Wind Instruments, blowing with trailing tales

Posted by Kaahon Desk On July 21, 2019

The name ‘Bansuri’ comes from the word ‘banse’ meaning bamboo. In India, the bansuri or the flute is known by many other names like ‘vamsi’, ‘murali’, ‘pillangrovi’ and ‘venu’, in fact here all the wind instruments are referred as flute as generic term. It was originally used as a folk instrument to be played with religious, traditional activities and dance forms. Only recently, it has been used in the classical music too. Subir Ray, in the video below, talks about the association of flutes with different Gods of the world, in the Indian subcontinent, the Hindu Deity Lord Krishna in ancient mythology. He urges the common people to analyze why the instrument in those ancient times had to be a flute; it could have been the tabla too. Every instrument symbolizes some concept through its sound and that needs to be explored with a little deeper mind.

In the 15th century, after the arrival of the Mughals, different schools of music came about in the courts of North India. This led to the initiation of what is now called Hindustani music. But the flute was left out of that repertoire for the major part because it was seen as too basic an instrument for the category of Indian classical music. In the preceding centuries, it was the flute that was used to set the pitch for the music to be played. But during the advent of Hindustani music, the high pitch of the flutes was considered unsuitable for the whole range of expression. In addition, there was an absence of a proper pitch center for the instrument.On top of that, there were no precisely recorded or established forms of constructing the flutes.

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The flute entered the realm of folk music and started being used in many communities in their semi-religious customs and traditions. Flutes of different structures and sizes began being made that produced pitches of sound different from the usual ones.Different kinds of flutes still exist in different communities of the world – some made from human bones and some from circular palm seeds. Unfortunately, hardly one or two people from these communities still exist, who possess the knowledge of making these unique instruments. This is an indication of the fact that these rare instruments would be goneas soon as that generation comes to an end. One of the most crucial problems is the major inadequacy of the descriptions of musical instruments in historical records. Had it been there, the instruments that are extinct could have been recreated in today’s time.Some have already become obsolete or are dying out due to lack of need in the specific culture.

In the ancient frescoes and temple sculptures, flutes are depicted as having only six holes. Some artists use a bamboo key using their little finger but purists object to it stating that it is an impediment to the subtle nuances of Indian music. These delicacies and intricacies can only be produced by establishing direct contact between the fingers and the holes. This is what makes the method of Indian flutists different from that of the Western. It is only in the 1940s that the flute was established in classical music by Pandit Pannalal Ghosh. Before him, there were flutes with no proper construction or pitch center. So Ghosh went on to create a more refined one made up of bamboo.  With a length of 32 inches, it comprised seven tone holes and went on to become the standard Bansuri for North Indian classical music. As the only dedicated and well-known flutist till 1960 in Hindustani classical music, he raised the Bansuri to the level of a concert instrument following the vocal tradition.

Due to the needs of the music industry, several modifications are being carried out while in the making of wind instruments. One major change that takes place is the scale at which the instruments are being reproduced. A few instruments, which are originally folk instruments, are made at the tempered scale. This scrapes them of their unique cultural history along with the rustic feel that generally comes with the texture of the produced sound. Communities throughout the world have a music culture of their own based on their location, history, lifestyle, and society. When this culturally specific music is moulded according to the industry standards, usually considered to be of higher levels, apparently, it immediately tends to lose the true association with its origin. Thus, the modifications might be a good turn for commercial purposes. But at the same time, not only is it denying the proper existence and cultural relevance of the community in concern but also creating an Oriental gaze. People today have no concern regarding what cultures are fading away each and every day. What we also lose along with them are the numerous languages, diverse music, and enriching histories.

In the contemporary society, everything is designed around capitalism. It is definitely the need of the era. But if we surrender to it so easily without even an inch of reluctance, then we must question the grounding that we hold so tightly on to. We claim to be Indians at heart but reject almost everything, even music, which have belonged to our land for ages. If searched for, we may be able to find only a handful of music lovers, who would truly be interested in Indian classical music. Even though the drone sound formed by some thick flutes could help us with meditation and stability in our minds, we (wrongly) tend to ignore their healing effects. We fail to or rather don’t want to enquire about the various cultures anymore or what makes them unique. The bustle of daily life prevents us from exploring such vast ranges of flutes – small, big, high pitched, low pitched and their exclusive design and construction – only to mention a few. But still, in the midst of this humdrum, we must take time out and look for what makes us attain our stability, spiritual connection and grounding in our land.

Kankabati Banerjee
She has completed Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. Having thespians as parents, her interest in theatre was evergrowing. The pen is believed to be mightier than the sword but she feels performance has the greatest power to change the world. This change must come from within, emotionally and spiritually.


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