The Bansuri and Pulangoil, Bamboo Flutes of India
Today, a simple bamboo flute, known as bansuri in the north, and pulangoil in the south, occupies a unique position in the music of India, with a history reaching back over many centuries, and a sound that resonates deeply with the folk consciousness of this most ancient people.
This should come as no surprise; of all instruments there can be few as ubiquitous as the flute. In essence the simplest of wind instruments, the flute is found in one or another of its forms in virtually every culture, in every historical period from antiquity to the present. References to the flute abound in literature and legend from the earliest times. A Chinese legend, for example, recounts that the emperor Huang-Ti, desiring to systematize all the sciences on the basis of a theory of music, sent his minister Ling Lun to the “western mountains” to cut acoustically perfect lengths of bamboo. The resulting proto-flutes not only defined the correct musical scale, but also formed the basis for standards of measurement, calendrical calculations and other scientific applications. Aside from its antiquity and universality, however, the flute and its music have other connotations; it has evolved a reputation as the instrument of distraction and sensuality. Consider, for example, the following from T.S. Eliot:
Blown hair is sweet,
brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair,
Distraction, music of the flute . . .
Such associations of the flute appear to spring from deep levels of the collective unconscious and contrast with stringed instruments which are found in folklore representing spirituality and the intellect. In China, for example, the Ch’in, a table harp, was taken to be the appropriate instrument for the cultured, Confucian, gentleman. In ancient Greece, Orpheus, the pre-eminent musician who charms all of nature with his songs, is seen playing the lyre, while Pan, who epitomizes sexuality and desire, is portrayed with the aulos, a wind instrument. Similarly, in Celtic tradition, the finest music was to be played on the harp rather than on wind instruments which were kept for battle or amusement. In more recent times, one need only consider Debussy’s choice of solo instrument for the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to see that this view of the flute persists within modern sensibilities. And the seemingly inevitable, almost clichéd, linking of the flute with birdsong (witness Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals) brings a further association, that of freedom, perhaps to a point beyond respectability.
In India, similar associations exist, but in a very specific form. The most ancient Indian literature, the Vedas, mentions three classes of instruments – the vīna, the venu and the mrdañga, respectively the harp, the flute, and the drum. Each of these is associated with a particular deity, and thus a particular quality or tendency of nature. The drum is associated with Siva and the fundamental rhythms of life, the vīna ∼ with the goddess Saraswati and theories of sound, speech and knowledge. The flute, on the other hand, is seen in the hands of Lord Krishna, who is known as Muralidhara, ‘flute holder,’ and appears in immensely popular stories that tell of his youthful dalliance with gopis, or milkmaids. Krishna and his music thus evoke more romantic sensibilities, although these sensual aspects are muted by the devotional impulses that invariably accompany them. As the Bhagavata-Purāna recounts: “When Krishna plays the flute the whole world is filled with love. Rivers stop, stones are illumined, lotus flowers tremble; gazelles, cows and birds are entranced; demons and ascetics enchanted.”
Such images place the flute and its music at the heart of Indian folk consciousness, and its popularity in folk music should come as no surprise. On the other hand, the flute has had a more uncertain relationship with classical music; we are frequently told that wind instruments such as the bansuri (flute) and the shehnai, (oboe) have played a less consistent role than stringed instruments in the classical music tradition.
The terminology is a little misleading here; the terms ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ are really not indigenous to Indian thought; they have been borrowed from Western music and stem from eighteenth and nineteenth century European scholarship. The earliest genre distinctions in India revolve around rather different concepts such as mārga and desí, concepts closer to our idea of sacred and secular. Historical evidence suggests that the flute, known variously as venu, vamsi, bansi, bansuri, pava, murali, kolalu, kolavi, kukhal, pillankuzhal, nar, algoza and pillangrovi, has participated in both of these genres, at least until the sixteenth century. It is described in the most ancient treatise on dramaturgy, the Nātya Sastra, where it is described as a basic part of the ancient theater orchestra. Extensive artistic representations of flutes and flute players, for example in relief sculptures from Ajanta and Ellora, Amaravati and Gandhara, as well as Buddhist sculptures at Sanchi, attest to the widespread use of the instrument over many centuries, both in the accompaniment of singers and as a member of instrumental ensembles. The thirteenth-century theory text Sangīta-ratnākara contains detailed descriptions of flutes and instructions for their construction. Four centuries later, we read of the Mughal emperor Jehangir honoring a flutist in his court named Ustad Muhammad, by awarding him rupees equivalent to his weight in pounds of silver – plus an elephant to carry him and the money! At the same time, however, the miniatures that have come down to us from that era portray very few flutists; the instrumentalists portrayed are predominantly string and percussion players.
