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Carnatic Flute : an article by GS RAJAN

The flute is perhaps the most endearing of all instruments. From Lord Krishna with his hypnotic tunes to the rustic semi-literate piper whiling away his free time, to the flute seller in Connaught Place whose plaintive reproductions of romantic film hits attract children, curious tourists and the occasional buyer, players of this most simple of all instruments have always had a meditative aura about them. The heat and dust of everyday life does not seem to touch them, and the notes they produce seem to be simply the unadorned language of their souls. No wonder any and every flautist can command a swooning audience.

The Indian flute is a simple bamboo cylinder. Unlike its counterpart in the West, which has evolved into a sophisticated metal instrument with finger keys to control the notes, the Indian flute has hardly changed from the days when the cowherd Krishna, or even his ancestors before him, used it as a sweet pastime in the fields. The music and techniques of playing have however evolved over the centuries, and in Carnatic music, two distinct schools have emerged.

In the recent past, the one flautist who swept listeners off their feet was the legendary Mali, or TR Mahalingam. Any rasika worth his or her salt quotes his name with reverence. But much before this musical genius left his indelible stamp on flute playing, it was the contribution of a young blind boy of Kumbhakonam that led to the introduction of the lowly bamboo flute into the realms of pure classical Carnatic music, back in the nineteenth century.

Sarabha Sastri was born in 1872 in Kumbhakonam in present-day Tamil Nadu. His misfortune of being blinded in childhood could do nothing to blunt his musical genius. Experimenting with the flute, he evolved a fingering technique by which he could produce the entire range of Indian ragas on it.

The fingering technique invented by Sarabha Shastri was highly scientific, and accurate as a keyboard. Even the minute oscillations required for the intricate gamakas of Carnatic music were covered by this fingering system. In graduating from playing only simple tunes to the capacity for producing full fledged kritis complete with the nuances of every raga, the flute came on par with the veena as a concert instrument. Sarabha Shastri, like many a great genius, lived a short life. After his death at the age of 32, his work was carried on by his most celebrated disciple, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, who perfected and elaborated the fingering system and popularized the flute as a solo concert instrument. Palladam Sanjeeva Rao was the unrivalled king of the Carnatic flute for six decades.

Palladam Sanjeeva Rao (sitting-left) & H Ramachandra Shastri (Standing)Towards the end of Sanjeeva Raoís career, the flute wizard Mali blew mesmerizing winds of change into the flute playing technique. A parallel baani thus emerged, but Maliís style was definitely more popular, since he brought the flute closer to the human voice, while Sarabha Shastriís keyboard like technique was of a staccatto variety.

Maliís intuitive methods like shaking the head to produce gamakas and changing the position of the flute for different tones, produced more subtle, soft and soothing results, and just about all his contemporary flautists blissfully rode this new wave.

One staunch devotee of his guruís tradition was H Ramachandra Shastri, the foremost disciple of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao. When Ramachandra Shastri was already a soloist of note, the Mali wave all but erased the Sarabha Shastri baani from public memory. But unwilling to foresake a tradition and a lifetime of devotion to his guru, with whom he had spent 25 years of gurukulavaasam, Ramachandra Shastri refrained from changing his style of playing, much as he appreciated Maliís music.

This strength of character was not understood by the mandarins who hold sway over culture in this country, and to a large extent Ramachandra Shastri was confined to the sidelights till his death about five years ago in Chennai. He was the last living exponent of the undiluted Sarabha Shastri baani, and a repository of many rare ragas and kritis.

The only official awards that came his way were the Venu Gana Siromani in 1937 and the Tamil Nadu Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1967. The government bodies which conduct many schemes to preserve little known art forms could do nothing to prevent Ramachandra Shastriís art from dying with him. There are hardly even any recordings of his concerts, and the few existing ones remain in the hands of private institutions who are not necessarily driven by altruistic motives.

Till the end of his years, H Ramachandra Shastri taught at Kalakshetra, Chennai, commuting long distances for the sake of a few students, with an upright frame and stentorian voice reminiscent of his days as a wrestling champion, and a joke always ready on his lips. In keeping with his principles,he taught the style of flute playing of his gurus, though he had the generosity never to question his disciples when they changed their technique to suit the modern trend. It is a pity that even in this institute, where the founder Rukmini Devi placed so much importance on preservation of genuine arts and crafts, his adherence to the original Sarabha Shastri baani was not appreciated, and his students were marked down by the external examiner, who apparently wanted to judge the popularity ratings of the style instead of evaluating the students on the basis of what they had been taught.

All this is history now, and only a handful of people remain to regret the disappearance of a baani or smart at the insults meted out to Ramachandra Shastri. Indeed, if compared, there are positive and negative points in both the styles. The major difference is that in Maliís style of playing, there is no technical difference between the sahitya, swara and neraval portions of a composition, because the tuttukaaram (technique of giving stress to each individual syllable) has been dispensed with, and the playing consists of extended blowing.

Perhaps the loss is more academic than otherwise, since evolution is but a natural process. The original contribution of Sarabha Shastri in bringing the flute onto the concert platform remains immortal.

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GS RAJAN B-100, SPS Apartments Phase II, Sahibabad 201 005. India. E-Mail: malabarian@yahoo.com Mobile: 00-91-9810848100.