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Thursday, November 19, 2009

modern bansuri styles | jeff whittier

Modern Bansuri Styles by Jeff Whittier

The Bansuri has been associated with Indian culture from the earliest times, and was said to be the instrument with which the child cow-herd Krishna enchanted his Gopis, as well as his cattle. Interestingly, Krishna is not the only religious figure to be associated with the flute, as 1st century icons of Jesus Christ also show him playing the flute, in his role as "The Good Shepherd". To this day, shepherds world-wide often play simple instruments like the flute to pass the time away in lonely pastures as their flocks graze.

However, the ancient instrument was somewhat different from the modern one, especially in size. The ancient instrument was much smaller than the modern one, more similar to the smallest venu of Carnatic music than the modern bansuri. There still exist diatonically tuned small flutes made from the leg bones of the crane in China, which are 8,000 years old, and a small bamboo flute from Egypt of the same design, dated approximately 3,500 years old is in the British Museum in London. These small flutes were ideal for outdoor playing, as the high register carries very well and can be heard from a distance.

It might also be added that the concept of the Greek modes, and probably also the scale system called Grama or Melakarta of the earliest Indian music, was derived from these small flutes. The Ionian mode (the modern Bilawal Thaatt) was produced when the note sounded by 6 finger holes closed was used as the tonic, the Dorian mode (Kafi) was produced when 5 finger holes closed became the tonic, the Phrygian mode (Bhairavi) was produced when 4 finger holes closed was used, and the Lydian mode (Kalyan) was played when 3 finger holes were used as the tonic, as in the modern bansuri. The Mixolydian mode(Khammaj) was produced by using 2 finger holes closed as the tonic, as with the modern Venu, and the Aolian (Asavari) mode was produced by using 1 finger hole closed as the tonic. The Locrian mode is not in use in modern Indian music. These alternate fingerings still exist in Bansuri playing today, and are frequently used in studio work, particularly in Bollywood. Many flutists have recorded Raag Bhairavi using the Dorian mode fingering, which accommodates the strong Shuddh Re found in Bhairavi. This same fingering is very common throughout the world and is a standard fingering in China and Japan.

The modern long Bansuri is the legacy of Pt. Panna Lal Ghosh, who died in 1960. In addition to using much longer flutes than the musicians who preceded him, he also invented the off-set 7th hole played by the little finger of the right hand. One of his greatest innovations was the extensive use of the third octave of the flute. Until Ghosh, the flute was only played in 2 octaves, and his pioneering use of the 3rd octave added a new dimension to flute technique. He was also one of the musicians who sometimes used the Dorian mode fingering for his recordings of Raag Bhairavi, as many folk musicians still do today. Ghosh was an exponent of a style called "Gayaki Ang", or the style of development based on the Hindustani vocal music known as "Kheyal". This style is characterized by the development of a raag in two rhythm tempos, one called "Bada Kheyal" usually in very slow cycle of 12 or 14 beats (Ektal or Jhoomra), and the second called "Chota Kheyal" in a fast tempo of 16 or sometimes 12 beats (Tintal or Ektal). Generally speaking, the bandishes (compositions) which are the basis for Gayaki Ang are songs which are 4 to 6 lines long, and have a composed "Sthai" and "Antara" or primary and secondary section.

Today, the concert stage in Bansuri is dominated by Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia, and his celebrity status has overshadowed the historical developments in Bansuri which led to its current place among concert instruments. Chaurasia is known for a certain style which might be called "Gatkari" in contrast to "Gayaki Ang".

"Gatkari" is the development of a raag through the use of a "Gat" or one-line instrumental composition, with extensive rhythmic development. One of the differences between Gayaki Ang and Gatkari can be seen in the different definitions given to the single word "Boltaan" used in both systems. In Gayaki Ang, "Boltaan" refers to the kind of vocal elaboration which uses the text of the song, as opposed to "Aakar" elaborations which are sung on the syllable "Ah". Kirana Gharana is known for its Aakar vistars, or variations, while Agra Gharana is famous for its Boltaans. In Gatkari style, "Boltaan" refers to variations characterized by the strokes with which the plectrum hits the string, like "Da-Diri-Da-Ra". The old court musicians would sometimes cover their right hand with a cloth to prevent other musicians from seeing the Bols with which a certain technique was executed.

