Thought Box

An Interlude

An Interlude

by Sathya Saran June 13 2020, 3:48 pm Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 9 secs

Sathya Saran talks about her journey when writing on Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and she shares an excerpt from the book she has authored - A Breath of Gold - published by (and with permission of) Penguin Random House, India

Music has always fascinated me, especially film music from the 1960s and ’70s. So when I started writing biographies, it was but natural that I take up lives steeped in music. I knew doing so would help me dwell among great songs and the wonderful films they were set into. My aim was to get into the mind of genius, and unravel the process of creation, the depth of the obsession, and the mystery of their creativity.

That is how my books on SD Burman and Jagjit Singh got written. With each lingering on favorite, much loved songs, telling unheard stories, even as it walked the reader through the milestones in the life of the subject.

The genesis of ’Hariprasad Chaurasia Breath of Gold’ was somewhat different. As Consulting Editor with a publishing house, I was constantly on the lookout for stories that could be converted into books. And at an event at Hariji’s Gurukul Vrindaban, in Mumbai, it struck me that his amazing achievements as a world-renowned flautist might be worth documenting. The humility and humor that belied his famous status made me believe there were layers worth exploring in Hariji’s persona.

When the idea found approval from the subject and publisher alike, I planned to find a writer, well versed in classical music to write the book. But Hariji, who had featured in my book on SD Burman had a copy of it at home, which his family had read too. The book had been written in a style very off beat for a biography; almost like a novel or a film script, with first person interjections on songs imagined by me on behalf of the music director, anecdotes and dramatized renderings of events interspersed with on the ground interviews of his contemporaries. Hariji’s family wanted his story to be told in a similar manner: human, entertaining, factual but engrossing and rich in texture. It was a challenge and I took it on, with humility and excitement.

Interviews followed, as did many hours spent listening to Hariji’s compositions played by him on the flute. I watched the films he composed for as part of the Shiv Hari team, and others, in Tamil and Malayalam. I attended whichever of his concerts I could, taking notes about him on stage, on his ready wit, his stance while playing or listening to his accompanists. I interacted with students, family, visited his gurukuls... Also, at hand I had an earlier biography that held the chronology of his career path, as well as a ‘text book’ created for students in Rotterdam by his assistant and student in France. Though the research was fulfilling and rewarding, the worry nagged that I would not make the grade.

But when I started to put my research together, something took over. Perhaps it was Hariji’s own genius extending itself, but the book got written with no hitches.

What more can a writer want?

He is on a concert tour in Japan, and the phone in his hotel room rings. To his surprise, it is not the usual courtesy call from the hotel reception asking if all is fine and whether he is comfortable. The voice at the other end explains that he is sorry to disturb Hariprasad in Japan, but it has been very tough to track him down during his incessant travels, and since he has finally got him on the phone, he finds it necessary to pass on an important message to him. Hariprasad listens in disbelief as he learns that he is being invited by no less a personage than Queen Beatrix of Holland, to play for her. He has also been made aware that the recital is a present on the Queen’s birthday from her husband, Prince Claus. When he puts down the phone, his face is flushed. As much by the honor the invitation has conferred upon him as by the fact that he has agreed. He takes a long breath. When his mind alerts him to the fact that the on-demand concert is ‘next week’, he finds the need to sit down on the nearest chair.

Once the moment of confusion clears, Hariprasad sets about ensuring that he will honor the commitment he has just made. A series of quick phone calls later, he has assurances that Zakir Hussain will fly down from America to play on the tabla, and his student, Rupak Kulkarni, will fly in from India to provide secondary support.

The recital, which has the performers winging in from different parts of the world, creates history. Hariprasad is the first Indian to play at the royal palace in The Hague!

The performance would have far-reaching effects. By being broadcast live across the country by a local TV station, Hariprasad’s flute reaches many homes. Not surprisingly, it captivates the minds of countless listeners.

The royal family bestows the title ‘Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau’, upon Hariprasad on his seventieth birthday.

‘My teaching stint at Rotterdam Conservatory came out of nowhere,’ the venerated artiste says, as he recounts how another phone call started him off on this new journey as a teacher much before he could establish his gurukuls.

