Bansuri Flute Styles & Techniques
by Jeff Whittier

There is no single standard of correct flute technique in India today, and the different flute players of the current generation each have their own unique manner of playing. Here is some general information on some of the different styles.

Pannalal Ghosh

Ghosh, who died in 1960, was the inventor of the modern version of the seventh hole, played by the little finger of the right hand. He is the musician who popularized the stage performance of long flutes, and can generally be considered the father of modern bansuri performance. Before him, most flutists used very short flutes, as is still the case with Karnatik music today. Nor did they necessarily play transverse flutes, as with the noted flutist and producer D. Amel of Bombay, who played classical rags on a recorder-like "straight flute" and who was an influence on Panna Lal Ghosh's performance.

Arguably the most important contribution by Ghosh to North Indian flute technique was his extensive use of the third octave of the flute's range. This requires a somewhat narrower flute than ones commonly found in India today. Although some musicians today maintain that Ghosh used very fat flutes, his recordings offer evidence that he did not. As flutes get wider, the notes of the third octave drop out, one by one. The first to go is the high Komal Ni, and in a recording of Rag Khammaj made shortly before his death Panna Lal Ghosh is playing this note quite clearly. This can only be done on a flute of a medium bore, and not a wide one. Some people maintain that he played with the fingertips of both hands, but photographs of him taken in the late 1950's show him holding narrow flutes with the pads of his finger on the left hand, using the fingertips only on the right hand.

Panna Lal Ghosh was later in life a student of Ali Akbar Khan's father, Allaudin Khan of Maihar. His music demonstrates the virtuosity of rag and tal to which all classical musicians aspire. He played extensively in the form of Kheyal, or the vocal style characterized by such tals as slow ecktal followed by a faster piece in tintal. The flutes which he played were somewhat primitive by today's standards however, and many of his recordings are notoriously out-of-tune.

His legacy was carried on by his son-in-law Devindra Murdeshwar, who in the 1970's was probably the leading flutist of his generation. Unfortunately, he did not record much at that time and only a few pieces from this period exist, such as Rag Jhinjoti in rupak tal, which despite a very wispy tone is a beautiful performance. After the death of his wife, Ghosh's daughter, in the 1980's Murdeshwar had a nervous breakdown and never regained his previous stature. His son, the late Anand Murdeshwar, carried on the family tradition with an unkind twist - he did not use the third octave of notes, ignoring completely the very contribution to flute technique his grandfather pioneered.

Hari Prasad Chaurasia

On the stage today, the dominant force is Hari Prasad. He is a unique talent who has developed an unprecedented style by assimilating elements from every conceivable tradition, from instrumental to vocal and folk music. Unlike Panna Lal Ghosh, his music is characterized by extensive tonguing. His first teacher was Bhola Nath, who played both shehnai and flute, as was common for wedding musicians in that time. Some of his tonguing techniques are therefore probably derived from shehnai. Hari Prasad has also studied with Annapurna, Ravi Shankar's first wife and Ali Akbar Khan's sister, and some of Hari Prasad's tonguing is reminiscent of the taranas, or songs composed with drum syllables, favored by the Maihar gharana. Some songs of this type from the Maihar tradition can be heard on Ali Akbar Khan's ensemble recording "Legacy," sung by Asha Bhosle.
Hari Prasad is the advocate of the really fat flute, and uses a very wide embouchure as well. This style of flute favors the lowest notes. Some of the flutes Hari Prasad plays have a poor upper second octave and the third octave may be absent, so those notes are often ignored in his development. The large embouchure allows for the capture of the burst of air in his tonguing, and is very much part of his sound. He is a master at using the microphone as part of the sound-producing process, and controls his volume by moving in and out of its range. His flute is made with six finger holes, like the traditional folk flutes before Panna Lal Ghosh's innovation.

Hari Prasad mostly plays the instrumental style called gat, which consists of a single line of composition in and out of which the improvisation flows. He usually plays extensive jhala, or the fast tonguing which comes at the end of a piece, which is based on the use of the chikari or drone strings of sitar, sarod, or vina. This is a completely different style of development than that of Panna Lal Ghosh, which was usually based on the vocal style Kheyal. Jhala is not found in Kheyal, but belongs to the stringed instrument tradition. Hari Prasad does not generally play the kind of composition called bandish, which is a longer piece of usually four to six lines, which gives a more complete picture of the rag than the one-line gat. In his alap, or that part of the development which proceeds without tabla, he follows the instrumental style of alap-jor-jhala, where Panna Lal usually did his alap in a slow tal such as vilambit ecktal, called in the Kheyal tradition barhat alap.

Unfortunately, an entire generation of flute players has tried to copy Hari Prasad's style, with absolutely no success. In order to mimic his sound, they play even wider flutes than he does, and lose the higher notes in the second octave in the process. One of his disciples, Rupak Kulkarni, has a commercial recording on which he cannot hold a note higher than Re in the second octave, because the flute he is playing is so wide it cannot produce the higher notes clearly or in tune. As has also happened with Zakir Hussain, almost everyone in his field has tried to imitate Hari Prasad. Hari Prasad and Zakir themselves are gold, and all the imitations are fool's gold. Young musicians would be well advised to follow their example, and not their styles, which is to say that each of these great musicians became what they are today by finding what worked for them, and not by imitating anyone else.