Although in flute there is neither a sung text nor are there plectrum strokes, these same two different styles are demonstrated by the kind of development and techniques which various Bansuri players employ. Curiously, the old standard of "Gharana" or family tradition doesn't seem to work as a classification system because most of the musicians using the different styles were actually trained in the same Gharana, namely, the Maihar Gharana of Ustad Allaudin Khan. Panna Lal Ghosh was the disciple of Allaudin Khan. Hari Prasad is the disciple of his daughter Annapurna. Vijay Raghav Rao is the disciple of Ravi Shankar, Allaudin's disciple and Annapurna's first husband. G. S. Sachdev and Ronu Mojumdar are the disciples of Vijay Raghav Rao and both have received teaching from Ravi Shankar, and Nityanand Haldipur is the disciple of Annapurna. So, the concept of Gharana does not explain the diversity of styles seen on the stage today.

The Gayaki Ang of Panna Lal, Vijay Raghav Rao, G. S. Sachdev, and Nityanand Haldipur is characterized by Bada and Chota Kheyal. Although each of them may play the Alap-Jor-Jhala development of a Raag in the style of the Maihar Gharana, they generally develop the melodic content of a Raag in the Bada Kheyal format, taking advantage of the slow taal to explore the fullness of each note in the style known as "Barhat Alap". This style uses the successive elaboration of each note in the Raag in a separate Vistar or Vistars, usually in ascending order, culminating in an Antara focused on high Sa. Rhythmic variations begin after this Antara. After having developed some rhythmic Taans in the slow cycle, the musician moves on to the Chota Kheyal, focusing more and more on Laya and Layakari (rhythm and rhythmic skill). The Chota Kheyal will also follow the Sthai-Antara format, with the Antara, and high Sa, often being used as a point of rest and contrast to the rhythmic variations.

Gatkari is quite different. The Gat itself is preceded by an Alap, maybe short, or perhaps a full elaboration in the Alap-Jor-Jhala style. Gatkari is derived from the instrumental compositions of sitar and sarod, and the musician begins his rhythmic variations without the elaboration of the Raag or the Bandish found in Kheyal. The piece is dominated by the interaction with Tabla, often to the delight of the audience. The modern Indian audience tends to sleep through the Alap, or maybe talk on their cellphones, and only pays attention when the Tabla comes in. Gatkari is well suited to this indifferent, ignorant audience.

The modern audience is gradually re-shaping Hindustani classical music into a parody of its former self. The nuances of Raag which the older generations took centuries to refine are being lost, because audiences do not recognize, respect, or respond to them. Raags are becoming simple scales, notes used like numbers, and the old subtleties of feeling and color disappear in the rhythmic passages which now dominate the concert stage.

This same involutionary trend can be seen in many young flute players. Most Bansuri players of the younger generation now play 6 hole flutes and don't play at all in the 3rd octave. It takes discipline and many hours of practice to master the 7 hole technique, and the 3rd octave fingerings, and the younger generation wants name and fame as soon as possible. Since the business of music consisting of promoters, contracts, and audiences doesn't reward Riaz or self-discipline, there is little incentive to young musicians to develop advanced technique. Even the late Anand Murdeshwar, Panna Lal's own grandson, turned his back on the 3 octave flute, pioneered by his grandfather and Vijay Raghav Rao. What was once the high standard in Bansuri technique is now generally ignored.

In my youth, in the 1960's and 70's, Bansuri was often simply considered a folk instrument. In those days I remember playing a classical piece for Indian listeners and then often being told, "That was nice, do you know any film songs?" For a few short decades Bansuri was elevated to the status of the concert stage by the pioneering work of Panna Lal, Vijay-ji, Sachdev, and Hari Prasad. Considering the vacuum into which classical music in general is now disappearing, Bansuri may yet again become a folk instrument in the hands of those for whom celebrity, not Riaz, is the standard.

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