Published:October 1, 2017 12:16 am
In an akhada run by his father with an iron hand, life for young Hari in 1940s Allahabad revolved mostly around a rich diet of milk and butter, and then being knocked down by his opponents in the mud pit. After the rigours of wrestling got over, the same boy, passionate about music, would use his lung power and coax the notes out of a small bamboo flute. “I wasn’t very good at wrestling. After those sessions, I would go and learn music at a friend’s house,” recollects Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, now 79.
One day, recollects Chaurasia, the flute notes swirling from the radio had him fixated. He found out that they were being played by Pandit Bholanath, staff artiste at All India Radio (AIR). “I met him and told him I wanted to learn. He wasn’t married and he was also happy that there was someone who could run errands around the house, bring vegetables and cook. He taught me in return,” he says. The only thing that helped him survive the difficult musical training was wrestling and the immense stamina and strength that it gave him, resulting in a unique blowing technique later. Unlike a lot of other people, he could play the flute for hours.
Now on the brink of 80, Chaurasia can’t sit cross-legged anymore, while playing the bansuri. “My knees have become weak,” he says, after a performance last month at Pandit Chaturlal Memorial society’s annual concert in Delhi’s Kamani auditorium. His left hand shook, quite vigorously at times, during the show. But after the curtain call was made, with his quivering left hand, the one trying to manoeuvre the craters on the long flute, Chaurasia invoked raag Bihari, an uplifting evening raag and touched its every contour. “It’s heartening to see people’s affection. It makes me want to play more for them,” says Chaurasia.
Till as recently as the 1940s, it was quite unusual for the flute to appear on stage as a solo instrument. It was made “concert-worthy” by Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, a disciple of Maihar gharana’s founder Ustad Alauddin Khan. Ghosh introduced the madhyam hole to be able to render ragas using that note. He experimented and finally settled on bamboo for the flute, which needed more air from the lungs, but sounded better. This was how eventually the flute reached the stage — this was almost the same time that Chaurasia was discovering the instrument for himself.
But Chaurasia kept his music secret from his father until he received a job offer from AIR, Cuttack in 1957. “My mother passed away when I was five. So I didn’t want to hurt my father. But I kept learning as my heart was as important as my father’s hurt. When the offer came, I had to tell him finally, as I was to shift to a different city. He was shocked. But it was a government job, and he saw how happy I was, so he reluctantly agreed,” says Chaurasia. In Cuttack, Chaurasia found like-minded people, performed on radio and gained popularity. He learnt the language and also turned non-vegetarian. “I got a lot of affection. There were so many beautiful women there, mostly Odissi dancers, who would ask me to accompany them as a musician. Someone would bring halwa from home, someone would ask me to come for a film. I enjoyed the attention. Also, I was happy that I was doing the kind of music I liked,” says Chaurasia. For each concert, Chaurasia received Rs 250, his entire month’s salary at AIR. Eventually, Chaurasia was transferred to Mumbai. The salary was too low to support him there, but after a month’s difficulty, Chaurasia found jobs as a sessions artiste in the film industry. “After a while, there was so much work that I resigned in six weeks,” says Chaurasia, who worked with composers such as Madan Mohan, SD Burman and Naushad.
Sometime in the 1950s, Chaurasia came to Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to attend a youth festival, where he met santoor player Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and the two became good friends. In time, they became collaborators as well, teaming up for compositions in films such as Silsila, Vijay and Chandni among others.
Though Chaurasia had a successful Bollywood run, actor Sanjeev Kumar happened to tell him (and Sharma), that he didn’t like the two wielding harmoniums now, and not the instruments they were born to play. “He goaded us to get back to classical music and to compose only when good musicals were offered,” says Chaurasia.
It was the 1980s and Chaurasia decided he would learn again, this time from the reclusive Annapurna Devi — daughter of Ustad Alauddin Khan. However, she kept refusing to teach Chaurasia for three years. “She would say that she played the surbahar and couldn’t teach the flute. I told her I was there to learn music. Then she told me I’ll have to forego all the learning I have. I told her if she’d teach me, I’ll change my original flute position,” says Chaurasia. Devi gave in after three years and he did change his stance from right to left, a very difficult feat.
Devi’s training and Chaurasia’s passion fuelled a remarkable career for him, spanning decades. Now, Chaurasia divides his time between his gurukul in Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar and Netherlands. “I really appreciate the commitment by students, even those who come from foreign lands. I like the gurukul format where I want them to live with me and learn in a homely environment. That’s the foundation of the guru-shishya parampara,” says Chaurasia.
Now, when he isn’t teaching or performing, Chaurasia spends his time with his second wife Anuradha Roy, who he married after his first wife Kamala passed away, and his grandchildren. The riyaaz routine continues. “I am here to play music. It’s the one thing that makes me happy. I’ll play till I can lift this piece of bamboo,” says Chaurasia.