He was in London at that time. Joep Bor and John Floore, the two gentlemen who called to check if they could meet him were from Rotterdam. John was the director of the Rotterdam Conservatory, where music and dance were offered as specialized disciplines, and Joep Bor was the head of the World Music Department. Both men were accomplished musicians themselves. Floore played the trumpet in the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Bor was a trained sarangi player who had learnt from India’s leading sarangi exponent, Pandit Ram Narayan, besides learning vocal singing from other Indian maestros. Bor wanted to add Hariprasad to the list of teachers of various musical traditions from across the world, as the teacher of Indian classical music.

As this was no royal request, Hariprasad could think it over. He would eventually agree to take up the offer, and set aside four months of the year, from March to June, to teach at the conservatory. He also made arrangements to make it possible for him to accept invitations to perform even during the four months at the conservatory. The simple reason being, ‘I had to support my family, and it was also important to stay in the musical circle.’ He also decided he would request Henri Tournier to be his assistant at the conservatory.

The stint at the Rotterdam Conservatory started in 1991 and continues to this day, although he missed going in 2019. His students come from all over the world. Despite the World Music section, including the vocal, percussion and other instruments, it is the flute section that has the most enrolments. Hariprasad believes that the serious students number fifteen or so in every batch, across disciplines of music.

A blog by Jan Reichow, reproduced here from the website India Instruments, titled ‘Homage to his 75th Birthday’, perhaps helps to explain what makes the flute one of the most popular courses at the conservatory and his playing so loved the world over: But how was the veritable triumph of the gentle bansuri flute in the West possible, 20 years after the ‘sitar explosion’ (quote from Ravi Shankar). Probably because it was catchy even to people who otherwise, had difficulties opening up to alien music. In addition, the artist got a lot of attention for some very successful experiments in fusion music. The common amalgam came from tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, who was also involved in Cologne in 1985, but had already stirred crowds in the ’70s with the band Shakti. In 1986, he recorded the album Making Music, together with Hariprasad Chaurasia, John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek, which was received as one of the most compelling examples in the history of musical East-West meetings. The word “bansuri” became a household name. Whether in rhythmic jazz or in silent meditation centers - where the bansuri was sometimes explicitly required solo, without the nuisance table - everybody loved the Indian flute with its blend of virtuosity and mellifluousness. And yet, this artist never lost his credibility for grand traditional raga presentations, with his great development in classical purity and with stunning accuracy. I’ll never forget that it was his interpretation of the Raga Lalit, which inspired me when I was looking for an Indian counterpart to Mozart - especially for the sensual ambivalence, as it unfolds in the opera Cosi fan tutte. Was it not the same phenomenon that is shown in Raga Lalit? And no one expressed surprise when the classical music station WDR3 presented about 30 minutes of Indian music in the afternoon, changing back and forth between Mozart and Raga Lalit - one experienced first-hand that both musical worlds are supported by the same spirit.


In fact, the West could not but be impressed when they attended a recital by Hariprasad. His simple manner and obvious humility, along with the magic of his playing during which he seemed almost to be elsewhere, in another dimension, communicated his sacred involvement with his art. It was an attitude that would change even the students at the conservatory, who started absorbing the link between Indian music and the divine, and treating their learning and their instruments as tools of worship.

This is what Hariprasad told a German journalist who interviewed him for a WDR program some years ago: ‘I just sit there, I am mute, holding a piece of bamboo in my hands, but someone plays it and someone listens, and there’s someone between the audience and me, too. This is, I guess, a higher force. And for this higher force I play, and if this higher force has joy in the music, we also enjoy the music, the music lovers and myself.’

Hariprasad has, by example, instilled the concept of bhakti in a cross section of students, many of whom might even be atheists. And the divinity they bow before is music.

Greek mythology attributes the invention of the flute to Athena. The story is that she played on it, until she chanced to look into a mirror while playing it and saw how blowing it puffed up her cheeks and distorted her face. She abandoned the instrument immediately, throwing it away, never to pick it up again.

Hariprasad’s technique of holding the flute on the under-lip and blowing into it allows for no distortion of cheeks or face. And not surprisingly, the soft call of the flute has attracted a large number of women to learn the instrument.

