Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

"Music is my aradhana, my prayer, and each
auditorium a temple."

By Kavita Chhibber

His musical journey has had the most unlikely beginnings and yet today he is the greatest living flute player in the world. He insists he may create heavenly music blowing into a piece of bamboo, but he remains jealous of Lord Krishna, who in spite of not having any recording of his music is known all over the world for his flute, while he has worked and worked and done this tapasya for so many many years, and yet he doesn’t have even one percent of the recognition that Krishna does! Then he says with his usual humor and a twinkle in his eyes, “Well Krishna is the creator of this world and I am just a humble lover of his flute.”

(Photos: Ajit Acharya)

Each time you meet Hariprasad Chaurasia, you are transported into a world of mischief, music and magic, on and off the stage. His innocent smile hides a sharp mind and ready wit. In spite of having achieved so much, the maestro is still giving back to the world through his own music and by nurturing outstanding talent in his school Brindavan which is based on the gurukul system.

In an exclusive interview conducted in Michigan and Philadelphia Hariprasad Chaurasia talks to Kavita Chhibber, about his life’s journey, and why in spite of all the hoopla to the contrary, he is so optimistic about the future of Indian classical music

You came from a family of wrestlers. How much of a handicap was that in your quest to become a musician?
My father was a wrestler and though every one liked music in the family, it was taboo to even think of a musical career. In his eyes, music meant performing at a courtesan’s mehfil, or you sang when begging for alms. My mother had died when I was five and my father had vowed never to marry and raised three of us single handedly. He was very strict, and children those days did not dare speak up before their parents. If I describe some of the thrashings I have received from him, you will be aghast. Looking back however I can understand, his frustrations, a full blooded, young man, not marrying and raising us, cooking for us, single handedly must have been very stressful.

I used to wrestle to keep him happy, but would often go to my friend’s house where the parents encouraged music and would satisfy my urge to sing. Every one knew my father’s temper so they all kept my secret. When I was about nine years old I started learning vocal music from Pandit Rajaram. He was our neighbor and both his wife and he were very fond of me, as they had no children. He would teach me secretly and when he discovered that I had talent he started working very hard on me.

Then a chance rendition became the turning point musically I believe.
Indeed. At the age of fifteen, I heard the flute for the first time on Allahabad radio. It was as if I was transported to heaven. The flautist was Pt Bhola nath and that was the major turning point in my life. He was a bachelor and must have been happy to see a youngster like me at his doorstep. He hoped to get me to at least cut his vegetables and grind his spices in return for the music that I wanted to learn! I began learning the flute from him. Once I was practicing at home and my father heard me. When he asked me to open my door and asked what was I playing, I said Oh I was just whistling. I got an even worse thrashing for whistling because that was not something good boys indulged in.

In the meantime I found a job, initially as a typist and then as a clerk in the U.P. government. I knew at that point that playing the flute was my life’s calling. Soon after, while I was still in my teens I got an offer to work as a staff artist on Cuttack radio in Orissa and I accepted. It was then that my father found out that I was a musician. It was a major shock for him, not only the fact that I had learnt music and was now going to earn a living as a musician, but also that I was leaving him, when he had sacrificed his whole life for us. He tried to stop me, but for me it was as if God had answered my prayer. I had felt so tortured, so stifled, not being able to give the amount of time I wanted to give to my music, and now it seemed as if I could finally break free and be on my own, to practice as long as I wanted.

In Orissa there was nothing but Orissi dance and I didn’t know the language, I was vegetarian, and all they ate was fish and meat, so I threw myself into my music, and practiced day and night. Soon people heard me on the radio and started inviting me home, the Orissi dancers asked me to accompany them, and I stared getting paid very well. What I made in a month at the radio station I began to make in a day as an accompanist. In fact the girls would seduce me with movie tickets and say, here I have a movie ticket for you, don’t play the flute at that other girl’s dance, play for me. The director of the radio station was very kind and one day called me and said, there is a long list of complaints against you, that you hardly ever come to the radio station and are too busy performing outside. So son, why don’t you come once a month and sign for the entire month, and the day you do show up, do some good work.’

