Against the background of a Swiss valley straight off the lid of a chocolate box, a couple stare into each other’s eyes. She breaks into song, he replies, and together they scamper across the Swiss valley grass. Nowhere do actors scamper quite so much as in Indian movies. Cut to a second film clip - another actor, another dodgy haircut. This time he’s utterly distraught, on his knees in the snow outside a ski lodge. A feminine hand comes into shot from the left and raises his head. She breaks into song, they scamper across the snowy mountain, and a subtitle glides across the screen: “Platinum selling soundtrack album.”

This is all part of an interview on BBC2’s Network East Saturday morning programme, and now we go back to the studio to see the two composers responsible for these torrid, scampering pop songs that sell millions. The two men are Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, known as the dream team of Shiv-Hari. They also happen to be leading virtuosi of Indian classical music, on santoor (zither) and bansuri (flute) respectively.

In the west we talk a lot about breaking down barriers between musically fenced-off areas, but what do we know? It’s quite hard to grasp that Hariprasad Chaurasia can be the leading classical player on the flute, which of course makes him one of the top improvising musicians anywhere, and simultaneously a platinum-selling pop composer for film soundtracks. Does this make him James Galway, Eric Dolphy and Burt Bacarach all rolled into one Grand Panjandrum?
Chaurasia is now a fit, weather-beaten 59 year old with mischievous eyes, who looks extremely comfortable inside his own body. Talking to him, it’s clear that he has reached the pinnacle of his profession through immense amounts of hard work and sheer bloodyminded determination. One part of this struggle has been against the more conservative elements within the Indian classical music world. During this century, all forms of classical music have had to grapple with the charge of elitism. Can you expand your audience beyond a privileged and often elderly class of people, while retaining a vigorous, developing tradition and the refinement that made the form worthwhile in the first place? It’s debatable how well western composers have scored on this test, but Indian music circles seem to be upbeat.

Shiv-Hari are conducting a press conference in London in advance of a big duo concert at the Festival Hall. Hariprasad Chaurasia: “In the old days, children were not allowed to sing or play this music. Now if you go to villages in India you may find young children sleeping on their mothers’ laps and they are enjoying music.” Shivkumar Sharma: “Fifty years ago we could hardly find a young face in the audience. The average was beyond forty, and college students were not there. Now younger people are coming to concerts, and this is a very big change.”

Not only was the music regarded as exclusively for the cultured and moneyed, but certain instruments like sarod and sitar were in, while others were out. Shiv-Hari’s santoor and flute were most definitely out. Both players were allied by a need to demonstrate that their instruments could play classical music on a level deeper than decoration, and both made modifications to their instruments to extend their musical range. Both spent years mastering new techniques, to enable the instruments to sustain the demanding task of performing 60 minute classical improvisations in front of a highly alert and informed audience. Chaurasia: “I am trying to sing through the bamboo. And Shivkumar is the only person who can sing on the santoor.”

In 1967, when he was 29, Chaurasia made a record which with hindsight looks like a revolutionary manifesto: Call Of The Valley. It’s a cycle of short ragas and composed melodies, moving from dawn to dusk through the simple story of a day in a Kashmiri valley. Boy shepherd meets girl, they rendezvous at a temple, and take out a boat on the lake in the moonlight. Instead of lengthy unwindings, the ragas are presented in six minute chunks. And if that didn’t break enough taboos, they are played by flute, santoor and guitar, three instruments with no right to be playing ragas at all. This was a reworking of Indian music entirely on Indian terms, a statement of intent from a younger generation of musicians. It was not particularly aimed at the west - if aimed at anyone, it was the audience outside the Indian musical establishment. Chaurasia: “We wanted to simplify the whole structure of the music. Before this the old masters were so complicated. Sometimes they would deliberately confuse the tabla player, to show how great they were. But my friends and I wanted to simplify it so that even children can understand. It doesn’t matter whether they understand the grammar or not, but they understand a good sound and a good feeling.”

