As Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, India’s leading exponent of the bansuri, or bamboo flute, celebrates his 80th birthday, International Flute Journal is beginning a series of tributes.
1) In a piece promoting a recent visit to London by Hariprasad Chaurasia, in 2017, Anjali Khanna wrote an appreciation on the London Funoon website, part of which is reproduced here:
‘Music is my love. And because it is my love, music has become my religion.’
“In the world of classical music and beyond, the much loved Hariprasad Chaurasia is something of a legend. A global superstar, he has taken on iconic status for his virtuosity on the bansuri. In addition to technical brilliance, he provides a transcendent and enriching experience for the listener with his soulful, evocative melodies.
“His story isn’t short on sensation either. Born into a family of professional wrestlers, he was expected to follow suit. But from a young age, music called, and he began to study it in secret. A long and illustrious career in live performance, radio, and also Bollywood followed, featuring collaborations with the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, The Beatles, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, John McLaughlin and many more.
“Two decades into his career, Panditji sought musical guidance from the famously reclusive but brilliant Annapurna Devi daughter of musical Saint Baba Allauddin Khan, sister of the great sitar maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and also the first wife of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Though she had taken a vow many years ago never to perform her art, she is widely thought to be the greatest living authority on instrumental music.
“By his own admission, he had to work hard for three long years to convince her to become his teacher. When she eventually accepted him, Panditji (Hariprasad) had to obliterate all musical knowledge he had acquired thus far, start afresh and even switch from playing with his right to his left hand. Having been under the tutelage of Annapurna Devi or ‘Ma’, as he reverentially refers to her, for some years now, he has said that he has found in her the living incarnation of the Goddess Saraswati. Certainly, she has taken him to greater and greater musical heights, transmuting his music to celestial realms.
“As with all classical music, North Indian (Hindustani) music follows a certain set of rules. It’s governed by the raga system: melodic (rather than harmonic) structures adopted for the arrangement of notes, the rise and fall of sound and the interplay of melody with rhythm. However, within the parameters of this system, not unlike jazz, almost all of Indian classical music is totally improvised. Thus the experience of a live Indian classical concert is truly a unique and transient experience.”
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2) Leading Indian musicologist and music critic Mohan Nadkarni published this brief biography.
“Unquestionably the best-known flutist of the present day India, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia does not come of a musical lineage in the conventional sense. But he was still a teenager when he started out as a singer under the tutelage with Pandit Raja Ram, a vocalist based in his home-town Allahabad. A year later, the budding vocalist chanced to hear a woodwind recital by Pandit Bhola Nath of Varanasi. That changed the course of his future musical career and, in time to come, there emerged a flute maestro known as Hariprasad Chaurasia.
“In the early years of his career, Panditji had to work his way up the hard way. Joining the staff of All India Radio, Allahabad, in 1957, when he was only 18, Hariprasadji made his mark both as a soloist and as a composer of uncommon caliber. But he gave up his salaried job after five years to pursue music as a profession. This marked the beginning of his steady rise to fame. And he has not looked back ever since.
“His quest of excellence took him to Annapurna Devi, worthy daughter and disciple of the great Acharya Allauddin Khan of Maihar, and it was from her that his music received its magic touch. It would be true to say that Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia picked up the thread where Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, the great pioneer of woodwind music left it, following his sudden and untimely death in 1960. Under the guidance and inspiration of Annapurna Devi, he has carried forward Pannababu‘s mission towards widening the horizons of his instrument beyond the strictly classical form. Thereby, he has acquired a perfect command over a variety of light classical tunes from thumri to lighter and folk variety.
“A classicist by temperament and training, Panditji is also modern in outlook and susceptible to new ideas. He has successfully scored the music for several films in partnership with another great virtuoso, santoorist Pandit Shivkumar Sharma.
But the base has been inalienably Indian. A recipient of Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akadami awards, he has won unstinted acclaim in major musical events both in India and abroad.”
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3) A personal recollection
Your editor was fortunate enough to study with Hariprasad in Mumbai, in 1993/4. In India as a fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, studying the time theory of the Rāga system of Hindustani Music and teaching a course in Western Music History at Bombay University, I was thrilled to be invited to attend classes in bansuri with maestro every morning before my class. Later, I sat with him briefly when he was teaching at the Rotterdam Conservatory. While I was unable to pursue the bansuri long-term — stretching my smallish hands was leading to arthritis — the experience has remained with me ever since, hovering in the back of my mind whenever I play the flute, regardless of the genre.
Observing Hariprasad performing and teaching at close quarters has convinced me that he is one of the great geniuses of modern flute performance, not only for his perfect mastery of the extensive and subtle rāga system, but also for the transcendent purity with which he imbues every performance.
A further, extensive retrospective of Hariprasad Chaurasia‘s work is in preparation, with the help of several of his students including two who are members of the Flute Journal Editorial Board, Deepak Ram and John Wubbenhorst. Watch for this. Meanwhile, see our review of Hariji‘s London concert.
In the meantime, 2 classic performances from Maestro, both entitled In Search of Love, Peace and Harmony:
A: Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of the Living Legends of India, performs in a sold out concert in De Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. With his mesmerising Bansuri skills, Panditji captured the hearts of all attendees of the concert.
B: From 1993, a performance with longstanding collaborator Shivkumar Sharma, including interviews with both of the distinguished artists.
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