Asian Music and Dance

The Instrument and the Musician – Pannalal Ghosh and Hindustani Bansuri

Continuing with the current series, Ken Hunt examines the contribution of one man, Pannalal Ghosh, who was to change the course of musical history for the humble bamboo flute.

Strange though it may seem, the responsibility for bringing the bansuri, the subcontinent’s bamboo flute, to the world of Hindustani concertising, as we now know it, rests with one musician. He was the sound of both a new flute and Hindustani music changing. He lifted one of the most ancient of the subcontinent’s musical instruments from its folk and light entertainment status to the Hindustani classical stage and firmament. Stranger still, this flautist’s name has receded from people’s lips and memories. His name is Pannalal Ghosh.

The irony is sublime. The transverse or side-blown bamboo flute is the instrument with which Lord Krishna made merry and mischief of many kinds. Alongside vina, it is one of the two melody instruments of Hindu-related iconography. That includes Rajputi miniatures and bold and brightly-coloured Kalighat commentaries, stone sculptures, metal effigies, song and dance. Figuratively, it is also the most invisible of Hindustani instruments – with dancers holding imaginary flutes in portrayals of Krishna!

“… His interpretation of the evening rāg Shri is so modern… it comes as a shock to learn that Ghosh was dead by 1960”.

From this distance in time, it is admittedly hard to grasp how much of a breakthrough Pannalal Ghosh made. His interpretation of the evening rāg Shri is so modern-sounding that it comes as a shock to learn that Ghosh was dead by 1960. A shishya or disciple of Allauddin Khan, his playing has stylistic hallmarks that modern-day listeners wouldn’t necessarily think of as pioneering because of exposure to, say, later maestros such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, G.S. Sachdev, Vijay Raghav Rao, Raghunath Seth, Rajendra Prasanna and Ronu Majumdar. That is why this article should have audio accompaniment. Treat The Great Heritage (2011) as its accompanying ‘text’. It begins with a dozen vintage kala tava (‘black griddle’) take-aways, the old records named after the tava used for cooking and flipping chapatti. The second disc captures four microgroove performances in Yaman, Shri, Pilu and a Bhairavi instrumental thumri, a light classical song form often with Vaishnavite themes or allegorical romantic content. The last volume consists of performances of Darbari and Basant culled from the All India Radio (AIR) archives. In essence it encapsulates his recorded work, bar recordings for films such as Aandhiyan (1952), one he scored with Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar.

Before Pannalal Ghosh, bansuri was not treated as a serious classical instrument in the north of the subcontinent. To go devil’s advocate, that could have had a little to do with Krishna’s public image. He is a prankster forgiven much, the child deity pardoned for butter larceny, the Boy Wonder who subdued the naga or serpent-being Kaliya by dancing on the naga’s heads. His personal instrument is the bansuri, intimately associated with tales of Radha. Playing bansuri, Hindu mythologies tell us, Krishna seduced women and entranced does and songbirds.

“You have to tune it yourself, to play in tune to your ears. ”

Venu is the instrument’s Sanskrit name but it is better known as bansuri. It is found in side- and end-blown (or so-called fipple) variants from north to south and from nightfall to daybreak in uncounted regional, folk, tribal and art music contexts. Other names include bansi, bansri, bānhi, bāshi – where the first syllable denotes bamboo – and murali. Its very ubiquity may have played a role in restricting its acceptance in the Hindustani classical circles, though in the Hindu heartland of the South bansuri proper’s southern relative was well-integrated into devotional and art music.

Talking to me in August 1999, Hariprasad Chaurasia, who eventually studied with Allauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna, observed, “I found it the simplest instrument, not only in India but the whole world. It’s a most traditional instrument created by Lord Krishna. Why I call it the ‘simplest’ is because you can get it anywhere. You go to the forest. You go to the bamboo tree. You cut it and make it yourself.” Had he done that himself? “I have. I thought, ‘I don’t have to bother about ordering an instrument. I can just go and pick up my bamboo. When the bamboo cracks, I don’t have to go to a particular shop to get this.’ You don’t have to add anything. You don’t have to add skin to play, to wait for this or that. There’re no skins or strings. It seemed very simple. To play it was very hard! That I realised afterwards when I started learning. Slowly, slowly it became more and more difficult. Once you’ve tuned the instrument then it will always sound tuneful. But with no strings and skin how do you tune it? You have to tune it yourself, to play in tune to your ears. Afterwards I realised this is the most difficult instrument. It just looks simple.”

In 1891 the author and organist of German Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace in London, Mr F. Weber, saw the publication of his book, A Popular History of Music From The Earliest Times. His coverage was ambitious. It reached back to biblical times and across to ‘Hindostan’ – the variant spelling preceding Hindustan – and beyond to Siam, Java and China. In that second category, much of his information reads like travellers’ tales revisited, speculation leavened with eye-witness writings and correspondence now impossible to cross-check, fed by colonial takes on Hinduism. Weber declares: ‘The Flute is of the greatest antiquity in India. A bamboo cane with some holes at the side may have been the first flute. Crishnoo’s flute is said to have had irresistible charms.’

Music of Hindostan, published by the Clarendon Press of Oxford in 1914 and still in print (an indication of its must-readability for anyone interested in the subcontinent’s musical history), had a distinct advantage. Its author, A.H. Fox Strangways had spent time of a kind that only intercontinental travel by steamship could inform. He broaches bansuri’s strange paradox: ‘In spite of the fame conferred upon it by Krishna’s performance among his Gopis [female cow-herds], the flute seems to fade out of Indian music; at least there are few references to it, and it is seldom to be heard nowadays.’

Things were on the cusp of change.

