By Sonya Rehman
Hariprasad Chaurasia needs no introduction: he is a living legend in the field on Indian classical music. In an up close and personal interview with the maestro, he tells Masala! Magazine about his journey to becoming one of the most celebrated flutists in the world today.
Panditji, is it true your father wanted you to become a wrestler?
It’s true. Like all fathers, even my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a wrestler. He was a very famous wrestler – a very strict and disciplined one. I had no options but to follow his instructions, waking up at the crack of dawn and going for rigorous practice and then being beaten up black and blue. I abhorred it, but I didn’t have a choice. He was a loving but strict parent. I couldn’t muster up the courage to anger him, after all, who wants to displease a pehalwan! But now, in retrospect, I think it was all a blessing in disguise. Because through all that rigorous training and discipline, my health permits me to play the flute for 3 -4 hours at a stretch. Physically, it has made me strong and enables me to follow my true love – my bansuri. I consider it my father’s blessing!
Were you always drawn to music?
Yes, right from the time my mother used to sing lullabies to me in my childhood. I lost her when I was about 4-years-old, but her soothing melodies have always lingered in my memories. My first guru was Pt. Rajaram; I was always drawn to the beautiful sound coming through the mud walls that separated our houses. One day, I couldn’t bear the separation and jumped over to their house. I started my vocal musical training from him. His wife was a very affectionate lady who would pamper me as if I were her own son. At times I used to wonder if God had sent my mother back to earth in her form.
How did you start your career as a classical flutist?
When I started playing the flute, it was purely because I was fascinated by the sound of the bansuri…never had I imagined that I would make it my career. Initially, I was playing a straight flute. Only later, someone gifted me a ‘seedhi bansuri,’ and when I started learning the finer nuances of the bansuri from Pt. Bholanath, I found my calling. I started playing in small programs, in temples during festivals in my hometown. Music as a career was not on the horizon. I was working as a typist and earning a decent salary to please my father!
It was around 1957 that I got an appointment letter to join AIR Cuttack (All India Radio, Cuttack) as a staff artiste with a salary that was double of what I was earning as a typist! That was the most important day of my life. I felt so fortunate…it was indeed, God’s blessings.
Was it difficult, initially when you started out?
Playing the bansuri was the most beautiful and satisfying thing for me. The teachings I got from my gurus were invaluable and helped me breeze through the hurdles. Leaving my hometown and going to Orissa, getting accustomed to new people, new surroundings was a challenge, but thankfully, everybody accepted me very easily and my music was appreciated a lot. I was encouraged by the Station Director, Shri P.V.Krishnamurthy. Even though I was a staff artiste, he gave me the opportunity to compose music, play different genres and styles of music. I was exposed to a whole new world of music and dance. My days at AIR Cuttack was a great learning experience for me.
Did you keep it a secret from you father?
Yes, music was a secret that I hid from my father. In those days, music and dance was considered taboo and some people looked down upon musicians and dancers. My father never knew that his son, who he was training to be a wrestler, craved for music. Every day, after the practice sessions, we were supposed to bathe in the Ganges to clean ourselves of the mud. I would quietly swim a little further away and go to a quiet landing and would secretly play my bansuri.
How did you eventually tell him about your real passion?
It was only when I got the appointment letter from All India Radio that I finally mustered up the courage to reveal my secret to him…
What do you experience when you play music?
Whenever I play music, I feel close to nature, to the supreme power. I experience total surrender and peace.
What has been the highlight of your incredible career?
My teachings from my Guruma, Smt. Annapurna Devi have been the most incredible highlight of my life. Her blessings and teachings and guidance are what I consider my greatest blessings. She is like a vast ocean of knowledge and I firmly believe that I need to take several births to imbibe all her teachings.
Also, the incredible, abundant love and affection that my listeners have showered upon me. I feel so blessed that I am doing something that I love to do – it sounds very selfish you know, because when I play music, it is my prayer for my salvation, my passion, for my satisfaction, yet they believe it brings joy and peace to them. What can be more satisfying?
What are you currently working on?
I try to devote all my time to music – my riyaaz or teaching my students. Whatever little I have learnt from my Guruma, I consider it my duty to pass it on to the next generation. I have two gurukuls – one in Mumbai and one in Bhubaneshwar. I am very fortunate to have wonderful and dedicated students of music who share the same passion as me and we live together and learn from each other.
What advice would you give to those wanting to learn how to play the flute? Any tips?
First and foremost surrender yourself as a student. You have to accept yourself as shunya, zero, in the start. Then give your one hundred percent dedication and sincerity towards your music. Slowly and steadily you will absorb the knowledge and teachings and keep learning till there is space for learning in you. The day you think you have learnt it all, there is no scope for you to learn further, you become stagnant. Your thirst for learning should be never-ending. We should remain students till our last breath. Also respect your parents and guru because without their blessings, nothing is achievable.