I started doing some compositions then, just to stop people from grumbling. Soon the director left and since the others were not too pleased with my extra curricular activities they had me transferred to Bombay.

Bombay was a major culture shock. My salary was 250 rupees. That just covered the cost of my train fare for the month. A small, room cost 500 rupees. I had brought some savings with me and had decided I would work for a month or two and then return to Orissa and continue with my work there as I had been making good money. I realize now that nothing in this life ever happens by accident. When I played at the radio station, some of the famous music directors from the films, like Madan Mohan and Roshan, heard me and soon after I started getting an abundance of assignments to play for films. I would be out all day after my radio station work and return home only at night with my pockets bulging with cash. Very soon I resigned from the radio station, and made working for film directors my full time job.

You worked with SD and RD Burman. Can you share some memories of these stalwarts?
SD Burman was a very gifted musician, a simple man but exceedingly stingy! He had a hard time parting with his cash even after he had become very affluent. There was a time we were all struggling and staying in rooms in a hotel, and Sachin da as we lovingly called him, would hide behind a curtain if he was eating something. Once lyricist Anand Bakshi had come over to discuss a song, and Sachin da told him he must eat something, borrowed ten bucks that Anand Bakshi could ill afford to shell out, got the errand boy to get a dozen bananas, fed Bakshi one and kept the rest for himself!

I still remember this incident where we had to all meet at his place once he had made it, to discuss the composition of a song. I arrived straight from another recording and saw the producer, director, the hero and the heroine and some 4-5 musicians seated around this table. Sachin da asked his wife to provide tea and some sweets. His wife Mira brought a plateful of rasgullas which someone had probably brought from Calcutta for him. In between, the servant came and whispered there was no sugar in the house. Sachin da promptly said..oh then never mind the tea, by the time you get the sugar the tea will be cold”…but he couldn’t sent the sweets away! Reluctantly he asked people around him to have a rasgulla. People were too scared of him and said no no, we have already eaten and come. Well I had come straight from a recording and was pretty hungry; as he covered his face with his fingers and closed his eyes to think of a tune, I made a grab for the sweets. In no time I had polished off 15 rasgullas and there were barely a couple left. Dada saw his precious sweets disappear and was quite annoyed. The next day Lata Mangeshkar was to be briefed about a song and I was asked to play the flute at various points in the I started , dada chimed in, still rattled about his lost rasgullas.. “see Lata, he is sounding extra sweet today isn’t he-I’m not surprised considering all the rasgullas he polished off at my house yesterday-it has made his flute extra sweet today! Sachin da was very serious and would seldom smile. RD on the other hand was generous and full of mischief. Not too many people know that he was a serious student of music as Sachin da had sent him to learn from Ali Akbar Khan. We would often sit in a separate room cracking wild jokes laughing our heads off then rearrange our facial features and look very serious when it was time to go before his father. At times Sachin da would wonder and ask- “who was laughing outside?” The one time that I did make him laugh happened because of a trick I played on a shehnai player Dakshina Mohan Tagore. Both Sachin da and Dakshina Mohan Tagore had dreams of the latter going abroad and striking it big. Once we were in London and we found a street where they would print phony newspapers with any headlines we wanted. So we got this headline printed “ Indian Musician Dakshina Mohan Tagore Caught Streaking Across West end.” I took the paper to Sachin da and said “What a shameful thing, look at how Dakshina ji is making his name abroad.” Dada was shocked until suddenly it dawned on him that he had been had and he burst into laughter. Dakshina babu however didn’t forgive us for a long time!

Bollywood made me affluent. Soon I had my own flat and a car, and all the material comforts, and then the discontentment started.

