Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia has epitomized playing the flute, not just in India but all over the world since he started performing from the 1950s. The 77-year-old maestro, whose father was a wrestler who wanted his son to practice wrestling instead of music, recollects how he pursued his passion and achieved excellence. Even though Hindustani classical music is his tradition, Pt. Chaurasia has touched different areas that include working on film music and collaborating with foreign musicians, including the Beatles.
Pt. Chaurasia was in Delhi recently to perform at the Delhi Classical Musical Festival. Here are the excerpts from an interview:
You started learning flute from your Guru Ma, Annapurna Devi, a sitar exponent. Tell us about it.
In our country, if you want to learn music or an instrument, you go to an expert. If you want to become a singer, you go to a singer, and to be a violinist, you go to an expert who can play the instrument. I didn’t want to break tradition. But I also wanted to play music: An instrument, I felt, was just a medium.
Listen to Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s Song Of The Road here:
I met her father (Ustad Allaudhin Khan) when I was still very young, and he called me to his place. It was difficult for me because I was still studying at that time. To add to my troubles, my father, a wrestler, wanted me to also to become one. In my family there were no musicians. To make him happy I used to go for wrestling. But to please myself, I would secretly play music. It occurred to me one day that to play music, instrument is just a medium. So if you like someone’s music, it is better to learn that school of music, the instrument doesn’t matter.
So, I just broke tradition. When I came to Bombay, I thought, I would have lessons from her. And make music more beautiful on the flute.
Annapurna Devi is a recluse now. Tell us about your experience with her?
She was just a housewife back then -- Ms Ravishankar (she was married to the late legendary sitar player Pandit Ravishankar). She did not accept me as her student initially: She said if I wanted to learn music, I should go to a flute expert. When I insisted, she directed me to her husband. But I was adamant on learning it from her, and told Guru Ma that if she didn’t take me under her tutelage, I would forget about learning music. This was around 1962, and I was very busy with the film industry at that time.
After almost three years, she finally agreed to teach me. I am fortunate to have her as my teacher even today.
Listen to Call of Krishna here:
Is it true that she asked you to begin playing with your left hand instead of the right one?
No, that’s now true. But she did tell me if I changed my style of playing a bit, it would help me and her as well. I just wanted to make it more convenient for both of us. So I changed my style.
How was your experience working with Western musicians?
I enjoyed and learned a lot. You have to like them, their music and the musical experience. When that happens, one starts meeting them, talking about music and start playing music... just like that. Nowadays, the younger generation doesn’t care about anybody. They can play with anyone.
How was the experience of mixing the two kinds of music--Western and eastern?
You know, it is a kind of language. Once you start understanding it, then you start enjoying talking to each other. It is like you know one Indian language and I know other, and once we learn the language of each other, we start liking each other as well.
How do you see the advent of technology into music? Some people say it is killing it.
Yes, that is right. To make music, especially in Indian music, it has to be very soft. But people, today, want to convert instrument into electronic systems. They want to play louder and louder music.
With flute, it is difficult because this was created by Lord Krishna. Besides, it is just bamboo, with no strings and no skin. If you try, then, it will get worse. It is difficult for me even to think about that.
Classical music is, by definition, based on tradition. But for anything to evolve, you have to experiment. How do you see this?
Experiment ...hmm… is okay. It may be from your side but not for the audience. You have to keep tradition intact, which is very important. If you lose track, then what happens to the younger generation?
I will give the example of the Sun in the solar system. It has to come up every day at five in the morning. Even if you want to change it, you will not be able to. Certain things have to be as they are. I do experiment, but I always respect tradition. You saw me playing the Vatapi Ganapatim, a Carnatic composition and a Pahadi song on Tuesday. The audience demanded it. And it has a long aalap (and other ways of tradition). The instruments used were also traditional. It was not mridangam but tabla.
The gurukul system is an integral part of the Indian musical tradition. That is how art passed on from one generation to the other. Is it still possible today?
It is very important when it comes to Indian music. When you learn you should forget other subjects and you should be involved only in music. It is not something one does just for one or two hours.
I have two gurukuls, because of my Guru Ma. My gurukul is called Vrindavan. My students practice all the time and in doing so they are with me all the time. They have become my family. I have students from all over the world. And they don’t just stay for one or two years. Most stay for more than five years.
How long do you practice in a day?
Practicing is not just about holding an instrument and playing it. It is about constantly thinking about music -- what am I going to perform, how to make it more beautiful when I perform, how did I perform last time...