Call Of The Valley was an unexpectedly massive hit, becoming the bestselling album ever of Indian music. In 1994 it was still receiving the ultimate accolade, turning up in CD counterfeiting raids in Britain. For music lovers all over the world (Chaurasia often uses the term music lovers) it opened a window on Indian classical music. But in 1967 Chaurasia was just happy to get a foot in the door of a recording studio: “It was nothing, it was just that we were all free at that time. We used to eat together, watch sports, sit and talk. Then we decided to do something together. There was just one record company, His Master’s Voice, and they never wanted to record us as soloists. When they heard there were three of us, someone came from the office and said, OK, let me see, if you sound all right we’ll let you do it. The producer, G. N. Joshi, was bound by the company only to record commercial music, which sold like hot cakes, and not classical music. But he was a classical singer. He was the only person who was sympathetic to us. He said, no, we can’t record you solo or our company will die! And they never imagined this would become one of the top records.”

Remastered onto CD in 1995 by EMI, Call Of The Valley has lost none of its charm. The final track is “Rag Pahadi”, and features a little dipping phrase passed around from guitar to flute, while the santoor plays a delicate melody and the tabla gently outlines a seven beat pattern. The sleeve notes call this “an Indian Moonlight Sonata”, and for simple beauty it’s hard to beat. The sound of Brijbushan Kabra’s acoustic guitar is extraordinary, and a key contribution to the album. Chaurasia tells me that Kabra has recently started playing again after a long retirement because of illness.

I talked to Chaurasia at the Rotterdam Conservatorium, where he spends several months of the year teaching. Officially the music school was closed for the Dutch “autumn holiday”, but pianos and trombones practised busily in the background, creating a very European ambience as we sat on a thick crimson Indian carpet up on the top floor and tried to think ourselves back to a 1940s, pre-Independence India. I wanted to ask about an earlier struggle in Chaurasia’s life, a quite literal struggle in fact with his father, who was a professional wrestler.

Hariprasad Chaurasia with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson  

Chaurasia was born in 1938 in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, a province where 90 per cent of the population were wrestling as a hobby. “This is the only sport they like, in small cities especially. My father and forefathers were all wrestlers, and my father wanted me to become one. Sometimes I think I was fortunate to have such a father, that’s how I got so much power. You need terrific stamina to blow the flute. If you play guitar you can play for eight hours, you are not blowing from inside. But if you play the flute for one hour you will be exhausted.”

“You will find most famous musicians in India come from a family of musicians. People used to think about me, oh he’s playing as a hobby, he comes from a wrestler’s family, he can’t play music. If I went to someone’s concert, they used to ignore me. But I never felt uncertain - that gave me more courage, a more jealous feeling, a passion to practise more and show them that I can also become a musician. I wanted to break this tradition, that you must come from a musical background.”

“When I was ten or eleven I became a professional wrestler. I was a child prodigy! I never liked myself wrestling, but my father was very proud of me. He used to feed me very nicely: oh son, take this milk, take this butter, eat it all up. He used to like music, but he never wanted me to take up music, because musicians were not well to do. It was not a secure life. But I liked music so much. I used to lie to my father, saying that I was going to the library to read a newspaper, but in fact I was listening to someone play. I used to hide myself in the house of a musical family. I said, can you give me shelter for a few hours? Yes, why not? Don’t tell my father! Oh, I know, your father will start hitting you. They treated me like their child, and I practised with a drummer, another young boy. But my father never knew.”

“Once I was whistling - he came suddenly and said, who was whistling? I was alone there. I said, I don’t know. No, you were whistling. I said, yes, I was. Then he started hitting me. And he was a wrestler, so he could do it properly! You were whistling, you want to take up music! Unfortunately I lost my mother when I was five, so there was nobody to come between us. Oh dear, now I enjoy remembering those days, but at the time I was shocked.”
Was there any live music around the wrestling? “No, only shouting!” and Chaurasia roars in full-throated imitation of the crowd at a wrestling match. “It used to give us inspiration, just like the audience for a concert.” He switches to the sighs and murmurs of approval clearly audible from Indian music audiences.

