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Hariprasad Chaurasia - The Sweetest Side of Indian Music

Homage to his 75th Birthday by Jan Reichow
(July 2013)

Hariprasad Chaurasia turned 75 on July 1st.

If I'm not mistaken, December 5th is a special date for me this year - not because it's my birthday, but because it is the 30th anniversary of my first live encounter with the sweetest side of Hindustani music, which I no longer want to miss since then: the real sound of the bansuri flute. I had often seen it in images of the god Krishna: it is said that his face has the dark color of a fresh storm cloud, but the raised flute in his hand means sensuous and transcendental pleasure. But to the point: The "Days of Old Music" in Herne were to focus on old flutes that year, the recorder and baroque flute, and my colleague from WDR (West German radio) asked whether I'd like to contribute anything. My informant Gopinath Nag in Stuttgart was immediately hooked - there can be only one guy for this, he said: Hariprasad Chaurasia, from whom you will hear much more in the future! In fact, Hariprasad's appearance for WDR on December 5th, 1983, at Cultural Centre Herne turned out to be the first in a long series of Indian events and radio broadcasts featuring the bansuri, and I'll never forget how, at the end of this premiere, he took a tiny tube from his pocket and started blowing it in highest tones. The audience was enraptured. Two years later he absolutely had to come back, this time as part of our festival of North Indian music at the Cologne Music Academy, which focused on Ravi Shankar: Shivkumar Sharma was to perform the day after the legendary maestro, and Hariprasad Chaurasia the day before. And despite the absolute prominence of the sitar player the Cologne festival appeared as a summit meeting of artists of the same rank in retrospect. March 4th to 6th, 1985.

But how was the veritable triumph of the gentle bansuri flute in the west possible, 20 years after the "sitar explosion" (quote Ravi Shankar)? Probably because it was catchy even to people, who otherwise had difficulties opening up to alien music. In addition, the artist got a lot of attention for some very successful experiments in fusion music. The common amalgam came from tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, who was also involved in Cologne in 1985, but had already stirred crowds in the 70s with the band "Shakti". In 1986, he recorded the album "Making Music" together with Hariprasad Chaurasia, John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek, which was received as one of the most compelling examples in the history of musical East-West meetings. The word bansuri became a household name. Whether in rhythmic jazz or in silent meditation centres - where the bansuri was sometimes explicitly required solo, without the nuisance tabla! -, everybody loved the Indian flute with its blend of virtuosity and mellifluousness. And yet this artist never lost his credibility for grand traditional raga presentations, with his great development in classical purity and with stunning accuracy. I'll never forget that it was his interpretation of the raga Lalit which inspired me when I was looking for an Indian counterpart to Mozart - especially for the sensual ambivalence, as it unfolds in the opera Cosi fan tutte. Was it not the same phenomenon that is shown in Raga Lalit? And no one expressed surprise when the classical music station WDR3 presented about 30 minutes of Indian music in the afternoon, changing back and forth between Mozart and Raga Lalit - one experienced first hand that both musical worlds are supported by the same spirit.

Hariprasad Chaurasia was born on July 1st, 1938, in the northern Indian city Allahabad, the ancient Hindu pilgrimage destination where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers merge. One of the most astonishing facts in the biography of this sensitive artist is that he was born the son of a wrestler and was trained in his father's profession from childhood. He only realised at age 15 that music was his true vocation. He received his first lessons from a singer in the neighborhood and learned vocal techniques, until he heard Pandit Bholanath, a flute player from Varanasi, who became his teacher for eight years. Soon after, he took an assignment at the All India Radio station in Cuttack (Orissa) as a musician and composer, and in 1960, he came to Mumbai in the same function. And here he met the daughter of legendary musician and guru Allaudin Khan, the surbahar player Annapurna Devi. Learning from her father she had gone through India's hardest and most ingenious school, just like her brother Ali Akbar Khan, who became a world-famous sarod player, and just like Ravi Shankar, with whom she had been married. In this encounter Hariprasad Chaurasia experienced a whole new dimension of music that would shape his entire artistic life.

The awards, prizes and honorary doctorates awarded to him make for a long list. For decades, he was the artistic director of the North Indian music department of the Rotterdam Conservatory. And, with a wink, he mentions the physical discipline of wrestling in his early youth as an explanation for his continued ability to still endure grueling concerts and concert tours today.

In truth no one fights less on stage than him. Yes, when he plays - and he plays in the truest sense of the word - he disappears completely in his music. He told a German journalist who interviewed him for a WDR programme 10 years ago: "I just sit there, I am mute, holding a piece of bamboo in my hands, but someone plays it and someone listens, and there's someone between the audience and me, too. This is, I guess, a higher force. And for this higher force I play, and if this higher force has joy in the music, then we also enjoy the music, the music lovers and myself."

Most touching for me was how he started singing when he was asked about a favorite piece of Western music. He mentioned Swedish folk music, French, and then - he quoted my favorite tune: "For example I heard some music from Sweden, Swedish folk music. I heard music from France ... like .... (he thinks and sings a line of 'Au clair de la lune'). It is so pleasing, so simple, so nice!" That's another reason why I love him.