Pannalal Ghosh is at times a somewhat elusive figure. Much information about him is second- or third-hand, though the Indian music critic Mohan Nadkarni’s pen-portrait about him in Music To Thy Ears (2002) draws on meetings, Nadkarni having first met him in October 1949. Ghosh appears to have had little or no time for such fripperies as interviews. (It would be very heaven to uncover a cache of his Bengali or Hindi interviews awaiting translation.) Despite being often only half-glimpsed or shadowy as a man in many accounts, it is the amazingly clear and coherent personality that emerges from his music that matters.

“…, the sadhu gave him the bansuri, foretelling that music was to be his salvation”. 

Of Bengali bloodlines, Amal Jyoti Ghosh was born on 24 July 1911 in Barisal, an East Bengal port on the Kirtankhola, close to where the river empties into the Bay of Bengal. Back then it was British India: now it is Bangladesh. Pannalal was his nickname and the name by which, it appears, he was known throughout his time as a professional musician. His father Akshay Kumar Ghosh played sitar and taught his son music and sitar while his brother Nikhil played tabla. His flautist grandson Anand Murdeshwar recalls that while swimming an unfinished bamboo flute – “a floating bamboo with holes” – bobbed by the 9-year-old. It became his first flute. Apocryphally, two years later a Hindu sadhu happened by (as in so many good accounts). The holy man was carrying a shankha – the conch associated with Lord Vishnu – and a bansuri. He asked if the lad knew how to play. He could and he did. In recognition, the sadhu gave him the bansuri, foretelling that music was to be his salvation. 

In 1924 Ghosh married the Barisal-born Parul Biswas. She was 9 and he 13. She would become one of Bengal’s first playback singers. His father died around 1929. “After his father’s demise,” said Murdeshwar of his grandfather and grand-guru, ‘he experimented with several instruments, but finally listened to his heart and chose the divine instrument of Lord Krishna. He devoted himself wholeheartedly, practising for ten to fourteen hours a day.’ He also odd-jobbed, including playing music for cinema audiences, and by the mid-1930s was working with Rai Chand Boral, a music director working at Calcutta’s New Theatres film studio in Tollygunge (hence the Kolkata film industry’s subsequent epithet, Tollywood). He also met Khushi Mohammed Khan who fed his head with instruction in flute. His brother-in-law, Anil Biswas was also working in the humming metropolis. Three years his junior, he was politically engaged as a member of the Indian Independence Movement and on the brink of success as an actor, singer and film composer.

All the while Ghosh was studying music and experimenting with flute configurations. One family story concerns him coming into contact with the Santal tribal people. Famed and romanticised in Bengali song for taking the ‘red-earth’ trail from the plains to the hills and mahua – or honey tree – forests, the Santals taught him archery and he, a boxer and fitness and martial arts enthusiast, taught them physical culture. “He took a fancy to their long tribal flute and perhaps the idea of the famous big flute germinated here,” suggested his grandson.

“… In 1947 Ustad Allauddin Khan … finally took him on as a shishya”.

In 1940 he moved to Bombay, ‘on the advice of his first disciple Haripada Choudhary’ writes David Philipson on the Pannalal Ghosh website, though that handily distanced him from Japanese bombing attacks and brought him closer to new work possibilities. His scoring for the Bombay Talkies’ hit picture Basant (1942) – which debuted future screen goddess Madhubala in her Baby Mumtaz child star guise – did his reputation no harm. (His home was in Malad, the location of Bombay Talkies’ studio.) Ghosh was making a good name for himself but what he felt he lacked was the steadying wisdom of a guru. In 1947 Ustad Allauddin Khan of the Senia or Maihar gharana (school and style of playing), father-guru to Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi and her husband, Ravi Shankar, finally took him on as a shishya, having baulked at accepting him the previous year when approached in Bombay. Under his guidance, Ghosh re-focused his playing and distanced himself from film music.

“…he increased the length of his bansuri… to facilitate the rendition of profound serious ragas”.

‘The famous big flute’ with its lung- and breath-busting requirement to shift an impressive column of air was Pannalal Ghosh’s trademark. Mohan Nadkarni writes: “…he increased the length of his bansuri to 48 cm, with a corresponding increase in the bores so as to facilitate the rendition of profound serious ragas like Malhar, Todi, Darbari or Marwa. Next he added an extra playing hole at the lower end of the instrument. The idea here was to extend its tonal range and also make possible the rendition of the finer points such as khatkas and murkis [both forms of musical embellishment], commonly associated with light classical and lighter musical themes.” The proof of that particular milk cake is to be heard in the final two tracks on disc one of The Great Heritage. At around three-and-a-half minutes in duration, with no room for self-indulgence, Ghosh’s unidentified thumri in Pilu is coiled tension, while the likewise unnamed kajri, a folk form from Uttar Pradesh, especially associated with Varanasi, is distilled-wit eloquence.

When Hariprasad Chaurasia, seventeen years his junior, approached the maestro about studying under him, he declined. From Uma Vasudev’s Hariprasad Chaurasia – Romance of the Bamboo Reed (2005), Ghosh was flat out attending music conferences, composing for AIR, and, at the time of his death, conducting AIR’s New Delhi-based National Orchestra. He probably had enough pupils to teach, including his son-in-law Devendra Murdeshwar, Anand’s father. At such life-crossroads are destinies made. Hariprasad Chaurasia’s musical life certainly took a different course after that…

On 20 April 1960 Pannalal Ghosh died of a heart attack in New Delhi, aged 48. His bansuri is still carrying listeners across time.

More information at www.pannalalghosh.com. The Great Heritage (Saregama CDNF 150997-999) is available from, of course, varying outlets. Rhythm House PVT. Ltd. in Mumbai charges RS 500 (around GBP 5.00 or USD 7.50) plus p&p charged at cost.



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