It is such a delight to write about the Wonderous Bansuri of North Indian music. It has been said to be one of the most serene and sensual instruments to come out of India. This instrument is known to display the beauty of very slow and meditative forms (known as alap in North Indian music) as well as very fast and complicated passages. The evocative tone is something I feel directly in my heart and somehow seems to be both very “earthy” and at the same time “mystical” and “other worldly”.
The word Bansuri is actually the conjunction of two words – Baans (bamboo) and Sur (musical note). Some of the finest bamboo used in making bansuris today comes from mostly the north eastern part of India (such as Assam) and the south. Other places such as Hawaii are also sources of suitable bamboo that fulfill the requirement of having long sections between nodes of the bamboo.
Legend has it that 5000 years ago Lord Krishna wandered an area known as Vrindavan and mesmerized all with his Bansuri. It is said animals and humans alike would stop all their activities and enter into states of divine bliss. The gopis (female devotees of Krishna) would leave their homes and husbands and follow Krishna, or so the myth goes.
This simple bamboo flute is usually played with just 6 or 7 holes (sometimes a 7th hole with the right hand pinkie). The open holes allow for a great variation of expression in terms of intonation (Indian music uses many microtones) and also the gliding effects and other effects that imitate the voice and other instruments.
RECENT EVOLUTION OF THE BANSURI
Until the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the bamboo flute of North India had been thought of as mainly a folk instrument and usually not more than 14 inches long. It was felt that this instrument was not able to express the full import and richness found in the classical ragas of Indian music and was mainly for light music or short classical pieces. With the innovations brought about by Pannalal Ghosh, who was a disciple of the great Indian master Allaudhin Khan, the bansuri was extended to a larger instrument of more than 30 inches. This much deeper tone and the great expansion of technique developed originally by Pannalal Ghosh has made the bansuri into the very well respected instrument it is today within the classical music world of North Indian music.
What is especially unique about the bansuri is that it is able to draw on both the vocal and instrumental traditions of Indian music. Musicians such as Pannalal Ghosh drew more intensely from the vocal tradition of North Indian music, while more recent innovators, such as Pundit Hariprasad Chaurasia have drawn much from instrumental technique. With the extensive recordings and touring of Hariprasad Chaurasia, the North Indian bansuri is now known all over the world as a special instrument with unique expressive abilities.
It should be noted that the Bansuri of North Indian music (also known as Hindustani music) is quite different than the Bansuri used in South Indian music (also known as Carnatic music). The approach, structure and exposition of these 2 forms are quite different (although there are many similarities as well) and so for this discussion, it should be understood that the musical context is that of North Indian music. Even within North Indian music there are many varied schools and approaches taken. My own experience was I heard the Indian influences (via the Beatles at first and later through many jazz artists) that were seeping into western music in the 1960’s and then around 1980 I first heard the bansuri of Hariprasad Chaurasia. The tone Hariprasad produces is so rich and his expression so pure, precise and musical, I was instantly converted.
At that time I did not know anyone who could teach bansuri (nor did I know where to get a proper bansuri) so I did my best imitating the effect on western flute (which I have played since I was 13 years old). It can be said that much of the effect of Indian music can still be made on a western flute, but also it is true that the nuance and effect is more profound on the actual bansuri. Finally around 1986 I was able to meet an accomplished bansuri teacher (who also helped me obtain a good bansuri) named Debu Prasad Banerjee. Debu Prasad was from the Pannalal Ghosh style of playing, which emphasized a more vocal approach and was a wonderful teacher as well. Finally in 1992 I embarked on a trip to India to go deeper into the music and to go deeper into the bansuri. Beyond my wildest dreams, I was able to meet and begin studies with Hariprasad Chaurasia himself and spent many long hours and days in his company in Mumbai learning the art and craft of the bansuri.
Hari-ji’s classes were very simple – he would mostly just begin playing a phrase and then leave room for me (or us when there were group classes) to repeat what he had just played. This process would go on and on, hour after hour and day after day until the ragas and Hariprasad’s approach became deeper and deeper. Over the course of 2 years in India, much was covered and in 1994 I enrolled at the Rotterdam Conservatorium (where Hariprasad Chaurasia had started teaching), and over the next 12 years continued at the Conservatorium until I had obtained 2 degrees.
What I began to feel was that this beautiful instrument is very well suited to Indian music but also is wonderful in other types of music. Because my background is also in western classical music as well as jazz and other forms, I have begun playing the Bansuri in many musical contexts. In fact, I am now working on some western classical flute literature on the bansuri (such as the J.S. Bach flute sonatas) and find they are very beautifully rendered on the Bansuri (although much practice is needed to make the correct intonation on these pieces). As well as that, in my East/West group Facing East I play the Bansuri with keyboards, bass, guitar, drums etc…..and we play in contexts that are Indian but also with jazz flavors as well.
Thankfully, due to the internet and YouTube, many good recordings and demonstrations of the Bansuri can be seen or heard, for example http://youtu.be/m2xBuI6qE1w. Or what if JS Bach had gone to India? This piece of music references J. S. Bach’s Siciliano section of the Eb major flute sonata (the references start about 4 minutes in)……performed on the bansuri.
I recommend spending time searching for some of the names mentioned here on YouTube and other internet resources to get a firsthand feeling of this wonderful instrument and in future articles we can go deeper into individual artists, styles and techniques associated with the wondrous Bansuri.
John Wubbenhorst studied composition Darius Brubeck, then discovered the raga system of North Indian music at the Berklee College of Music. Flute studies with Roger Mather at the University of Iowa were followed by consciousness studies at Maharishi International University. He went on to study with the bansuri master Hariprasad Chaurasia, in India from 1992, and later at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Since then, while working with his own group Facing East, working with such musicians as Paul horn, Paul McCandless, Larry Coryell and Jack DeJohnette, and issuing six recordings under his own name, Wubbenhorst has refined his concept of world and ethnic fusion music to include classical and chamber musics, modern jazz, fusion and new age genres. See: www.facebook.com/JohnWubbenhorst.music
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