Undoubtedly, Indian music has a very long history, one that has seen much change and evolution with many different genres emerging and evolving, many defined in terms of patronage and performance environment. In this context it is most important to mention the split between northern and southern traditions in India that began in the fourteenth century. In south India, the Carnatic tradition, until recently centered on the temple environment, has retained an emphasis on genres of dance and drama that hark back to ancient Vedic ritual, Lord Shiva and the Nātya Sastra, which utilize instrumental ensembles in which the flute frequently plays a prominent role. In the North, however, with the Mughal invasions of the fifteenth-century, music began to center on courtly, rather than temple environments, and the development of gharanas or schools of performance eventually gave rise to the performance traditions that we have come to call Hindustani music, and which centered upon the bin, or rudra vīna, and its later derivatives such as the sitar. This is, of course, an over-simplification, and there are exceptions such as Ustad Muhammad at Jehangir’s court. But the flute seems to have been considered too basic an instrument for the complexities of these unfolding traditions; its high pitch seemed unsuited for the full range of rasas, or affective states, required in the expression of many rāgas. Moreover, there was no established form of construction for the instrument. For these and other reasons, no gharana, or school, of flute performance arose. Wind instruments such as the shenhai and the bansuri, while still popular in village and temple, found only a secondary position in the newly emerging performance media of the concert stage and All India Radio, being used mainly to accompany singers.
The reasons for this are still open to speculation. What we do know, however, is that the early years of this century found the bansuri tradition in a state of disarray. At least three different kinds of flute were in use, in a variety of materials. The transverse or side-blown instrument was found, as well as end blown instruments and fipple flutes similar to the modern recorder. Each of these types was constructed in a variety of materials, including metal, wood and bamboo, and ranged in size from fifteen to sixty centimeters. True, some flute soloists could be found playing classical ragas on All India Radio during the early 1900s, a prime example being Dr. Dinkar Rao Amel who performed on a metal instrument. But there was no single, coherent style of flute performance. For the flute to improve upon its uncertain position in the early years of this century, the instrument needed to find a uniform mode of construction and an accepted style of performance shaped by a dominant exponent. This finally occurred in the 1940s with the emergence of one artist.
Amulya Jyoti (nicknamed Pannalal) Ghosh arrived in Calcutta In 1928 , having left his home in what is now Bangla Desh to escape the political unrest there. A child prodigy from a musical family, he had been studying sitar and vocal music from an early age. After a chance meeting with a sadhu, or holy man, who gave him a flute, became interested in this instrument, an interest that intensified during his early experiences in Calcutta performing music for plays and silent movies. During one such production, in which he provided music for the dramatization of a work by the renowned poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, Pannalal became dissatisfied with the pitch and sonority of the flute he had been working with. Realizing that he needed and instrument that would be appropriate for both classical and light music, he began to experiment with different sizes of flute, using various materials. It seemed to him that a larger instrument with a lower pitch would be more suitable for the classical genres. He finally settled on a flute of thirty two inches in length, with seven tone holes and a tonic at the E above middle C. And after trying metal and various kinds of wood he decided that bamboo was still the most suitable medium for a larger instrument.
Such an instrument, with slight variations, has now become the standard among north Indian flutists but it does present certain difficulties in both construction and performance. A bansuri is made from a single piece of bamboo with no knots, and finding longer pieces that satisfy these requirements is increasingly difficult, especially as increasing deforestation has made bamboo less plentiful. Some flute makers now find that they need to go as far as Assam* in order to find the bamboo they need, and future availability is uncertain. At the same time, the length of the instrument and the distances between the tone holes, make considerable demands on the stretching ability of the performer’s hands. Rumors abounded, for example, that Pannalal had corrective surgery to give his hands a greater spread. The rumors were unfounded, but the truth remains that a player with a small or average sized hand has to go through a process of stretching that, (as this writer can testify,) is quite painful. It also raises the problem of playing the very lowest hole on the instrument, which is well beyond the normal reach of the right hand pinky. Pannalal and his disciples mastered a rather awkward technique in which the whole hand shifts its position. Other players have resorted to alternative solutions, such as placing this hole on the front of the flute and closing it with the knee, or, occasionally, by adding a simple key on the instrument.
Having settled on the design of his instrument, Pannalal spent the remainder of his career developing the style of performance which was to raise the bansuri to the level of full fledged concert instrument and bring him widespread acclaim throughout India. Only thirteen years remained until his untimely death in 1960, but during that time Pannalal appeared at hundreds of music festivals, played frequently on All India Radio, and made numerous recordings. He is credited with inventing the bass bansuri as well as creating and popularizing several new ragas.