I believe that it was santoor maestro, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma who really got you back on track.
I worship Shiv Kumar Sharma from the deepest interiors of my heart. He is the elder brother I was lucky to have. Shiv ji is not of this world, I realized that the moment I set eyes on him. We met in the 1950s at a youth festival and then again in Bombay in 1961, and became very close. Once he was married his wife was like my second mother. I would fight with her, walk off with things he got from his home town of Jammu and demand particular dishes. We had a lot of fun creating music for films together and touring, and indulging in my brand of mischief. Once we were being hosted by two very scary looking old ladies and we wriggled out of that by telling them Shiv ji snored and I screamed. .Shiv ji was, indeed the one who asked me one day if playing in Bollywood films was all I was going to do in my life. I was not growing as an artist. I needed more. What did I have to show in terms of personal creativity, or growth? He was right. I back tracked and decided to find my guru.

For that you went to the reclusive Anna purna Devi-Baba Allauddin Khan’s daughter, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sister and Ravi shankar’s ex wife. Why her? She had stopped performing in public and was considered very moody.
She asked me the same question when she kicked me out of her house the first time I showed up there! Many years ago, when I was a lad, her father the legendary Sarod maestro Baba Allauddin Khan used to come to Allahabad and stay at a hotel owned by my best friend’s parents and my friend would drag me to listen to him. One day he forced me to take my flute. When baba saw the flute he asked me to play. He liked what he heard and asked me to come to Maihar where he lived, and become his disciple. I told him my father would kill me. Then he said, if you can come, come. I will feed you, clothe you and train you. If you cannot and I die, then go to my daughter Anna Purna. She is endowed with amazing talent. Strangely he did not recommend his son sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. That somehow stayed in my mind and then I realized Anna Purna Devi was living in Bombay and she was married to Pt. Ravi Shankar. Anna purna Devi played the surbahar, and when I went to her for the first time, she threw me out. As it is, filmi musicians have a flaky reputation, on top of that I played the flute, and not surbahar, her forte` and thirdly she wondered why was I coming to her and not going to Ravi ji. The second time she threatened to call the police, but I persisted, and finally after three years of persistently dogging her, she finally relented. She asked me to play something and when I did, she said, that if I had to learn from her I had to start from scratch.

To show her I was serious. I decided to switch hands. I used to play with my right-hand, I switched to the left and believe me it is sheer torture. It’s like if I tell you that instead of walking straight, walk backwards for the rest of your life without looking back. I used to cry in sheer agony. You have heard of stories about baba beating up his students with a hammer if they made a mistake. His son Ali Akbar Khan once jumped from the first floor of the house and ran away to Lucknow to work in a radio station because he was beaten so much. Although one time the tables were turned on baba as he tried to hit a foreign student who turned on baba..and there was baba running and asking for help and apologizing as the irate student chased him with a stick. Annapurna ji too was a very strict disciplinarian and even more demanding than her father. She did not play the flute so she would sing the ragas and teach me. All I can say is that if I am ever reborn I want to have the same teacher in each birth. She has brought a depth and meaning to my music that is incomparable. I realized because of her that I am finally on the right path. I have missed out so much that can never be made up, because she came in to my life so much later. She is not just my guru, and my mother; she is the reincarnation of goddess Saraswati for me. In my life my music has been my greatest passion- until I met her. I realize that I have never loved anyone as much as I have loved her, and she has showered immense love on me in return. I still go and learn from her. When I am away I miss her terribly.

Anna Purna ji doesn’t perform in public. I believe, from the stories I have heard, she was a far superior performer than even Ravi ji and her fame began to upset him, and so baba made her vow that she would give up performing in public. Ravi ji has commented upon his marriage to her in his autobiography. What is your take on her and Shubho?
That is the greatest tragedy of the women of our country, and my heart bleeds at the sacrifice they have made through the ages. I also do not approve of talking about my woman in public. We worship our women; they are devis, whether they are our mothers, or wives, sisters, or daughters, and it is in poor taste for a man of that stature to make any kind of comment about a lady. I would never have the inclination or the guts to speak about my wife in public no matter how turbulent our relationship. It’s just not done, even though I love Ravi ji and have the utmost regard for him. I don’t think there is any truth to the story that baba asked her to stop playing or that Ravi ji felt threatened. I have never had the courage to ask her and I have never seen her play. All I know is that from what I have heard from others she was far superior as a musician than anyone else in that era.

