“My practice is my pooja. My Sargam and scales are my mantra. Power of God is what I try to convey through my music”
– Padma Vibhushan Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia
I first saw Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia perform in Gunidas Sammelan in 1987, the annual classical music festival organized by the late Pt. C.R. Vyas in honor of his guru. In those days, I had just joined engineering college as first year student of electrical engineering. As a kid, I had had some basic training in harmonium and vocal music but it was never serious. Academics always got higher priority over music. So, as first year engineering student, I was experiencing the relief of having two major academic milestones – the secondary and higher secondary examinations – behind me. I was considering beginning to study music seriously. But I really did not want to learn harmonium and was too old to begin learning vocal music (the best time for imparting much of the influence on voice culture is early teen years for a young boy).
Gunidas Sammelan presented golden opportunity to listen to accomplished maestros, each being one of the best in their respective disciplines. In 1987, Gunidas Sammelan presented Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt. Ravi Shankar, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Jasraj, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ustad Shafat Ahmed Khan and Pt. Anindo Chatterjee. It was almost like all these maestros were presenting their instruments and styles to me to choose from.
However, when I saw Hariji, something really stirred me. First – the simplicity of the instrument. Unlike others, this instrument took no time to tune. It looked handy enough to be carried around. In addition, Hariji made it sound so good and made it look so easy to play. On that day, one of his senior disciples – Rupak Kulkarni – was accompanying him on the Bansuri. Rupak is around the same age as me and both of us were in our late teens at that time. If Rupak could play it so beautifully and comfortably, I thought, it must be a really simple instrument and yet it sounded like a mainstream instrument capable of presenting all aspects of Hindustani music and more.
The choice was very clear. Here’s my shortcut to learning instrumental music – I thought. Alas, 18 years down the line, I am still learning the hard way, that there are no shortcuts to learning Hindustani music. And Bansuri certainly offers none.
After getting initial training in the Bansuri for a couple of years, I got a bit bolder. I thought that since I was all this while trying to imitate Hariji’s way to play Bansuri, why not learn directly from him. So, one fine morning, I mustered enough courage and decided to go to his home. Hariji was kind enough to ask me to come the next day. I went again. He asked me to play something and I nervously did. It was a Bhajan in Ahir Bhairav, with the hope that Gods will come to help me. And they did. Hariji had got a small room near National College, Mumbai, where he was to teach his students. As it turned out, that room had its electrical fuse burnt out. Me being electrical engineering student perhaps helped and there I was learning from him.
The next year or so was quite challenging. He did not teach anything more than a few ragas – Yaman, Desh, Sarang, Ahir Bhairav, Lalit, Bhairavi. Most of the time was spent on Yaman. He insisted that Ek Saadhe to Sab Saadhe – or if you learn one raga well, you will learn all. But the goal set by him were so high. He would play simple, long notes and they would sound so good. When I tried the same, it just would just be no match.
My biggest problem was how not to be nervous while playing in front of him. If you are nervous and play flute, it immediately shows up because your breathing announces that to the world. I also had a pretty bad flute those days. One day he played my flute and it hit one full note higher than where I was playing. He just smiled, asked me to come over to his home and gave me his flute. (I still have it. For years, it smelled of Paan.)
After I graduated from the engineering college, I moved out of Mumbai to Pune, about 100 miles away. My job required me to work six days a week and I had my day off on Thursday. As a result, traveling to Mumbai for weekends to learn from Hariji became difficult. I did try to learn from others in Pune, but I just could not enjoy it. While in Pune, I still remember accompanying Hariji and Zakir Hussain on Taanpura in front of a huge crowd in an open ground.
When I moved to Lucknow for my post graduation in management, Hariji happen to come there once for a Spic Macay concert tour. He stayed at our campus at Indian Institute of Management. His lecture demonstration concert in the morning was at 8:30 am in a school. I had asked our IIM guest house caretaker to show up at 7 and cook breakfast. The man did not show up. I and other Spic Macay volunteer were scared to death. What would we tell Hariji? To perform on empty stomach? On a winter morning with not even drop of tea to serve? Well, when we mentioned it to him, the reaction from him was as if that was the best thing that could have happened. He immediately said that he was in a mood to eat something (Jalebi and Samosa) at a roadside Dhaba. So we took him to Lucknow’s Chowk area where all of us had the best Jalebi, Samosa and tea I have ever had. The February winter weather of Lucknow made it even more memorable. What’s more, we also ate yet another specialty of Lucknow – Makkhan or whipped cream. Hariji was absolutely at home. People recognized him, complemented him and one person even gave him a lucky stone. To this day, Hariji reminds me of that morning in Lucknow.
Hariji always told us – the most important thing about music is that you should enjoy each note that you play. If you enjoy it, listeners will enjoy it too. Keeping music simple, true to the character of the Bansuri makes it more attractive. A lot of Bansuri players like to model their presentation around either the so called vocal style or the so called tantrakari style. Hariji must have really thought the presentation on the Bansuri through. His presentation style takes best of both worlds and adds strengths of the Bansuri to that. If you listen to his improvisation carefully, you will time and again notice this.
That day at Gunidas Sammelan, I got deceived – pleasantly – by the magic of the Bansuri and the magician himself. I will forever be grateful for that deceit.
More information on Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia
Contains his biography and discography
Kavita Chibber’s Interview with Hariji
A truly remarkable story of his life. He talks about the hardships he faced in his early years. What really amazed me is that in spite of being accomplished Bansuri player in Hindi film music by then, Hariji changed from playing Bansuri right handed to left handed, just to demonstrate his commitment to his guru Smt. Annapurna Devi. Anyone who has ever attempted to play flute will tell you that it is like starting from scratch.