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The Magic Flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia

Senior Lecturer in Music Describes the Magic Of An Exceptional Flutist

By George Ruckert

Lecturer George Ruckert, an eminent member of the Indian classical music scene, shares his experiences with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. Chaurasia will be performing at Kresge Auditorium on Sunday at 4 p.m.

I am in a recording studio in LA. It is 1979, and I have been asked to play tanpura for the great flutist from India, Hariprasad Chaurasia. Ravi Shankar, the famous sitarist, has organized the session, and the music is a blend of east and west for an album called Ravi Shankar and Friends. I'd like to think I was one of the friends, but “student” is more like it, and I am thrilled to be among such stars of the music world.

Raviji (as he is commonly addressed) comes into the studio, says something in Hindi to Hariji, and the flute master plays a dazzling run, a surge of notes which race to the top of the scale and fall in cascades of rippling sound back down to the lower register.

“Five seconds,” says Raviji now in English. “Try eight.”

Again the soar, again the waterfall of notes down, a little more elaborate.

“That was nine seconds. Fine, you could even go for ten or eleven,” says Raviji approvingly, as he backs away to attend to some another recording detail.

Hariji tried several other spontaneous fountains of notes, each one perfect to my ears, before he settled on the version that was recorded. It introduces one of the tunes on this, one of his many recordings.

Chaurasia, or Hariji, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great flute-players in the world. He made his name in the film world of Bombay, where his sound came to be identified as one of the quintessential sounds of India-haunting, nostalgic, pure. In the sixties and seventies, he played for hundreds of films, indelibly stamping them with the personality of his sound, which made him famous, and one imagines, wealthy as well.

But there is no sense of his being simply caught up in the "Bollywood" film world, although he has also conquered it with a series of award-winning film scores which he composed with his long-time friend and associate, santurist Shivkumar Sharma (e.g., Silsila, Chandnia). His film playing and scoring has been a major forum for his world-wide popularity.

However, Hariji has turned his focus more back to classical music, especially in the last twenty years. He had steeped himself in the many possible sounds of the bansuri, the keyless bamboo flute. (He carries with him a complete set of flutes in a wedge-shaped case which range from low to high, bass to piccolo ranges, and everything in between)

In his youth, he listened to the recordings of the late Pannallal Ghosh, whose brilliant technique and serious bass-flute sound had established that the bansuri could take its place interpreting the intricate and challenging classical repertoire of raga and tala. Prior to the innovations of Pandit Ghosh, the flute was considered to be a folk instrument. Without keys, it was said, the simple length of bamboo could never achieve the subtlety required to get the different intervals, jumps, and microtonal pitches of classical music.

Chaurasia has brought this attention to detail in his chaste playing of the whole raga literature. Nor has he shied away from the more difficult rags, having recorded Darbari Kanra, Lalit, and Bhairavi, to name a few of the ragas which were deemed “not playable” on the flute a generation ago. He has played in an astounding variety of programs, from jazz fusion to film ensemble to east-west combinations with the renowned western flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. In 2000, he received India’s most distinguished artistic award, Padmavibhusan, which only added to the numerous titles and awards he had already received.