I saw her son Shubho who was a young, kind child and was emerging as a very gifted musician and painter. He was very dedicated to his music and would practice almost 8-9 hours every day. He was also studying painting. Then he chose to move to the USA and lost focus. I know people blame Ravi ji for spoiling him but the fact is it was not Ravi ji’s fault. Shubho was old enough to know right from wrong. I think sometimes when you are fortunate enough to be born in a musical family you may take it for granted. It’s really important for sons and daughters of artists to not get scattered, but unfortunately that is what I see happening a lot of the times. It is very interesting to see how all three- Ravi ji, Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna devi were taught by the same master but their playing was ruled by their own temperament, making them uniquely different from each other.

You have collaborated with an amazing number of vocal and instrumental artists, both from the west and India, including with Jethro Tull in three concerts recently!
Yes they now call it fusion music, but I think its confusion in the minds of those who created the phrase. We play alongside each other, it’s not in fusion but in unison. I have enjoyed playing with all the artists. In 1972 we had musicians from the west and fellow Indians, including Ravi Shankar, Allah rakha, George Harrison, Jean Pierre Ramphal and toured 54 cities. It was really interesting to see how each artist approached his music, the concert, and his moods, both on and off stage. Yehudi Menhuin was great. He loved Indian culture and music and was one of the genuinely humble men I have known. Of course at times there were ego hassles when even the audience could see the other musician was trying to outshine me, or over shadow me. Don’t ask me for names. How can I tell you which one of my 5 kids is more naughty? I normally walk away from controversies. It’s more of a stress being embroiled in them. Jethro Tull was surprisingly fun and very well behaved and we played to a full house everywhere. We worked on a few melodies together and at other times we played our own stuff but it all jelled very well.

You created a Cd “Divine Dhrupad”. It was interesting because dhrupad is either sung or played on the veena traditionally.
Well I come from the Senia gharana and it is a pre requisite to start with dhrupad when you start learning music, and after that you can go to khayal or thumri. I have felt that the singers who sing dhrupad have been trying to monopolize and control the dhrupad style, so I decided to play it on the flute, and every one appreciated it greatly.

What do you think of the young musicians of today? They are getting younger and younger these days.
I think they are very short sighted. These days they are more interested in signing contracts, and cash in on their talents as early as possible. What they don’t realize is that if you are not ready, you will flounder eventually. It’s like working on an empty stomach versus a full stomach. An empty vessel only makes a lot of noise. We were never ready until our guru told us that we were, but these days there is no reverence for teachers, earlier we used to run after our teachers, now the teachers run after their students, and are often told- please sit, my son is watching TV. Or he is taking a shower or still sleeping. Even those artists who are famous all over the world have not been able to teach their own kids the discipline necessary to become a great musician. Their kids too have released records, signed contracts well before their musical talent has reached the level it should. However I’m very happy to see how parents today are pushing their kids to learn music or some classical art form, something I never saw in my time. I do have to say however that if you truly want to understand and learn classical music you have to live in India and learn it there. There are no two ways about it.

You have given some beautiful music for films along with Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma. Has the quality of film music deteriorated and is it why you are so picky?
Well I won’t really blame the music composer because the quality of music in films has deteriorated. The days of Baiju Bawra, Anarkali are gone, when the music director would research each scene and create great melodies. Now any boy who can shake his hips and any girl who can wear skimpy clothes are made to star in a movie. What kind of music can you provide for such a film? It seems like ages since the last time I saw an actress wearing a sari throughout a movie. The singers don’t want to learn, and take short cuts; the musician doesn’t want to tire his brains by thinking too hard, because there is no time. It’s all a rat race now.

