As musical instruments go, the bansuri could not be simpler. A side-blown flute made from a stalk of bamboo, with six to eight finger holes bored in its side, it is one of the foundational components of Indian classical music, far predating such Mughal innovations as the sitar or sarod. Some, in fact, claim that the bansuri was invented by the Hindu deity Krishna, who is often depicted with one in his elegant blue hands.
Simple it might be, but the instrument is capable of producing a hauntingly beautiful tone, sweeter than the familiar metal flute of the western orchestra, and considerably more voicelike in its ability to convey emotional nuance.
If, that is, the instrument is being played by a master. And there is no more accomplished master than Hariprasad Chaurasia, the Uttar Pradesh virtuoso who’s headlining this year’s Indian Summer Festival of the South Asian arts. Revered at home and respected abroad, he’s done everything a musician of his generation is expected to have done: made best-selling records; scored major Bollywood epics; opened his own school; recorded with Ravi Shankar; and had Beatles sit at his feet. (George Harrison hired him to play on his tune “The Inner Light”, the flip side of the Fab Four’s 1968 hit “Lady Madonna”.)
And yet no sonic guru could be humbler, or more willing to share the essentials of his craft.
“Anybody can make it work, playing flute,” Chaurasia says, reached while giving a bansuri workshop in Amsterdam. “You don’t even have to order a company to make an instrument and spend more money. You just find a piece of bamboo, put some holes in it, and then play and tune it properly.”
“Let me come to Vancouver,” he says. “I will give you one to try.”
Of course, it’s not that easy. Chaurasia himself had to study in secret, overcoming family disapproval to pursue a life in music. (His father wanted the young performer to become a wrestler.) What at first sight might seem an almost unadorned bamboo tube is actually cut from a very special strain of the grasslike plant found only in the foothills of the Himalayas, aged under exacting conditions, and lacquered with a blend of organic oils and resins. And to truly master the bansuri involves immersion in a rigorous course of study that involves more than just learning the infinite permutations of Indian classical music’s many modes—preferably with Chaurasia himself.
Despite having turned 80 on Canada Day, the bansuri wizard keeps himself busy with concertizing the world over, and with crafting film scores for a variety of Bollywood directors. “I love doing commercial work, because I used to enjoy the music of Bollywood,” he says. “So if they let me work, why not? I have some ideas, so why not use them? And people, they like it.”
But there’s another reason why Chaurasia works in film: it funds his music school, which, beyond performing, is probably the project that’s closest to his heart.
“It is not a day school; it is a traditional school, like from a thousand or two thousand years back, and it’s called Vrindaban Gurukul,” he explains. “Gurukul means ‘guru’s house’, where you have to stay. And you have to obey your guru, and whatever your guru plans for your life, you have to worry about. You have to watch your guru properly—how he became a guru, and how are his dealings, and how is his nature, and how he takes care of the students. That’s very important.”
As guru, Chaurasia is as much a life coach as a music tutor. His students, he explains, learn “how to become a nice human being, how to write about music, how to speak about music, how to compose music, and how to play music differently than others. That’s the main idea.
“We don’t have certificate,” he continues. “In gurukul, we don’t get any certificate, but we become, ourselves, the certificate. We don’t have to show a paper; we just have to play in front of anybody, any day, and prove that we are there.”
It’s a different way of doing things, but no less practical than university training. Still, how did Chaurasian himself know, back when he was practising the holds and poses of traditional pehlwani wrestling, that he was really born to be a musician?
“I don’t know,” he says, with a true master’s humility. “Up till now, I’m still finding out who I am, playing music. With time, I’m learning.”
Hariprasad Chaurasia plays the Orpheum next Saturday (July 14), as part of the Indian Summer Festival.