(Last Updated on : 25/04/2015)
Flute personifies Indian culture to the hilt. Its ingenious refinement, softness and intrinsic depth entertain and fulfill every listener. References to the wind instrument can be witnessed since the times of the Rig Veda
, even in the murals of Ajanta and Ellora caves
. It is basically a folk instrument, invariably linked to the lives and playfulnesses of Krishna. However, it was only during the Bhakti movement
that flute rose to prominence. During the latter part of the 19th century, the Karnatic musical geniuses took up the flute as an inseparable part of a concert ensemble. Slowly, it also was infused into the North Indian musical arena, basically by the untiring efforts of Pt. Pannalal Ghosh. His innovations and improvisations are historical and can never be surpassed. The flute in use today is made from bamboo, taken from the forests of Assam and North-East. Generally with six finger holes - one for blowing and the remaining for the fingers, Pannnalal Ghosh added one further hole to facilitate the playing of lower octaves. However, the North and South Indian style of playing and holding the flute differs in various aspects. The Hindustani classical musical genre follows the basic pattern of playing, beginning with the alaap and ending with the drut gat.
If there is one instrument that symbolizes the imaginative grace, the emotional depth and the spiritual longing of Indian culture, it is the flute. The flute is a creature of wings and colours, of dreams and reveries, of air and dance.
In Indian art and culture, the flute is inextricably interlinked with the life and loves of Krishna. Musicologists hold that, along with the veena and the mrridang, the flute, or the venu, is one of the oldest Indian instruments. It figures as one of the key accompanying instruments in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, as also the Puranas. Both celestial and human beings are shown to play it in the mural paintings in Ajanta, in the sculptures in Ellora and Sanchi. Importantly, it has been part of numerous pastoral, folk and regional ensembles from time immemorial. As a folk instrument it absorbed the sweetness and fragrance of those cultures in the country of which it was a part. Its primordial character becomes evident when folk airs are played on the small and high-pitched flute.
During the time of the Bhakti movement, the venu, or bansuri, flourished in the imaginations of the Vaishnava saints and poets as the very symbol of Krishna. Some scholars believe that the flute lost its pride of place in the classical ensemble on the 17th century, with the entry of the sunadi, the double reed precursor of the modern day shehnai. In any event, the flute does not find a place in any of the major instrument gharanas that trace their origins to Tansen.
It was during the latter part of the 19th century that the flute came to occupy its esteemed place in the Karnatic repertoire as a solo instrument due to the tireless efforts of the inspired genius, Sarabha Shastri. His gifted student, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao continued his legacy and made the flute a popular instrument among thousands in the south. T.R. Mahalingam, or Mali as he is popularly called, through the sheer force of innate genius and unerring instinct brought about several innovations in the style of playing and restored its lost glory in the hearts of millions in the south. In the north, however, the instrument had to wait for the magical fingers of Pannalal Ghosh to raise it to the level of a solo instrument. Later Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Vijay Raghav Rao and Pt. Raghunath Seth popularized it among the millions all over the world.
The modern day flute used in Hindustani recitals is made of straight and tidy bamboo of even bore, closed at one end. The bamboo used for making it comes from the forests of Assam
or any of the other states in the Northeast. The bansuri used in Hindustani concerts is usually two-and-a-half to three feet long, possesses six finger holes and one for blowing. Pannalal Ghosh added one more hole to help him negotiate certain notes in the lower octave. Six fingers have to be placed in the finger holes in a varying manner to reproduce the intricacies and minutiae of raagas. In North India, the flute is placed almost horizontally with the lower end slanted towards the ground. The player, who sits cross-legged on the ground, has to use blowing and fingering techniques to get the required tonal modulations. Most players follow the Pannalal model of using two other types of flutes besides the playing flute to delineate raagas. The unusually long and stout bass flute helps the player play the lower octave with great effect, while short and light flute is used for playing catchy folk and regional airs. The main playing flute can generate two-and-a-half and, at times, three octaves quite easily, thus making it close companion of the human voice. Unlike the Hindustani flute, the Karnatic flute is shorter and possesses eight playing holes bored differently from its North Indian counterpart. The sound produced is also far more shrill compared to the mellow bass resonance given off by the Hindustani bansuri.
The Hindustani flute, for the most part, follows the same format of presentation used by stringed instruments. First comes the free alaap, which is followed by the vilambit gat and eventually rounded off with the drut gat. Hariprasad Chaurasia
, following the Maihar style of presentation, has introduced both the jod and the jhala used in sarod
and the sitar
as part of his repertoire. While an ancient and popular instrument, it achieved the status of a classical instrument only in the 20th century and therefore lacks the solid base of an evolved and refined tradition. Yet, it has taken significant strides since its inception into the concert platform and is today more listened to than some of the more established stringed instruments. Though it cannot quite capture the stateliness of the dhrupad or many of its graces given some of its inherent limitations, many present day players like Hariprasad Chaurasia make up for these with their phenomenal breath control and finely-honed blowing techniques.