Wrestler in the morning, student during the daytime and flute player in secret, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia lived more than a double life all through his early years, till he broke away from his wrestler-father’s watchful eye to go on his own musical journey. He not only took the flute to the hitherto uncharted territory but also created unforgettable songs in Hindi cinema. In an interaction with Utpal Kumar, the much-loved flautist talks about his tryst with bansuri, the role of Annapurna Devi in shaping his career, and of course his chemistry with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma.
Today when one looks at the life of Panditji, as Hariprasad Chaurasia is endearingly called, it is so evident that he was born to play flute. It all began in his childhood when a captivating tune of flute reached his ears. He followed the sound, much like a child following the Pied Piper. What was in that instrument that created such a melodious sound, he wondered. Soon he had a chance to grab the instrument when the player reached a tap to quell his thirst, placing the flute on the ground. The young Hari immediately picked the flute and started running.
“Of course, the boy gave chase,” Panditji says, recalling the episode. “But I was fast and strong and knew my way around, so I escaped being caught by turning into a narrow lane between houses. The flute was mine.” Though the much-loved flautist would dismiss this episode as “a bit of boyish mischief” that did not change his life or affect his musical journey, it definitely gave a hint of things to come.
Decades later and with a plethora of award, including Padma Vibhushan, by his side, Chaurasia has given bansuri a new dimension, a global audience and a refurbished look. The following are edited excerpts of his interview in the wake of the release of his new biography, Breath of Gold (Penguin, Rs 599), written by Sathya Saran.
Q. Born in a family of wrestlers, how were you first introduced to bansuri? And, how difficult was it for you to take up this instrument?
A. When I was told by my music teacher that I should learn to sing through an instrument I chose the bansuri. It was the only instrument I could afford. Also, it needed no fuss over tuning. And could be hidden easily.
Q. Given your family background, there would not have been much exposure to music. As the book suggests, you led a double life in your young life by being a wrestler in the morning, student during the daytime and flute player in secret. How did you learn music?
A. I listened to music and was lucky to find teachers willing to teach me. So, after school and later after my job as a clerk I would steal away to sit at my lessons or to practise.
Q. One of your dreams was to learn under Annapurna Devi. Legend has it that she agreed to teach you only when you promised to unlearn all that you had learnt so far. Please tell us more about your wonderful association with her.
A. It was a long and wonderful association. It took a lot of convincing to get her to teach me, but once she took me on as a student she taught me everything about music. She was strict and brooked no argument but loving and generous as a teacher.
Q. You have also created music for Bollywood. How did the idea of working in films come to you?
A. Yashji was directing Silsila. He gave Shivji (Pandit Shivkumar Sharma) and me the assignment to create the songs. He also took on Javed Akhtar as lyric writer, his first assignment in that capacity. Silsila was the first of many films that we did as Shiv-Hari.
Q. The book talks in detail about your association with filmmaker Yash Chopra. Please tell us about your relationship with him.
A. He entrusted us with all his films. We were friends and enjoyed the way he involved himself in every aspect of his films.
Q. Of all films you did with Yash saab, which one is the closest to your heart and why?
A. They are all very dear to me, but Silsila will always be special as it was our first collaboration together. It had Javed saab (Javed Akhrat) writing lyrics for the first time, getting Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) to sing to his father’s lyrics… all these were precious experiences to cherish!
Q. You first met Pandit Shivkumar Sharma in the 1950s and remained close ever since. What has been the secret of such an enduring friendship? Please also tell one thing about him which you really like and admire.
A. Luckily, our Instruments complement each other. As a wind and a string instrument, flute and Santoor go very well together and sound magical! That may be a reason which brought us so close to each other. Even when we were not composing music for films, we were touring as classical musicians, our wives got on well, our sons were classmates and studied together. All this brought us both closer. I admire the way he has brought the Santoor, another folk instrument like bansuri, to the forefront as an instrument of Indian Classical music. I also admire his depth and knowledge about his craft, his sincerity towards his sadhana. He is a very balanced and spiritual person, I always look up to him, like my elder brother.
Q. Coming to flute, what do you exactly feel when you are playing it?
A. I am the happiest and most content when I am playing the flute. It’s my prayer, my breath, my life. I am thankful to God that he has given me a purpose that I love doing. But what makes it joyous is that it brings warmth, joy and peace to others too.
Q. You have often said that music is connected to spirituality. What makes you say that?
A. Music is closest to divinity. When you play or sing, you close your eyes and lose yourself to the sound of music. Music can touch hearts, heal souls, bring peace to mind. Isn’t that spiritual?
Q. What’s the idea behind the setting up of Vrindavan Gurukul?
A. I always admired the way Ustad Allauddin Khan saab and Maa Annapurna Devi worked relentlessly towards spearheading their Maihar gharana to younger generations… their knowledge, their depth of teaching left a deep impact on me. I dreamt of doing a small bit myself and thus the idea of Vrindaban in Mumbai started forming. However, in 2000, Mr. (Ratan) Tata helped me make it a reality!
Q. How do you see the kind of music being madetoday? Many people feel the soul is being lost for sound.
A. The formats and renditions of classical music might have altered over the last 50 years but the basic structure and form remain. It is like the body that puts on new styles of clothing every season which change with fashion, but the fundamentals remain. Classical music is at the core of any beautiful music even today,whether it is Sufi, ghazal, light music or even Bollywood and that cannot change. The ability of good music is to stir your soul and rekindle your heart. Nothing more, nothing less. Even today, the knowledgeable listener can instantly see the layers within a composition and appreciate the tapestry.
Q. We know Panditji being in love with his flute and music. Is there any other hobby you have apart from music?
A. I like listening to Bade Ghulam Ali ji, Begum Akhtar ji. I like to watch comedy shows.