The bamboo flute of South India

Flute_Arun_sculpture_Arun_300webText: Ludwig Pesch | Art: Arun V.C.

The flute has played a key role in India’s artistic life since antiquity. This is evident from writings on dance-drama, mythology, sculptures and paintings. Its playing technique must have been highly developed for a very long time. Different names are used for it, for instance kuzhal (pronounced like “kulal” or “kural”) in Tamil speaking regions; and bansuri in northern India. In poetry, song lyrics, classical dance items and films, words like venu and murali evoke its association with Krishna, the ‘dark skinned’ cowherd and flute player.

Early Tamil and Sanskrit poets describe the creation of the original bamboo flute. This did not even require any human intervention: it is an easily observed fact that bumble bees make holes in bamboo stems (Sanskrit vamsha) for their nests. These openings later invite the wind to create ever changing tunes in bamboo groves like those found in some parts of the Western Ghats. Here, and in the hills of North-East India, grow the varieties of bamboo preferred by flute makers.

The nest holes made by some insects have indeed the same size as the blowing and finger holes still seen in most bamboo flutes. Any human being living close to nature is bound to be inspired by such phenomena while making music, dancing or telling stories. As expressed in song lyrics, these sounds are remembered as enchanting experiences and therefore regarded as a gift from heaven. Listening to the nuances of bird song has further contributed to a musical symbiosis that emerges time again in different places. The symbolism associated with the seven notes – and also the rāgas derived from them – still echoes such deeply rooted sentiments.

It hardly surprises, therefore, that Pannalal Ghosh, the pioneer of Hindustani flute music, was influenced by tribal musicians belonging to the Santal people.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), India’s first Nobel laureate, established his Santiniketan school and Viswa-Bharati University amidst Santal villages. He compares the infinite Being to a flute player whose ‘music of beauty and love helps us to transcend our egotistic preoccupations’.*

The world famous poet, composer, pedagogue, painter and scholar is part of a tradition wherein barriers such as language and faith are best overcome with the help of music. His poetry also reminds us of the fact that the flute is the most ‘democratic’ of all instruments. * Source: My memories of Einstein (German ed. ’Meine Erinnerungen an Einstein’, 1931) in Das Goldene Boot, Winkler Weltliteratur, Blaue Reihe (2005) – WorldCat.org >>

L Pesch fluteLudwig Pesch specialized in the Carnatic bamboo flute at Kalakshetra College under the guidance of Ramachandra Shastry (1906-1992) whom he accompanied on many occasions. More>>