If you were given the opportunity of doing a duet with one of the past legends who would you choose?
First of all I don’t think I have the talent to perform duets with anyone of the musical greats, but if I could have the honor of accompanying them my choice would be Baba Allauddin Khan. He was an amazing musician and an amazing teacher. He played a variety of instruments from trumpet, to sarod, to sitar, to piano, to violin to ghatam. What is amazing is the fact that the temperament of each instrument is so different and so unique and he could play all of them beautifully. I have yet to meet anyone who was such a colossus of talent.

Tell me something about your dream, “Brindavan?"
To this day my gurus have never charged me for anything. Instead they have fed me and taken care of me. I wanted to revive that gurukul tradition, and to build a school for music where I wanted to select about 10 students or so, adopt them and provide them with everything. They would study and learn music, see other fellow musicians perform, attend and give lectures and of course be educated in other subjects as well. It would be an all-round education. They would be from all age groups but will not get a degree. Just the fact that they are from Brindavan will be a certificate enough. Lord Krishna’s Brindavan is known by his idol. Here my Brindavan would be alive with the lord’s music through his instrument. I didn’t know how to go about it though. It was in 1988 that Rajiv Gandhi asked me to fly to Japan with him and asked me how my music was and if there was anything I needed. I told him about my dream and he said he can arrange for 20 acres of land for me in Delhi. I said I was based in Bombay and while eventually I would love to see a music gurukul in each state, with my earlier commitments and I was still giving music in Bollywood, it would be hard to shift. I was then given land in a prime location in Juhu, but many years passed and I had no clue how to start building. I had neither the knowledge nor the financial resources. I have somehow always had God’s grace, where whenever I do dream of something, somehow the doors open. It was in the nineties that I bumped into Ratan Tata of the Tatas at a function where I was being honored. His father had always been fond of me and Ratan had seen me around his father growing up. He asked me how I was and I told him how I had no clue about using the land given to me to create my dream school. Within a short time, the Tatas sanctioned three crores for the project and not just that Ratan used his construction company to build the school including the Krishna temple I had wanted and handed me the keys. Today we have about 100 students who come in to study music, though there are only 6-7 who stay there full time and are totally supported by me. That is all I can afford at this time.

If you were to live your life all over again, what would you desire?
To be born again, as a musician. In a way it was good that I was not born in a gharana. It is too much of a burden to carry on your forefathers’ legacy and be constantly compared to them. My son learnt the sitar but decided he’d rather go for academics, his first love. He didn’t like the thought of being constantly compared to me. He studied in London and USA, and is doing pretty well.

There is a lot of concern that classical music is being drowned in Indi-pop and remix kind of music.
Well, this trend won’t last. Even when these youngsters do these remixes, they are going to the old songs. Eventually you cannot stop the sun from rising, the water from flowing, the moon from spreading its light and you cannot change the seven notes to anything else. Classical music will retain its luster-the pollution will be washed away. I’m really not worried by this temporary deviation.

We listen to Hariprasad Chaurasia. What does Hariprasad Chaurasia listen to? Also, you seem to have a very hectic schedule, touring, teaching at home and abroad, charity concerts. You are now in your sixties. How do you cope up?
I love traditional music, and folk tunes. I was in Korea recently and asked them after my performance to play their traditional music. They did and I had a wonderful time.

I guess I don’t get the time to get tired! There have been occasions where I have flown to a different country for a 1hour recital and flown back immediately after to perform somewhere else. For me my music is my aradhana, my prayer, and each auditorium a temple. Music rejuvenates and energizes me and the love I have received in return is the greatest reward.

Videos featuring Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri) with Ustad Zakir Hussain (tabla):

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri) with Subhash Dhunoohchand (tabla):

All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber and Kavita Media.

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