“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chaurasia’s Flute

Silly it is, I know. But sometimes I wish I were somebody else. There are certain individuals whom I respect and admire greatly; not the entire persona, but the attribute that is unique to them, the attribute of making others happy. That’s what makes me wish I was like Hariprasad Chaurasia.

I hold the reed pipe to my lips, my fingers grip it awkwardly, searching for the holes to cover. I take a deep breath. I blow. Nothing except a harsh noise of air comes out. No music.

Chaurasia-ji’s flute woke me up to Hindustani Classical music while in my teens. Long before I listened to him at live concerts, I had tapes of his music. The sound of bamboo flute has this magical quality of soothing your troubled mind, flowing over you like a gentle stream.

The friend opens his leather case carefully. It holds several pipes, of bamboo and steel. He picks up one gently; gazing at it with love in his eyes, he fondles the flute like a baby. I look at him with awe, watching his expression changing. There is a serenity in him that I could envy.

Today afternoon was sultry. In addition to that, the power was off. Our office, designed to be air-conditioned, but not, can be really unbearable in humid conditions. It was around 1630; I was winding up work while listening to Chaurasia playing Raag Malkauns. Then something strange happened.

In the banking hall stood a man, looking around vaguely. Thin, dark-skinned, hollow-cheeked, the whites of his eyes glared bright. I make my usual rapid assessment. Mid-30s. Bihari/Bengali/Oriya. Muslim. Labourer in Technopark? No, too emaciated for manual labour and too poorly dressed. What does he need? Banking hours are over at 1600 hrs. I notice the Cash Pay-in slip in his hand. I am sure our Cashier, a horrid, crass female, would send him back. I listen to the usual refrain – “Cash is CLOSED!” Then the follow-through – “ What do all these people THINK?” blah blah.

I beckon him over. I am always a little extra kind to people like him. They are poor and illiterate, barely managing to etch a letter or two in Hindi, presumably their signature. Far away from their villages somewhere in the Ganges delta, Kerala is heaven for them. Turning down the volume, I ask him – ‘Kya Chahiye aap?’ What do you want? (This is a regular opportunity to brush up my Hindi). ‘I want to remit some money, saab. I am living a bit far from here, so couldn’t reach before 4 PM.’ I take him in, his shabby but clean shirt, cheeks sunk in too deep, dark skin taut over his face. I check the account he want to send money to; it is somewhere in Bihar. The name is Saliman Khatun. I check the scanned image of the account holder. Two women, head covered, squint at the camera. The photo is very poorly printed, you can hardly make out the faces. Beside the photo, image of thumb impressions. Illiterate. I turn the monitor towards the man; it had the desired effect – his face lit up. ‘Who are they?’ ‘Amma’, he says, ‘Amma aur behn’.

Malayalees too call their mothers, Amma.

I tell him that I cannot send the money today. But he cannot come tomorrow, he says. I ask him what does he do here. He looks at me and says humbly – I sell flutes. I look at him for a while, silent.

Have you seen them in your cities? On a pole, the cheap reed flutes, stuck like a fan, spread like a peacock’s tail? The men would be playing a Hindi song, over and over. Pardesi, Pardesi, jana nahin, mujhe chchod ke, mujhe chchod ke, is one of the commonest refrains I have heard.You can see them wandering aimlessly, at the beach, at the zoological park, in the busy streets.

‘How much do you sell them for?’ ‘Ten, fifteen, twenty. I make a hunderd or two hundred rupees at the most, a day.’

Looking at him, I raise the volume of the PC speakers; Chaurasia-ji is on the Drut taal. The beats of the accompanying Tabla, reverberates. ‘Suna hai kya, aise bansuri vadan?’ I ask him if he has heard music like this. The man glances at the speakers and shakes his head. ‘Nahin’. ‘This is Hariprasad Chaurasia, mahan kalakar!’ He is silent, listening to the flute. I cannot play like that, he says. My reeds are of poor quality.

I play the music, while filling up his pay-in slip. I assure him, don’t worry, I will keep the money with me today and send it home, the first thing tomorrow morning.

The Bihari glances at me. Somewhere deep in his eyes, I notice the shimmer of gratitude.

