, and almost invariably achieving, a profound and simple beauty that has captivated audiences all over the world. As Hovhaness himself writes: “The greater the emotional intensity, the greater the simplicity. This is not ‘intellectual’ music, but music of pure feeling.”‘ These words apply to all great music and musicians. They are utterly appropriate regarding this great master Hariprasad.
Hovhaness told me he had spent 50 years trying to achieve simplicity. Hariji has been doing it for 60 or more. In his case, he inherited a traditional system that already contains great potential for subtlety and expressive depth. But the tradition is a severe teacher, demanding decades of work to master. Hariji has done the work, not only mastering but also enhancing the raga system. This was all evident from his performance.
With three accompanists, including his student, Jean-Christophe Bonnafous from France on bansuri, a distinguished performer on the tabla, Pandit Yogesh Samsi, plus a player of the drone instrument the tambura, Hariji gave us a performance of raga bihag, normally rendered in the late evening. In the traditional manner, the performance began with alap, a rubato exposition of the melodic potentials of the raga. This is done as an instrumental solo, without percussion, although, as is often the case, Hariji was not so much accompanied as supported by the other flutist who alternates phrases with the main soloist, often mirroring them, giving the soloist time to pause, and think and breath. This is a profound learning experience for an advanced student, although it is not easy to do. Bonnafous did a superb job, echoing and filling out Hariji‘s phrasing and allowing the alap to unfold for — I am not sure, I lost track of time. But it was mesmerising — utter simplicity on the surface but touching on something truly profound.
The raga progressed through its traditional stages, culminating with the entry of the tabla, introducing a rhythmic cycle which gave a new form to the improvisations, alternating between the two flutists and framing solo tabla outings from Pandit Samsi. After perhaps and hour the performance reached a natural climax and concluded with a series of repeated rhythmic figures played in unison between soloists and accompanist. Again, a surface simplicity masked a series of melodic and rhythmic variations of great sophistication. The effect . . . as the audience erupted with applause I re-emerged from a very deep place inside, a place where music is supposed to take us but very seldom does.
It is not clear how long Hariji can continue to perform at this level. At 80 he has some physical issues. After meeting with him the morning after the concert, however, I can confirm that he has no issues of mind or spirit. Warm and utterly charming, as always, and 100% engaged with his art and the tradition of bansuri performance that he has created almost single-handed. With this in mind, his focus now is on his two gurukuls, traditional music schools where students come to live with the guru and immerse themselves totally in the music. If the young man he brought with him is any indication, his emerging students, along with an already established generation of of students such as Rakesh Chaurasia, Deepak Ram, etc., are brilliant performers and the tradition can only grow and flourish.
In honor of Hariji‘s great achievements, during this 80th anniversary year, Flute Journal will follow up with more on his life, his art, his recorded oeuvre — over 150 CDs! — his students, his performance schools. . . Whatever genre you follow as a flutist you cannot fail to benefit from learning more of the remarkable life and work of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
Review by Peter Westbrook
Photos of Hariprasad Chaurasia, as indicated, by Shashi Kanth
We leave you with an earlier performance by Hariji of raga bihag. This is very special to this writer as my wife and I were present in the studio in Mumbai when this CD was recorded in 1993. It is called Divine Dhrupad and is unusual in that it is in the more ancient style known as Dhrupad and features the more ancient form of drum, the pakhavaj, rather than the tabla. Note: This raga is normally rendered in late evening and is best heard at this time when it has the best effect on mind, body and surroundings.
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