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Strings, Winds and Beats – The Bamboo Flute



Indian musical instruments are diverse. In this series, Music Plus began with the violin and sitar. The violin because it has been used both in the south and north Indian classical fields, besides various folk forms. Likewise, the sitar has been very popular not only in India, but in the west too.

The choice for the third part was a bit tough. It could have been the tabla, which many youngsters learn at an early age. It could have also been the veena, an ancient instrument associated with Goddess Saraswati. Or it could have been Lord Shiva playing the damroo.

After a bit of thinking, I settled for Lord Krishna and the bamboo flute. It’s called bansuri in the north and venu in south India. Who doesn’t know Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia?

Like the violin, the flute has been used in various cultures across the world, and is also known to be the earliest musical instrument ever. However, while musicians from the West largely use a metal flute, the Indian counterparts play the bamboo flute. The grip, technique and notation styles are different. That’s another story.

India is not the only country to specialise in bamboo flutes, as one finds different varieties in other Asian countries, especially in China, Japan, Korea and certain Far Eastern regions. In India, however, the flute has a religious significance, as it’s associated with Lord Krishna, who was known to play three varieties – venu, murali and vamsi. It was even seen in Buddhist paintings of the 1st century.

The length of bamboo flutes varies between the 12-inch (or lower) murali to the 40-inch shankhbansuri, though many musicians prefer it to be about 20 inches. They could have between six or eight holes.

Among today’s musicians, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia is the best-known Hindustani exponent, whereas the late N. Ramani has led the Carnatic list. The instrument also finds extensive use in folk music, film music, fusion, devotional music and classical dance. Let’s look at each genre:

Hindustani music: The word bansuri is a combination of bans (bamboo) and sur (melody). Like the sitar and other Hindustani instruments, the bansuri is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla (or in some cases, the pakhawaj drum) and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap,increasing tempo with the jod and reaching a faster climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla/ pakhawaj accompaniment.

After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with percussion accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the flautist demonstrates his skill here, the tabla / pakhawaj player also plays certain brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.

Once this first raga is over, the flautist may play another raag, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted. Hindustani flautists usually prefer raags Pahadi and Bhairavi to conclude their shows, and use smaller flutes for folk compositions. The bansuri is also used as an accompaniment in lighter classical vocal forms like the thumri, dadra and hori.

Hariprasad Chaurasia,Pannalal Ghosh, Rakesh Chaurasia, Ronu Majumdar, Vijay Raghav Rao


Among performers, though Chaurasia is extremely popular among today’s audiences, it was actually Pandit Pannalal Ghosh who elevated the status of the flute from a folk instrument into a classical one, before he passed away in 1960. Other renowned bansuri exponents from the earlier generation have been Raghunath Prasanna of Benaras, Vijay Raghav Rao, a disciple of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and Devendra Murdeshwar and Niranjan Haldipur, both students of Ghosh.

Chaurasia’s rise to fame happened from the mid-60s onwards, and remains undiminished to this day. Another popular contemporary was the late Pandit Raghunath Seth, who learnt from vocalist S.N. Ratanjankar and Ghosh. Flautists from a slightly younger batch include Ronu Majumdar, Pravin Godkhindi, Raghunath Prasanna’s son Rajendra Prasanna, Sunil Kant Gupta, Paras Nath and Nityanand Haldipur, who is a disciple of surbahar exponent Annapurna Devi. Among Chaurasia’s students, Rakesh Chaurasia (his nephew), Rajendra Teredesai, Rupak Kulkarni and Vivek Sonar have been prolific. Foreigners like Steve Gorn have also taken to the bansuri.

The best-known jugalbandi combination is Chaurasia with santoor monarch Shivkumar Sharma. In 1966-67, the two of them were joined by late Hindustani guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra on the album ‘Call of the Valley’, and many years later, they released ‘The Valley Recalls’ as a duo. Besides them, there have been duets like Ronu Majumdar with santoor player Satish Vyas, and Sonar with sitar exponent Chirag Katti.

These apart, Chaurasia has collaborated with Hindustani vocalist Kishori Amonkar and Carnatic vocalist Balamuralikrishna to produce some divine music. Among the north-south jugalbandis, mention must also be made of the partnership between Godkhindi and Carnatic saxophone player Kadri Gopalnath, both in live performances and on the albums Raag Rang and Yatra.

Carnatic music: As compared to the violin and veena, the flute or venu finds lesser usage in Carnatic music. However, flautists like Sarabha Sastri, Palladam Sanjiva Rao, H. Ramchandra Shastri, T.R. Mahalingam and N. Ramani helped create an audience for the instrument in Carnatic music.

