Indian musical instrument, the bansuri, on an overall note: The Tribune India

Krishnaraj Iyengar

A young man would sit around the docks in Kolkata trying out different rubbish like PVC pipes and bamboo to create the perfect sound. Destined to be the patriarch of the Indian bansuri, he became none other than the legendary Pandit Pannalal Ghosh (1911-1960) whose name remains synonymous with one of the most sublime musical instruments in the world.

Pandit Pannalal Ghosh

Originally a folk instrument associated with Lord Krishna, the captivating tone of the bansuri was confined to village gatherings and folk revelry. It is Panna Babu’s unwavering belief that has 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 master Pandit Nayan Ghosh, nephew of Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, says: “In the cities of India, you can often come across bansuri players and students on the streets. People from all over the world travel to India to learn the instrument. Previously, it was the sitar that was the most popular Indian instrument in the world, thanks to the wave Pandit Ravi Shankar. Today, it’s the bansuri”.

Pandit Roopak Kulkarni

Panna babu, he explains, pioneered the bansuri as a classical instrument. “He invented the larger, full-sized bansuri and made it a concert instrument in its own right like the sitar or the sarod. He faced criticism from the conservatives of his day, but his conviction remained unshaken. This unprecedented contribution, which he accomplished in just 20 years, would otherwise take generations,” says Pandit Ghosh.

Renowned flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Mumbai Vrindavan Gurukul institute attracts students of various nationalities, male and female. His eminent followers have spread his style to countries around the world with concert halls overflowing with music lovers and the uninitiated. “Credit goes to Panna Babu for putting the flute center stage. It was simply a folk accompaniment instrument. Today, it is Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia who is credited with the worldwide popularity of the instrument,” says the main disciple of the maestro, the famous flautist Pandit Roopak Kulkarni.

He believes his guru simplified flute playing techniques, even the Dhrupad-ang aalap, contributing to his popularity. “We find flutes in all cultures. There are Indian bansuri students from every corner of the globe – Japan, Brazil, Europe and even Pakistan! Bansuri should now be taught at university level,” he said.

The bansuri learning sadhna has produced outstanding exponents even beyond the borders of India. Recognized as one of the leading maestros of Western classical flute, Chicago-based Lyon Leifer is also one of the leading exponents of the Panna babu style bansuri which he learned from the legendary disciple, Pandit Devendra Murdeshwar . A few months ago, he held a one-of-a-kind flute seminar at the world-renowned Sangit Mahabharati Conservatory in Mumbai, which was attended by India’s foremost bansuri masters.

Leifer believes the Bansuri’s versatility has had a tremendous effect, even in international genres that use it. “My student Mathew Davis is a well-trained jazz musician who puts his bansuri training to work in a cutting-edge jazz trio that tours the world. He finds 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 relax! said Leifer.

Indeed, the bansuri calms the mind and intimidates the listener. A favorite subject of poets and literary figures throughout history, the instrument carries deep spiritual and historical significance. The universality of his sound has people from varied cultures relate to his music. “Bansuri is the adivadya or the primordial instrument associated with Lord Krishna. Panna Babu’s technical and aesthetic contributions have made it hard for people to believe that the flute could sound so rich and ethereal. Hariprasad ji l’ popularized internationally,” says veteran flautist Pandit Nityanand Haldipur.

The bansuri, he says, is a simple, light and portable instrument, without any external accessories like strings. This is one of the reasons for its great worldwide popularity. “The bansuri is an instrument that can be played anywhere. You don’t even have to tune it if it’s built in tune. No wonder there are so many takers around the world,” he adds.

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