A young man would sit around Kolkata docks trying out different waste materials like PVC pipes and bamboo to create the perfect sound. Destined to be the patriarch of the Indian bansuri, he rose to become none other than the legendary Pandit Pannalal Ghosh (1911-1960) whose name remains synonymous with one of the world’s most sublime musical instruments.
Originally a folkloric instrument associated with Lord Krishna, the bansuri’s captivating tone was confined to village gatherings and folk merry making. It was the undying conviction of Panna babu that elevated the simple piece of bamboo to one of the world’s most sought after instruments in the 21st century.
Internationally renowned tabla and sitar maestro Pandit Nayan Ghosh, nephew of Pandit Pannalal Ghosh says, “In cities across India, one can often bump into bansuri players and students on a street. Individuals from around the world fly down to India to learn the instrument. Previously it was the sitar that was the world’s most popular Indian instrument, thanks to the Pandit Ravi Shankar wave. Today, it’s the bansuri”.
Panna babu, he explains, pioneered the bansuri as a classical instrument. “He invented the larger, full-sized bansuri and made it a full-fledged concert instrument on par with sitar or sarod. He did face flak from the conservatives of his era, but his conviction was unshaken. This unparalleled contribution, which he fulfilled in a short span of just 20 years, would otherwise take generations,” Pandit Ghosh says.
Celebrated flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s Mumbai institute Vrindavan Gurukul draws in students from diverse nationalities, both men and women. His eminent disciples have propagated his style in countries across the globe with concert halls brimming with music lovers and the uninitiated alike. “Credit goes to Panna babu to bring the flute to center stage. It was merely an accompanying folk instrument. Today, it is Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia who is credited with the instrument’s worldwide popularity,” says the maestro’s leading disciple, famed flutist Pandit Roopak Kulkarni.
He believes that his guru simplified flute playing techniques, even the Dhrupad-ang aalap, contributing to its popularity. “We find flutes in every culture. There are Indian bansuri students from every corner of the globe — Japan, Brazil, Europe, even Pakistan! Bansuri must now be taught on university level,” he opines.
The saadhna of bansuri learning has produced outstanding representatives even beyond India’s boundaries. Acknowledged as one of the leading maestros of Western Classical flute, Chicago-based Lyon Leifer also stands as a top-ranking bansuri exponent of Panna babu’s style which he learnt from the legend’s disciple Pandit Devendra Murdeshwar. A few months ago, he organised a one-of-its kind flute seminar in Mumbai’s world-renowned conservatoire Sangit Mahabharati, where India’s foremost bansuri masters participated.
Leifer believes that the Bansuri’s versatility has had a far-reaching effect with even international genres employing it. “My student Mathew Davis is a well-trained jazz musician who implements his bansuri training in an avant garde jazz trio that tours the world. He finds the Europeans very receptive to his bansuri. He also tours with a classic New Orleans Brass band and audiences love to listen to his raga music. It helps them chill!” says Leifer.
Indeed, the bansuri calms the spirit and awes the listener. A favourite subject of poets and literary figures throughout history, the instrument carries a deep spiritual and historic significance. The universality of its sound has people from varied cultures relate to its music. “Bansuri is the adivadya or primordial instrument associated with Lord Krishna. Panna babu’s technical and aesthetic contributions made it hard for people to believe that the flute could sound so rich and ethereal. Hariprasad ji popularised it internationally,” explains veteran flutist Pandit Nityanand Haldipur.
The bansuri, he says, is a simple looking, light and portable instrument without any external attachments like strings. This is one of the reasons for its high global popularity. “The bansuri is an instrument that you can play just anywhere. You don’t even need to tune it if it is constructed in tune. No wonder there are so many takers for it the world over,” he adds.
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