After three or four years’ surreptitious practise of vocal music, the young Chaurasia decided his voice had too narrow a range. Then, at the age of eleven, he heard a flute recital on the radio. Won over by the sound, he resolved to take up the flute, and with impressive determination for an eleven year old, set about finding the player, Pandit Bholanath.

“I went to the radio and enquired. Then I went to his house and explained my problems. He said, never mind, I’ve heard about you, you sing very tunefully in school. So I will accept you. In fact I liked his sound more than his music. I learnt the basic things from him, how to move your fingers, how to handle the instrument, and how to make it. Making your flute is a serious problem! There is no factory for this instrument. My fingers might be longer than yours, I may blow hard and you blow soft. You have to make the flute according to the way you blow. When I was eleven I played a smaller flute, but the teacher used to suggest, why don’t you take a bigger one, and slowly your fingers will stretch. See my fingers!”

Chaurasia displays his hands for inspection. He plays a large, deep-toned flute, and the finger holes are covered with the middle of the fingers, not the tips. A brief encounter with the instrument makes it clear that a lot of painful and unnatural stretching is involved. Chaurasia’s hands are very large and the fingers are definitely angled in the middle. Bananas come to mind.

One of the ways Chaurasia adapted the flute for classical music was simply to play a bigger instrument. So does a low pitched instrument somehow denote musical seriousness?

“The flute should be as low as possible, especially for the traditional druphad style. Small flutes are used of course in commercial music and for special effects in films. I play small flutes in the concert hall too, but you can’t listen to that kind of flute for half an hour. A small flute can be very difficult to play because the fingers are so close together, especially when we are fingering the microtones (sruti). We use 22 microtones in one octave. In north India we like this deep sound, but in the south they use high flutes, because their temperament and their musical system is very different. Also south Indian music is mainly rhythm based; there’s no alap (non-rhythmic introduction), the rhythm starts straight away and the whole raga may only last seven minutes. Here in the north, rhythm is only one element. In a 50 minute raga performance, the alap may last 35 minutes before the rhythm starts.”

When the teenage Chaurasia left school he left behind the wrestling world, but kept his father happy by landing a government job as a typist with Pitmans shorthand. He kept this highly respectable position for five years, while discreetly moonlighting at the local radio as an occasional flute player. Then, to Chaurasia’s immense relief, the radio offered him a fulltime job, a thousand miles away in a remote city called Orissa. For his father, this was a triple whammy. His son was leaving home, he was unaware that his son could even play the flute, and not least astonishing, the salary was double what Chaurasia had been making as a typist. Little wonder his father burst into tears.

At last a fulltime musician, Chaurasia flung himself into learning music, sending all his radio salary to his father and supporting himself by accompanying dancers. In this remote spot his only teacher was the record library at the radio station. Eventually his reputation as a dance musician became such that he was earning ten times the radio salary, and incurring the wrath of his radio colleagues, who jealously reported him to the authorities as a slacker. The punishment was a transfer to another radio job, but this time in Bombay, the centre of the Indian film industry. At first friendless, nervous and unknown in the big modern city, Chaurasia hoots with mirth as he tells how within a month he was in such demand for film music that he was raking in twenty times what he had earned in Orissa. Again the radio management were disapproving. “This time I said, before you throw me out, I will throw you out!”

Resigning from the radio, Chaurasia worked fulltime in the commercial music field, and fame and material success followed. Now with a house, a car and savings in the bank, he hit a musical crisis. “I was thinking, what have I really achieved? What if I died today? I have fulfilled the needs of my ego, now I must learn properly from a teacher how to make music beautiful. I must play classical music, it has such a wide field compared with commercial music.”