The Nehru Centre auditorium in Bombay is full, the audience has gathered to listen to flute recitals played by his students to celebrate Hariprasad’s seventieth birthday. One by one, the students take their place on stage and play their tribute. Among them is a pretty, young girl in a resplendent silk sari, wearing a bindi, and bedecked with light ornaments.

The audience, which includes Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Shivkumar Sharma and his wife, Manorama, singer Sonu Nigam, Anup Jalota, and many other well-wishers is enthralled by the player’s mastery over her instrument. The solo recital over, she takes her guru’s blessings as she leaves the stage.

Later, intrigued by the player’s virtuosity, Amitabh Bachchan asks Hariprasad which state the girl belongs to. Her manner of dress and conduct is reminiscent of an earlier generation. To the actor’s surprise, Hariprasad tells him she is not an Indian. She lives in Bonn, Germany, and is a student at the Rotterdam Conservatory.

‘Indeed, she is one of my most dedicated students,’ the master flautist says of Stephanie Bosch, the girl who captivated Bachchan with her skillful performance. ‘When I heard him for the first time, I knew this was the sound I was looking for,’ Stephanie says in an email interview.

Stephanie heard Hariprasad’s flute while at the Rotterdam Conservatory. ‘I had free time and went to the library where you could listen to all kinds of music from all over the globe. When I picked [up] and listened to one of Guruji’s CDs - Raga Malkauns, I remember I was blown away. I got Goosebumps and felt that was the sound I seemed to be searching for. At that time, I had not even heard or had contact with Indian music, and from the CD, it was not immediately obvious where this music comes from. I asked someone next to me if he had ever listened to it and he answered that Hariprasad Chaurasia is one of the teachers at that school. Then I remembered I had seen him once. And then I tried to just meet him. I had to wait three months! When I met him, around eight to ten students in a very tiny room, all sitting on the floor, surrounded him. That was strange for me at that time.’

Finally, Stephanie was admitted to the class. Hariprasad welcomed her into the fold of students. ‘Guruji was very welcoming and someone gave me a flute to join. Oh, it was far too big for me and I rejected it. Then they said I should take it home. When I was alone with the flute, my journey started…’

Although Stephanie had played the Western flute or ‘recorder’ ever since she was a child, and even learnt to play the transverse flute, a handmade wooden one, and even the silver flute, she found the Indian flute a challenge.

‘I can say it was difficult for me to put my small fingers on the big flute and I suffered a lot. Now my body has got adjusted to it and I feel comfortable. Learning Indian music requires a totally different approach than what I was used to, but Guruji picks every student from where he or she comes from. You need a lot of resilience to continue playing as you keep learning all the time, as with any instrument. Your body and mind get in tune with the instrument and the music, as later on the journey, the music plays itself or, as you can say, you become the instrument,’ Stephanie says of her journey to mastering the instrument.

Soon, the young German was driving for three hours from Bonn, where she lived, for a one-hour class with her guru. Sometimes, she was part of a group of other students who took his classes, but mostly she was taught individually. And then soon, ‘I did my first small performance at school.’

Since that start in 1998, Stephanie met Guruji in the Netherlands every spring for a couple of months, then again in winter and in India as well. ‘I finished my master’s in 2007; it feels as if it was yesterday. Since then I regularly meet Guruji every year; though he joked with me and said, after my exams I would not come and see him… but after my exams, we were diving very deep into the music as there was no time pressure any more and we spent such beautiful times with deep music and talk about music. Learning Indian classical music is a full surrender to it. Then you can make it and you enjoy it. As you start diving deeper, the more joy comes.’

As is the case with many other students at the gurukul, Stephanie’s happiest moments as a performer are when she is performing with Guruji. ‘Playing with Guruji on stage is something different. You feel very close and dive together into the music. We learn so much by accompanying him on stage. I remember, for example, in the beginning, when he gave me space to play, but it seemed I was not ready yet to play in that moment, on the spot. So I learned from that day to be prepared at any time. I now teach my students the same thing. We learn to be sensitive to feel when, if, how and how much we should play to give him good support.’

‘I have a beautiful memory of a concert in Italy with him. We played Hemavati. It was wonderful. Another time, we played Madhuvanti and Yaman and a few other ragas. He gave me a lot of space to discover and improvise, and I never forget his happy face and smile afterwards.’  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.