Though the flute was played for years in south India, the first person to bring it into the actual Carnatic music format was Sarabha Sastri in the late 19th century. However, it was Mahalingam (also known as ‘Mali’) who brought in a new technique which was instantly accepted. His disciples K.S. Narayanan and Ramani took the tradition further, with the latter playing a huge role in elevating its status in Carnatic music, emphasising on the vocal style of playing.

Other practitioners of the Carnatic flute have included the Sikkil sisters Kunjumani and Neela, whose daughter Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar also played the instrument, and K. Bhaskaran. The youngsters include Naveen Kumar and the genius Shashank Subramanyam, who can play anything with the instrument, irrespective of genre, north, south, west or east. Yet, though the instrument is admired for its melodic quality, fewer newcomers are getting into the field as compared to other Carnatic instruments.

T R Mahalingam, N Ramani & Shashank Subramanyam


Hindi film music: Both the bansuri and metal flute have been used in film music from across India. Among the Hindi film songs, some stand out.

The most common example of a flute solo is the theme music from the 1983 film Hero, picturised on Jackie Shroff. The tune was recreated in a faster way by DJ Nasha on ‘Flute Fantasy’.

Within songs, the flute has been used for years, one of the early examples being ‘Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki’ by music director Naushad in the 1949 film Dulari. Other well-known examples are‘Mohe panghat pe’ (Mughal-e-Azam), ‘Pyaar hua ikrar hua’ (Shree 420), ‘Suno sajna papihe ne’ (Aaye Din Bahar Ke), ‘Chingari koi bhadke’ and‘Raina beet jaaye’ (Amar Prem), ‘Khaali haath shaam aayi hai’ (Ijaazat) and ‘Neela aasmaan so gaya’ (Silsila). The last one was composed by Shiv-Hari or Shivkumar Sharma-Hariprasad Chaurasia, who used both the santoor and bansuri extensively.

Rahman has used the flute in the Lagaan song ‘Radha kaise na jale’ and in ‘Saans’ from Jab Tak Hai Jaan, where Naveen Kumar has played a smaller folk version.

Talking of bansuri players in Hindi films, Chaurasia has worked with other composers before Shiv-Hari worked together in movies. Manohari Singh, primarily a saxophone player, also played the flute brilliantly, more so with R D Burman. And talking of RD, one of the most gorgeous flute compositions is found in his Bengali song ‘Phire eso Anuradha’.

As a music director, Raghunath Seth scored for the films Ek Baar Phir, Yeh Nazdeekiyan, Damuland Mrityudand, where he made prominent use of the bansuri. Today, Ronu Majumdar, Rakesh Chaurasia and Naveen Kumar play bansuri in many film songs and in indie music. Rakesh Chaurasia also has a fusion band Rakesh And Friends, fusing classical bansuri with jazz and world music.

Talking about films, the bansuri played a very prominent role in Ang Lee’s Hollywood movie Life of Pi, with music by Mychael Danna. A Sony Music source confirmed that the flute was played by Jatinder Jeetu, who’s not known at all, but has done an outstanding job.

Experimental music and fusion: Because of the beauty of its tone and improvisational quality, the bansuri finds an easy place in the world of fusion. Back in 1986, Chaurasia teamed up with tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the album ‘Making Music’. In the late 90s, he joined Zakir, McLaughlin and ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram on the group Remember Shakti, whose live performances were released on the album ‘Music Without Boundaries’.

Vijay Raghav Rao released a fairly path-breaking album called ‘Destiny: A Symphonic Fable’, which was basically an orchestral album but used heavy doses of both the bansuri and western-styled flutes. Ronu Majumdar has done a fair amount of fusion work, including his album ‘Moonlight Whispers’ with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. Rajeev Raja used both western metal flute and bansuri on his album ‘Cosmic Chant’.


Among the bands, Mumbai-based fusion group Filter Coffee has flautist Shriram Sampat in its line-up. The bansuri has attracted foreign musicians too, examples being Prem Joshua, who also plays sitar and saxophone. Closer home, Nepali bansuri player Manose has done some experimental work on the album Epiphany and on recordings with new age spiritual singer Deva Premal. In Pakistan, the popular Mekaal Hasan Band has a fantastic flautist in Mohammad Ahsan Papu. Check out his work on the track ‘Sampooran’.

Folk, ghazals, devotional music and dance: Needless to say, the bansuri is played in many forms of north Indian folk music. It has also been used as an accompaniment on many ghazals, especially by Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas.

In devotional music, many songs on Lord Krishna use the bansuri. These include Meera bhajans and even dance recitals based on Jayadev’s 12thcentury composition Gita Govinda. With its devotional nature, the instrument finds a place in the backdrop of many Indian classical dances.

The beauty of the Indian bamboo flute lies in the sheer purity of its sound and ability to relax minds. Whichever genre it is used in, it sounds like magic to the ears.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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