Making the Bamboo Sing

Flautist Rakesh Chaurasia on handling a heavy-duty surname, blowing life into a bamboo reed and being a classical musician in contemporary times

In a concert presented last weekend as part of the HCL concert series at Shiv Nadar School’s auditorium in Gurgaon, to commemorate World Music Day (June 21), flautist Rakesh Chaurasia seemed quite perplexed on stage. The displeasure seemed to be arising from drowning of the flute’s sound alongside that of five other instruments. With Ut Fazal Qureshi on the tabla, Purbayan Chatterjee on the sitar, Gino Banks on the drums, Sangeet Haldipur on the keys and Rickraj Nath on the guitar, a bamboo reed can easily get overshadowed. Chatterjee kept asking for more sound in his monitors and so did Qureshi. “Flautists usually suffer because of the pitch. When we do a collaboration, we have a bit of a hard time. It’s a completely acoustic instrument among many amplified instruments and doesn’t have any resonance. We don’t have that pick up to keep up with the drums, the sitar and so on. The flute has to work harder than the others,” says Rakesh, 48. To stand out in a space that was “not a proper auditorium”, he played his heart out — be it a soothing piece in raag Ahir Bhairav that made its mark for its meditative tune or breaking the norm and having a bit of unconventional fun on stage by playing the Pink Panther theme song and Nokia ringtone in a semi-classical concert.

The latter would perhaps be called blasphemous by his guru and uncle, flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia, and those from his ilk but Rakesh is unfazed and believes in keeping an open mind. “I like to experiment with fusing various instruments. It allows me to connect with different kinds of audience,” says Rakesh, who recently toured the East Coast with tabla maestro Ut Zakir Hussain, legendary American bassist and composer Edgar Meyer and 16-time Grammy-winning American banjoist Bela Fleck. “Double bass and banjo are loud instruments. But abroad, they have very clear rules and regulations about the sound so that all the instruments are properly and comfortably heard. In India, people keep saying bring me up (sound-wise on the monitors),” says Rakesh, who adds that in classical fusion one needs to keep the artiste’s emotions in mind.

Rakesh was four when he was captivated by the swirling sounds from the flute. His uncle (father’s brother), Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, was at the peak of his career then, and Rakesh heard the warm notes being created by breathing life into a bamboo reed. “I was in love with the sound even as a child. It’s over the years that I have come to realise the spirituality attached to it. If you look at mythology, flute is shown as Lord Krishna’s instrument. It looks simple. People tell me you are lucky that it has no strings and is just a piece of wood. But if a guy is playing it on the Juhu beach, people stop by to listen at least once. The sound is so unadulterated, so pure,” says Rakesh, whose utmost commitment to his guru and music is regularly spoken about in music circles. “I have never seen Krishna. To me, Hari ji is my Krishna,” says Rakesh.

He adds that he learned more by listening to “baabuji” than by sitting at his feet. “I had very few one-on-one lessons with him. I mostly learned by listening to him, at home, in the gurukul and a lot on the stage while playing the tanpura with him,” says Rakesh.

He was eight and visiting Mumbai’s Yash Raj Studios — where his uncle was recording Silsila’s music with Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma — when Amitabh Bachchan was in the studio recording Rang barse. The actor spotted a young Rakesh listening intently and asked, ‘ye kiska bachcha hai?’. “Babuji said, ‘apna hi hai’. He then asked me to play the flute. I didn’t stop crying for a while,” says Rakesh, who managed a 10-minute display of his skills, post a long crying session, to much appreciation from those present in the studio.

As Chaurasia manoeuvred the craters on the long flute over the years in a slew of classical concerts, Rakesh observed him and then came back home and tried to explore. “I understood it very early on, that I didn’t have to copy him. I needed to learn from him and then find my own path,” says Rakesh.

And he did. Slowly, Rakesh’s career took off as a solo flute player. In the last decade he has brought out a slew of albums, ranging from classical to jazz and ghazal, among others. He has performed regularly at festivals and has also kept in touch with Bollywood, playing for Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ismail Durbar, among others. He says that striking a balance among various genres has helped. “Very few instruments can meld with any kind of instruments. There is the violin, saxophone and flute. I realised that early on and kept imbibing a slew of sounds, of various other instruments,” says Rakesh, who still cringes at being called “Pandit”, a prefix that was used while credits were given towards the end in the Shiv Nadar concert. “It happens often and I don’t like it at all. It just doesn’t look good, especially when many Pandits and Ustads, our seniors, are still giving us great music. The applause, the appreciation, the happiness of one’s own soul, that’s enough for a true musician,” says Rakesh.

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