Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music

The flute

Pullankuzhal is the Tamil name for the flute used in Carnatic music. One of the oldest musical instruments of India, it is a keyless transverse flute made of bamboo. The fingers of both hands are used to close and open the holes. It has a blowing hole near one end, and eight closely placed finger holes. The North Indian bansuri has six holes. The instrument comes in various sizes, its length varying from 8 inches to 2.5 feet. The long flute has a deep and mellow tune, while the shorter instrument produces a relatively shrill tone.

The flute has a range of about 2.5 octaves. It is held in a horizontal position, but inclining slightly downwards. The instrument is held with the thumbs and three fingers of the left hand and four of the right are used to open or close the holes.

The bamboo flute is constructed by burning holes with a hot iron rod in bamboo cut and dried for a week or so. In Tamil Nadu, flutes have traditionally been made by flute-making families in Tanjavur and the Nagercoil area.

It has been clearly established in Indian history that the flute, venu, murali, bansuri or kuzhal has been around from ancient times. It is associated with the Hindu god Krishna, who is known as the divine flautist. In ancient India, the instrument was also used in Buddhist music.

The Carnatic flute was not a concert instrument until the second half of the 19th century. A blind musical prodigy, Sarabha Sastri brought it to the concert stage. Through fast, precise fingering, playing in a harmonium-like style, he was able to replicate many of Carnatic music’s gamakas on the flute. After Sastri died at the age of 32, his flute bani was carried on by his disciple Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, who chose kritis and ragas that suited the flute’s limitations and strengths. His lightning fast phrases and long passages of swara-improvisations made him successful, while Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai, belonging to the nagaswaram community, brought nagaswaram techniques to the flute.

T.R. Mahalingam, born in November 1926, changed the whole scene with his genius. Experimenting on an uncle’s flute, Mali started playing varnams on it at age five. Inventing a whole new technique of playing the instrument, Mali succeeded in introducing the vocal style of flute playing. He also used a heavier, thicker bamboo flute, thus adding depth and weight to his music.

N. Ramani, Mali’s best pupil, is the leading exponent of the instrument in south Indian classical music today. If Mali played a rather shrill flute, Ramani lowered its pitch to make it easier on the ear, and more suited to violin accompaniment, and several touches of his own to what he learnt from Mali. The late T Viswanathan, dancer Balasaraswati’s brother, and an original like Ramani, integrated the best elements of the Dhanammal school of music with his own creativity, to offer a rare brand of flute music.

The Sikkil Sisters, Neela and Kunjumani, known for their traditionally sound music, now have a fine successor in Neela’s daughter Mala Chandrasekhar. K.S. Gopalakrishnan from Kerala and TS Sankaran are among the senior flautists of today. Shashank Subramanyam, yet another child prodigy, is perhaps the most popular Carnatic flautist in India and abroad.

A simple instrument that does not depend on technology, the flute has become one of the more attractive instruments in Indian classical music.

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