Bansuri Beats:
Hariprasad Chaurasia

The maestro's live concert in Michigan and reflections on divine music.

By Kavita Chhibber

It is a traditional wind instrument made from a bamboo reed with a few holes in it. The story goes that an insect pierced that hole to hide from a storm. As the wind roared, the hole in the bamboo echoed with an enchanting note. Lord Krishna immortalized it and Hariprasad Chaurasia, a true messenger of Krishna’s music has filled our lives, with the same divine melody.

(All Photos: Ajit Acharya)

His journey is even more impressive because he was the son of a very strict wrestler, who wanted him to follow the family tradition. Instead Hari ji studied music in secret and followed his dream.

Today he runs Brindavan, a school based on the gurukul system, where he selects a number of students, takes care of their day-to-day expenses and needs. They live with him and study music.

Not only that, Hariprasad Chaurasia has inspired and changed the way many young people in this country view classical music. A close friend of mine Ajit Acharya, recalls the time when more than a decade ago, at the tender age of 15, he was visiting relatives in Bangalore. His parents took him to an Indian music concert, “kicking and screaming in protest! I was the all American boy, hated the Hindi songs my parents would play during our long car rides. My sister and I would cover our ears as Rafi and Lata and Kishore crooned away.” Fearing an agonizing 3 hours of boredom, Ajit plunked himself on a seat, “frowning like someone had forced me to drink spoilt milk.”

The artists, a tabla player and a man with a flute took the stage. The flautist played the first note and Ajit was dumbfounded.. “He must have played the note for 30 seconds... yet, it had such depth and expression. It was peaceful, yet playful and bewitching. I was swept up in the momentum of the raga. As he continued to play alap, jor and jhala, unaccompanied, I almost forgot there was someone else on the stage.”

Soon, the tabla player and the flautist improvised, playfully creating, a torrent of flowing bols, fast paced rhythmic beats, creating spontaneous, soulful and beautiful music together. “When it ended, I had the stupidest grin on my face. My hands were sweating. It was the closest thing I'd experienced to falling in love. I had to learn this music,” says Ajit.

The musicians were Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain! There couldn’t have been a greater initiation into the realms of Indian classical music for anyone. Ajit met the duo backstage and both were very encouraging, though they stressed that “this music is not just a hobby. It's a lifelong commitment filled with excruciating practice and many moments of discouragement. But the rewards are infinite if you persevere. One must do justice to the art.”

Ajit today is an awesome tabla player, is learning another instrument and his knowledge and appreciation of Indian classical music is phenomenal. Another young man Chaitanya who is a self taught flautist was literally in a trance when he met Hari ji. Chaitanya later said he didn’t sleep all night because he had met his hero and actually was fortunate enough to have a picture taken.

“But I am jealous of Lord Krishna,” Hari ji had quipped when I met him in Atlanta for the first time 3 years ago, at a concert to raise funds for CRY (Child Relief and You). ‘There is no recording of his music and he is known all over the world for his flute. I on the other hand, have worked and worked and done this tapasya for so many years, and yet I don’t have even one percent of the recognition that he did! But then of course he is the creator of this world and I am just a humble lover of his flute.”

Hari ji is warm hearted, quick-witted, mischievous and very young at heart to this day. If you are lucky enough to spend time with him, you will end up in stitches because of his devastating sense of humor, and the way he delivers his punch lines with an absolutely straight face. Last week I flew back to Michigan to meet him and the three outstanding musicians he had brought with him for yet another fundraiser for CRY. I will reserve my reflections on the other three- a lovely woman flute player Debopriya Chatterji Ranadive, the 16-year-old female tabla prodigy Rimpa Siva, and the man who has literally given a rebirth to the divine instrument the Pakhawaj, and is a brilliant tabla player to boot, Bhawani Shankar Kathak for future columns. Talking of them in a few lines wouldn’t do them justice.

As I walked into Hari ji’s hotel room where he was about to do an interview for a television station, it was as if time stood still. He remembered that my friend Shachi Bhardwaj had been kind enough to cook the most delicious lunch of roti, dal and squash for him because he was so tired of rich food delivered by his admirers.

He is also quite a ham! When the TV anchor asked if Hari ji would say a few words to the viewers of Wah India, the television station- he smiled and looking straight in to the camera, and without missing a beat, said: “Namskar I am Hariprasad Chaurasia, Bansuriwadak (putting an imaginary bansuri to his lips). I watch Wah India TV all the time - you should too!” Everyone cracked up because he hadn’t even heard the name of the barely year-old TV station prior to the interview! We later had dinner at the house of a very warm and hospitable couple Jagruti and Shishir and their adorable nine-year-old daughter Nirali. Jagruti at short notice conjured up an amazing meal and Hari ji who had spent almost close to 90 minutes graciously doing an interview with me and relating some very funny anecdotes about his pranks on hapless musicians and film personalities was absolutely delighted by the sight of - of all the things - Pau bhaji.

His simplicity and easy demeanor carry in to his music. He makes the impossible, the toughest notes seem so effortless, so simple. He began the concert with an alaap and jor in the divine raga Bageshri and continued with Durga because of Navratri and Dussehra happening close to the concert. It is as if the flute takes on new life in his hands. He was ably supported by his very talented disciple Debopriya, who along with her sister is one of the only two women flute players in Northern India, Rimpa Siva, who makes tabla playing seem like child’s play, and the legendary Pakhawaj maestro Bhawani Shankar.

Hariji ended the evening by playing a medley of ragas on request, ending with a show-stopping duet in Pahadi with Debopriya. Their recital was enhanced by fun segments between Rimpa and Bhavani Shankar, as they made the tabla and pakhawaj synchronize beats effortlessly with the flute duet.

The concert ended to a standing ovation and a horde of music lovers wanting to meet the maestro. We went for dinner to a newly opened Indian restaurant, called Temptations, probably as a tribute to the recent Shahrukh Khan show. I must admit that the food was far better than that show! The owners were totally overwhelmed by the maestro’s presence in their midst and Hari ji was as overwhelmed by the love with which the entire staff served him and his group. One of the staffers thoughtfully packed tons of food for me since I was fasting. Hari ji kept trying to convince me that since I was fasting for an Indian Goddess, it was already the next day in India and I should not miss out on such good food!

Today Hariprasad Chaurasia is a living legend and says of his art, “ No matter how many times you try to pollute the purity of classical music with fusion and techno music and all the noise I see around me, it will all burn itself out like a candle, and classical music is and will remain eternally lustrous and ablaze like the sun.”

Read Kavita's in-depth interview with Hariprasad Chaurasia

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