At this point, Chaurasia thought back to a childhood meeting with Ustad Allaudin Khan, the elderly sitarist and one of the true giants of Indian music this century. He was Ravi Shankar’s teacher and father in law. Khan had recognised considerable talent in the young Chaurasia, but also knew about Chaurasia senior’s violent feelings on the subject. “If you ever want to develop your talent in the future,” he told the boy, “I may not be alive much longer, so go to my daughter.” This daughter was Annapurna Devi, and her instrument was the massive surbahar, a cello to the sitar’s viola. On marrying Ravi Shankar she had given up performing, but Chaurasia knew she was living in Bombay. He waited till Shankar was out of town, and then visited Annapurna and begged her to accept him as a pupil. Shocked at this approach from someone she didn’t know, and suspicious of his motives, Annapurna threw him out, refused to teach him, and kept refusing for three years. To the iron will of Chaurasia, this was one more challenge, but his persistence was to take an extraordinary form.

“After three or four years she said, if you are serious you will have to start again from the very beginning. I turned the flute around, to hold it on my left side. I said, look, now I cannot play a single note. This is my playing for you. And since then I play the flute on the left. This was to prove my complete surrender to music. What I wanted to learn from her was music. I wanted to break the tradition that if you learn the violin you go to a violinist, for the flute you go to a flute player. Whether you play the cello or not, if you think that Yo Yo Ma plays beautiful music, you should go to him. And since then I have been learning from her. She is so wonderful, so much patience.”

As a flute player myself, I say, I can imagine all too vividly the sheer pain that would result from changing to lefthanded playing. I compare it to Samuel Beckett suddenly forcing himself to write in French. Chaurasia: “And you get so much power from this! Like a murderer - he is a human being like me, but he has a special power.” I find myself temporarily silenced by this comparison.

In 1995 Sharma and Chaurasia recorded The Valley Recalls, a 2 CD follow up to 1967’s Call Of The Valley. This was a live duo concert in Bombay, and a few days after we talked, they played their first London duo for thirty years at the Festival Hall. At the press conference Sharma explained how they had deliberately avoided playing duets all that time, in order to prove beyond question that these two instruments could succeed in the ultimate arena, solo instrumental music. Critics had grudgingly agreed the flute and santoor were OK when played together, implying a lower level of achievement, and Shiv-Hari set out to prove them wrong.
Chaurasia has also recorded with several western musicians, notably Making Music, another million seller, with guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Zakir Hussein on tablas. Chaurasia stresses the pleasure he gets from the exchange of musical ideas with these musicians, but it’s clear that such projects are a side issue for him, and that he remains totally dedicated to his solo playing career. These days this career involves an alarmingly hectic schedule of international flights, but Chaurasia says he loves every minute. His iron determination seems to have resulted in complete musical fulfillment.

Later in the day, students arrive for lessons with Pandit Chaurasia. They come from all over Europe: Norway, Germany and England as well as Holland, and an Afghan student of Indian singing, who talks to the teacher in Urdu. It’s fascinating to see the Indian technique broken down into bite-sized chunks, especially when Chaurasia demonstrates the rhythmic force of his percussive tonguing, flicking out a syncopated phrase like David Ginola backheeling a pass into the penalty area.
One Dutch woman comes for a first lesson, with three bamboo flutes she picked up on holiday in India. The situation strikes me as slightly absurd, given Chaurasia’s status; rather as if I picked up a beaten up cello in a car boot sale, and went off to see Yo Yo Ma for a lesson or two. But Chaurasia is clearly delighted that she’s here at all, and is perfectly happy to go back to first principles, pointing out fundamental differences between east and west in playing scales and naming notes. “Are there any books of music?” asks the student. “Only for children,” and Chaurasia launches into a very Indian version of “Jingle Bells”. “You have to slide your fingers between every note, you have to move your body,” and in fact every phrase that he plays is expressed in his head movements and the whole upper half of the body. This is part of the delight of watching Hariprasad Chaurasia - not only is he an exquisite player but also a complete showman, with a highly physical and muscular approach to music belied by the delicacy of his phrasing. The eyes flash, the head shakes, the upper body dances, and perhaps in his head the crowd roars as it did for the ten year old wrestler strutting across the ring.


originally published in The Wire http://www.thewire.co.uk/