During the highlight of his career, Pannalal Ghosh was not just the predominant flutist, he was virtually the only flutist in Hindustani classical music. After his passing, however, a new generation of bansuri performers was to emerge including four main figures, Pannal’s major disciple Devendra Murdeshwar plus Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vijay Raghav Rao and Raghunath Seth. Of these, by far the best known is Chaurasia who is now widely regarded as the leading exponent of bansuri. Chaurasia concertizes and records throughout India and the world with the leading Hindustani performers as well as with Western musicians such as jazz guitarist John MacLaughlin. If Pannalal Ghosh developed the bansuri as a classical instrument in India, it was still considered to follow the tradition of vocal music. Chaurasia has gone one step further, adapting the flute to the style more commonly associated with the stringed instruments such as sitar and sarod, this following his studies with the renowned Annapurna Devi, the Nadia Boulanger of Indian music. Raghunath Seth was initially influenced by Pannalal Ghosh whom he knew in Bombay, but he has developed a more personal style, less brilliant than
Chaurasia, perhaps, but retaining more of the subtle nuances of vocal music. Vijay Raghav Rao also contributed much to the flute tradition in his early years, although he is better known for his multiple talents as poet, composer and teacher. His work in films is exemplified by his collaboration with violinist Shankar in the score to the movie Gandhi, his teaching through the emergence of one of his students, Ronu Mujamdar, to prominence on the concert stage. Fluent in the Hindustani style, Ronu has also engaged in fusion experiments with Western artists such as Ry Cooder and Jacky Terrasson
While speaking of Western artists, it is worth mentioning that several American and European flutists have adapted to the Indian bamboo instrument, particularly since Hariprasad Chaurasia has been teaching at the Rotterdam Conservatory. John Wubbenhorst, who is based near Washington D.C. commuted to Rotterdam and India for several years to work with Chaurasia. He performs throughout the U.S.A. and in India, in the Hindustani classical genre as well as adapting the bansuri to his fusion experiments. Californian David
Philipson adheres strictly to the Pannalal Ghosh tradition, as does Lyon Leifer, an instructor at Northeastern Illinois University and former student of Julius Baker, who has also spent a considerable time in India studying bansuri with Devendra Murdeshwar. New Yorker Steve Gorn spent several years in India studying with another of Pannalal Ghosh’s disciples, Gaur Gosvami. Today he continues his studies with Raghunath Seth. He has performed in India and made several CDs of pure Indian classical music, though his bansuri can also be heard on jazz and fusion recordings by artists such as Paul Simon, Jack Dejohnette and Glen Velez.
While all of these artists belong to the Hindustani tradition which, following the influence of Ravi Shankar and others, is better known in the West, the Carnatic tradition has also seen a revival of flute performance, one that goes back to the nineteenth century. It was begun by Sarabha Sastri, who was born in what is now Tamil Nadu in 1872. In spite of losing his sight during childhood, Sastri developed a system of fingering that allowed the ragas and compositions of Carnatic music to be executed on the south Indian flute, known as pulangoil in Tamil, venu in Sanskrit. This is a smaller instrument than the bansuri, with eight tone-holes, but still constructed of bamboo. Sastri died while only 32, but his work was carried on by his disciple Palladam Sanjeeva Rao who enjoyed a much longer career, over six decades, during which he did much to popularize the flute with classical music audiences in south India. His work, in turn, was carried on by his disciple H. Ramachandra Shastri, who died only recently. But the tradition they established has been eclipsed by the work of an extraordinary artist.
T.R.Mahalingam, popularly know as “Mali,” was a child prodigy who burst onto the music scene at a 1933 music festival, at the age of seven. Virtually without formal training, Mali developed further cross-fingerings, along with advanced blowing techniques, that allowed for a more vocal, expressive style that was instantly more popular than the rather austere approach of Sanjeeva Rao, who declined to take him as a student. Until his death in 1987, Mali dominated Carnatic flute performance, becoming an immensely popular artist throughout south India, indeed, he is regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of that tradition. His influence has continued through his disciple Dr. N. Ramani who has been regarded as a top-ranking Carnatic flutist since 1947, rivaled only by K. S. Gopalakrishnan and the sisters Kunjumani and Neela Sikkil. Now a new generation is arising in Carnatic flute performance in the person of Dr. Shashank Subramanyam, known asShashank, another child prodigy who gave his first concert performance at the age of twelve and is now concertizing and recording widely.
For those of us who have spent thousands of dollars for a flute made from silver, gold, or platinum, it is a sobering thought that the finest craftsman of India would charge a couple of hundred, at most, for a bansuri, or a venu crafted from a simple piece of bamboo. Indeed, a metal flute, with all its elaborate mechanism, is quite incapable of executing the delicate nuances of Indian music. By contrast, in the hands of the artists we have mentioned, a simple bamboo tube becomes an instrument of immense subtlety and expressive depth. And as the poem states, one that still holds the minds and hearts of Indian people:
Still must I like a homeless bird
Wander, forsaking all;
The earthly loves and wordly lures
That held my life in thrall,
And follow, follow, answering
The magical flute-call.
Peter Westbrook holds a Ph.D. in musicology. He has studied bansuri with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and jazz flute with Ali Ryerson. He is the co-author of Divine Harmony: The life and Teachings of Pythagoras, the author of The Flute in Jazz, from Spring, 2003 and one on the Music, Psyche, Kosmos, scheduled for publication in 2023.
This article is based on Peter Westbrook (2003), “The bansuri and pulangoil, bamboo flutes of India” Flutist Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, pages 1–27. Sections of it appeared in the notes to CDs by Raghunath Seth and Ronu Mujamdar on India Archives Records and are used by permission.
* So concerned was our author’s first bansuri teacher, Debu Banarjee of Calcutta, about the bamboo shortage, that he married a lady from Assam!
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