Tomorrow, somewhere, in a dark dusty village in that medieval land called Bihar, the shame of India, an old woman would walk up to our bank, affix her Right Hand Thumb Impression ( Left for men) on a Withdrawl slip and with trembling hands, receive 2000 rupees. I wish I could be there, watching her happy face.

************ Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 11-12-2010


  1. baletta,
    chettan paranjhathu valare sariya, pavangal njhangslude nattil evare sthiram kanaarundu, chilar nallathu polepaadum pakshe proffessionaly ever valare weaka!.

    evare around oru 200 -250 roopa daily sambhadhikkum vaikunneram avumbam athinu vallam adichu ethenkilum kadathinnel kidannu orangum ,ethanu evarude jeevitham, pakshe evar nammalekkal happiyanu .

    njhanum edackekke chumma oro flute vangum , namukkum flute vayickan padickan pattumo ennu nokkalo.guruji onnum ellathathinal thaniye anu paditham .nokkette!

    pinne chetta eniyum enginathe kidilan sadhanangal pratheekshikkunnu.aayiram viplava abhivadhanangal ,..lal salam!!!!!

  2. @Joe: Nanndi! Blog vaayichu abhiprayam parnjathinu. veendum varika!

  3. That was a brilliant elucidation. Just glued to the post till the last line. Coincidence that Mr Chaurasia's voice and Mr Khatun was at your bank at the same time.
    BTW, noticed the change in photo in the profile. Random pic or some story behind?

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  5. The North Indian bamboo flute called Bansuri,differs in music from our own.It has a more soothing and devotional kind of tone,where ours is more sensuous and romantic.

    I always used to wonder when I listened to his music,this man,does he appear to be a musician? My initial feeling was that he looks more like the Gabbar Sing lot ,than a musician.It was astonishing,such soothing striking emotional notes come from his bansuri.It was then I learned that his was born in a non musical family of wrestlers.He had to learn music in secret because his father wanted him to become a wrestler!

    Appearances are deceptive.These kind of people are incarnations,not ordinary births.Like other incarnations,they happen rare,but comes out for a purpose.And his,was Bansuri.

  6. @Sreejith: Thanks! Sometimes such strange coincidences happen; and then doors are opened to reveal the great beauty of life! What can you do,but to kneel in humility and gratitude before the display of the grandest vision, the vision of relationships!

    The profile photo is of my dogs; Sancho on the left, his father Tommy on the right. Tommy passed away on April 23rd. I have written many posts and poems on them... This photo was in my mobile; could upload it only now.

  7. @Doc: Chaurasia-ji is one among the many who have made my life worthwhile. In them, I find the reason to be alive. But doc, the post is equally about Mr.Khatun; it is also about how Chaurasia-ji passed on to me that attribute of making someone happy. Thousands are fortunate to listen to Chaurasia-ji; and I - I could make a poor man's evening, a little sunnier.

  8. your post reminds me of two things... one is an anecdote. An old violin is being auctioned among other things... no one is interested and it is being given away for a paltry sum. An old gentleman walks up and tunes it..begins to play a beautiful piece.. at the end, the assembled house applauds and the violin is bought for a sum mush more than the original price. Music gives value to instruments... people..lives... :) the second incident is what happened to me. I and my brother were walking on a street in bangalore. A small kid came by selling flutes.. playing film music on them and really well.. (one of the tunes they usually play is the tune in the film HERO!) and it looked so easy.. i thought the minute i would lay my hands on it i would be able to belt out the tunes...so i was keen on buying one and my brother bought one for me. I still have it. and i still cant play the flute!! :D...

  9. Since I new the post was coming the punch that was usual was not there.
    The little things and little people who also live along side, perhaps they make the world different.
    The few hundred Rupees the man sent to his Ma and behan in far flung Bihar must be like the basuri vadan of Chaurasia to those folks.

  10. That's true music to the ears. When you do your part to make someone's day / life.

  11. I really loved every word of it..

    In the last para while mentioning about Bihar you've written 'the shame of India'... I beg your pardon but...it isn't the state or the people, its only and only the politicians like Lalu Yadav who plauged the state. i've visited the state many a times and been to many parts... the people are lovely, affectionate and amicable....its only a handful of people rather politicians who've brought that shame to the state.


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