|PROFILE: HARIPRASAD CHAURASIA
Even at 60, the musician wants to enthrall many more with the magic of his flute.
By S Kalidas
Dressed in his typical dhoti-kurta, a jhola strung from his shoulder and paan staining his lips, you might easily mistake him for a small-time trader, or worse, a wrestler from eastern Uttar Pradesh. And you might well be forgiven for the gaffe; because except for the sheer brunt of his musical genius Hariprasad Chaurasia, who turns 60 on July 1, could easily have been in any one of those professions. As it happens, he is one of the world's most famous flautists, having elevated the simple bamboo flute to heights it has probably never seen since the mythical times when Lord Krishna used it to entice the lovelorn gopis (milkmaids) of Brajbhoomi.
Sure, there have been others between then and now who also blew a chirpy tune. Closer to our own times, there have been at least half a dozen other musicians who ventured to equate the venu (flute) with the veena (ancient Indian lute) in the arena of Indian classical music but with varying success. Few, however, have matched the technical dexterity, the musical range or the popular appeal of this largely self-made virtuoso from Allahabad.
Today, Chaurasia flits from Cuttack to Copenhagen keeping a hectic schedule of concerts, recordings and teaching assignments. As he does so, on the eve of his sashtiabdhapurti (60th birthday), he pauses to ponder on his musical journey through the decades. "It is the sheer ananda (bliss) of my experience in the process of gathering my vidya (knowledge) that comes foremost to my mind," he says, striking a philosophical note. "Despite the march of technology and all the gadgets like computers and tape recorders, we seem to be losing out on brain power -- our capacity to absorb and commit to memory," he says referring to our largely oral musical tradition. Toward this end, Brindavan dominates his mind -- not the town on the banks of the Yamuna, but its allegorical counterpart in far away Mumbai where he plans to set up an idyllic gurukul for deserving pupils. Till then, hotel rooms serve as classrooms, and cassettes and recordings will have to do in place of face-to-face tuition.
His own learning was very different. Unlike many other maestros of his generation who received classical music by way of inheritance, Chaurasia was not born to a family of musicians or a gharana as the jargon goes. In fact, his father, Chhedilal, was a pehalwan -- a professional wrestler -- for whom "music was something that prostitutes and bandmasters practised". To please his father, Chaurasia learnt stenography and kushti (wrestling) but also stealthily took lessons in music from Pandit Rajaram -- a neighbourhood vocalist. Later, when he decided that it was the flute rather than singing which would be his chosen medium of expression, he apprenticed himself to Pandit Bhola Nath, a flute player from Varanasi.
In the winter of 1958, Chaurasia landed a job in All India Radio's (AIR) Cuttack station. It was here that he met his future wife Anuradha, a classical vocalist. When air transferred him to Mumbai four years later, he took the metropolis by storm, playing prolifically for both the film industry and the classical concert scene. A hardworking man, during the course of a routine day, Chaurasia would "do a film take, record an item for the radio, play a concert in the evening and still find time for his own riyaz (practice)", says Odissi exponent Madhavi Mudgal who has known him since the late '60s.
In Mumbai, he made some musical liaisons that would last him a lifetime: with santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma and tabla wizard Zakir Husain. This friendship resulted in a chartbursting semi-classical record, Call of the Valley, and later, the brand name Shiv-Hari that provided the music to highly successful commercial films like Silsila and Chandni. Chaurasia is very proud of his musical catholicity and maintains, "I have no hang-ups about film music. I look forward to reaching the massive audience it has through my popular compositions. Besides, didn't ustads like Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali also sing for films?"
Forever trying to bridge the gap between the classical and the popular, Chaurasia sought and won the discipleship of one of India's most reclusive classical purists, Annapurna Devi. Daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan of
Maihars, she never performs in public and only teaches a very small band of pupils after thoroughly testing their devotion to her over a long period of time. "For years, I would stand at her door, only to be turned away," says Chaurasia. "In the end my persistence paid off." But not without a price: till then a right-handed flute player, Chaurasia had to change to playing left-handed to be able to convince her of his sincerity. It is a pointer to his grit and will-power that Chaurasia emerged from this ordeal the stronger, both in his own mind and the music market.
Currently, he is the supreme master of his chosen muse and lays his success at the feet of his guruma. But despite all the legends about Annapurna Devi's exacting puritanism, Chaurasia's aesthetic is far from being accepted as a classicist's ideal. His renderings of ragas tend to be too romantic for the liking of hidebound classicists. As a Delhi critic puts it, "Although he lays much emphasis on the serious alaap-jor-jhala sequence -- and is definitely to be complimented for it -- his overall effect is that of light music." While this assures him immense popularity from lay listeners, it also makes him a target of the cognoscenti.
For Chaurasia, perhaps, this is not a serious disadvantage because his ultimate ambition is to take the bamboo flute and his music to as wide an audience as possible. Going by the number of fans who flock to his concerts worldwide, he might not be too far from his goal.
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