September 23, 2004

Listening in a Trance

Print More

The audience of fans and first timers waited expectantly for the show to begin when the world-renowned flutist Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia performed at the Statler auditorium on Saturday, September 18. This concert was organized by Asha Cornell, an action group for basic education in India. This was Panditji’s second concert at Cornell organized by Asha, having last performed in 2001. However, this was his third visit to Cornell, as he first played here in 1992.

The concert began at 6.30 pm and went on for almost three hours. For its duration, the audience was held spellbound by the virtuoso performance. The auditorium was packed with almost 670 people comprised of students, faculty, and volunteers. It was clear for all to see why Panditji is internationally known as the greatest living master of bansuri, the north Indian bamboo flute. The bansuri, made out of a cylindrical bamboo pipe of uniform bore, has six holes for movement of the fingers and a bigger hole for blowing air. The air is blown with the upper lip, and different octaves are produced by covering the holes with the fingers. The flute is noted for being closest to the human singing voice. The music produced by this humble flute attained magical proportions with Panditji’s expertise. It seemed to have a language of its own, at times playful or naughty, at times pining and petulant like lovers after a quarrel. The notes danced, calling out with so many emotions. As the true master, Panditji had the flute mesmerize the audience.

It was interesting to watch the contest, or jugalbandii, between Panditji and Pandit Bhavani Shankar Kathak, who accompanied him on the Pakhawaj, a wooden cylinder covered with leather on both sides. A jugalbandi is when the musicians show off the intricacies of the instruments while seemingly competing with each other. In the latter half, Panditji was accompanied by two young artists — Debopriya Chatterjee on the flute, who is a student at the Rotterdam Conservatory, and Rimpa Siva on the tabla. Only 18-years-old, Siva is considered to be a child prodigy and has given performances all over the world. They put on such a skilled and spirited show that they were repeatedly applauded by the audience. Panditji had the audience in splits when he commented that, though the girls performed wonderfully and with so much energy, he better not praise them too much as there was the danger of offending the accompanying artists. He made a very interesting observation that the young girls on the tabla and flute had entered a male domain, since women did not traditionally play the tabla or the flute in India.

The set consisted of many classical pieces and ended with a short piece of light folk music based on raag Yaman, also known as raag Kalyani. Panditji used a smaller flute, emitting a sharper sound for the last piece. The whole experience was a wholesome auditory feast, interspersed with light moments.

After the concert, Panditji was very happy with the good work being done by the young students for Asha Cornell, a non-profit organization which helps in educating underprivileged children in urban and rural areas of India. It raises funds to meet the recurrent expenses of the new school construction. He said, “it is my privilege to perform for them. I will support them in any way I can — in fact I want even God to help them.” When asked if there was any difference when he played in front of a foreign audience, he asked with a twinkle, “Why should there be any difference? After all, they too are human beings, aren’t they? A thing of beauty — be it food, a painting, or music — is appreciated by all wherever they come from.” He was pleased by the flawless organization by the youngsters of the Asha Cornell and will be next performing at the chapter in Washington DC.

The audience gave a standing ovation to the performers. Karen N., a lawyer who came all the way from Albany for the concert said, “I was transported to another place and after a while, slipped into a deep meditative state.” Maybe this is what the Gopis felt when Lord Krishna played his flute in the forests of Vrindavan.

His autograph is as interesting as the man himself. He makes a flute below his signature, and the reason, he says humbly, is to help people jog their memory when they look at their autograph book after some time and begin to wonder:

Archived article by Meenakshi Rajan
Red Letter Daze Contributor