G. S. Sachdev

Like Panna Lal Ghosh, the forms of Sachdev's music are based on the vocal traditions of North India, while the content of it was shaped by the Maihar tradition. Sachdev's early teacher was Vijay Raghav Rao, the disciple of Ravi Shankar, and after some years of study with him, Sachdev went on to study with Ravi Shankar himself. Sachdev's concept of what a correct rag consists of was shaped by Ravi Shankar, and it might be said that a great many other musicians have the same respect for Ravi Shankar's knowledge. In fact, Hari Prasad himself once said to me, "I believe as you do, however Ravi Shankar plays a rag, that's the correct way to do it." Of all the flutists playing today, Sachdev had the best musical education, the others being mostly self-taught, even if they had gurus. Just having a guru doesn't necessarily mean you get many lessons, and the traditional guru-disciple relationship which Sachdev enjoyed has mostly broken down.

Sachdev generally plays bada kheyal and chota kheyal, vocal style pieces in the rhythm cycles vilambit ecktal and drut tintal. The style of development he usually uses is barhat alap, though he often plays alap-jor-jhala as well. He also does many pieces in slow rupak tal, sometimes using the barhat alap style. His music closely resembles the performances of the noted vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, Ravi Shankar's sister-in-law and student, who also presents the rags of the Maihar gharana in the forms of vocal traditions. One of the most important influences on Sachdev's music, apart from his teachers, is the music of Bhimsen Joshi. The most important thing I ever learned from Sachdev was an appreciation of Hindustani vocal music.

Sachdev is the advocate of the very, very narrow flute, now out-of-favor in India. His flute would easily fit inside of Hari Prasad's flute. From this narrow seven-hole flute, he produces a tone which is unmatched by any other flutist. His tone is focussed and resonant, and is remarkably consistent in each octave. The tone in the lowest notes matches the sonority of the antara in a way which is not possible on a wide flute. The claim that good tone comes from a wide flute is refuted by Sachdev's playing, as he gets the best tone of any flutist performing today with by far the narrowest flute. The embouchure which Sachdev uses is not as large as Hari Prasad's. The smaller hole helps to focus the tone, and facilitates the production of the high notes. The seventh hole is placed on the flute in a slightly different position than the ones in the Panna Lal style, due to the different hand positions used by the two musicians.

There is a certain principle, which might be enunciated as - "The technique and the instrument for it are one." Sachdev has a technique which allows him to play nicely in the full three-octave range of the flute, like Panna Lal Ghosh, and has the flute which facilitates this technique. Hari Prasad's technique centers around the lowest notes of the flute, and he has the flute which favors these low notes.

Both Sachdev and Hari Prasad play with the pads of their fingers, and not with the finger tips. This generally allows for a longer stretch, and makes playing the longer flutes somewhat easier.

Raghunath Seth

Raghunath Seth is the best of the mostly self-taught flutists, and is the only bansuri player whose light classical music rivals Hari Prasad. For a number of years, he was a colleague of Sachdev's early teacher Vijay Raghav Rao at the Government of India Documentary Films Division, producing and composing music for films. When Vijay Raghav Rao retired from his post as Director of the music division in 1980, Raghunath Seth was given the position and became his successor.

Like Hari Prasad, his music is a blend of many different influences. He often plays classical music in the style of the slow tintal gat favored by sitar and sarod performers, followed by a piece in fast tintal which is somewhat more similar to a chota kheyal than a true drut gat. Another musician who follows this kind of development is the famous sarangi maestro Pt. Ramnarain, with whom I was blessed to have had some lessons. Raghunath Seth has synthesized many styles into a unique presentation which does not resemble anyone else, and is characterized by excellent control of pitch, rhythm, and rag as well as a wide repertoire of diverse pieces, including such light styles as dadra, kajri, bhajan, and dhun. He is also fond of playing obscure rags in unusual scales derived from Karnatik music, often pentatonic, as does Vijay Raghav Rao.

Raghunath Seth uses a bamboo key to play the seventh hole of his medium-bore flutes. He also uses two different seventh holes, one tuned to Shuddha Ma, the other to Tivra Ma, and fills the unused one with beeswax according to the rag. The set-up of this key is very funky, and typical of an Indian village gizmo, the kind of thing that reminds you of days gone by. The extra seventh hole slightly changes the tuning of the third octave for the worse, and while he uses the third octave, he does not do so as extensively as Sachdev or Panna Lal Ghosh. 

In his youth, Raghunath Seth met Panna Lal Ghosh, from whom he received more encouragement and advice than lessons. He clearly was influenced by Panna Lal, and this influence is visible in his music today, as he uses these seventh holes, and the third octave of notes, following the example of the pioneer in his own way. This is notable in contrast to so many of the current generation who have ignored the legacy of Panna Lal, even his own grandson.

Flute Technique

The guiding principle of good flute technique is "The most perfect playing with the least effort." Through your practice, which is a process of discovery, you should find the ways of holding and blowing the flute which allow you to play with good pitch and good tone while not straining to hold or blow the flute. Here are some suggestions for your practice.

1. Tone - while blowing into the flute, concentrate your mind on the sound you are producing, and not on your lips. When you find the tone which you think is the best, take note of it and try to reproduce it throughout the range of the flute, in both octaves. Play long tones from the lowest note to the highest and back down again, exploring the tone of each note. Play a lot of scales in every tempo to establish your tone in the full range of the flute. If you listen carefully, you will find that each flute favors certain notes. Some flutes made in India are very wide, which produces a nice tone on the lowest Dha and Pa, but the same flutes have very poor, and sometimes absent, second and third octave notes. A medium bore is generally better for most people, though it can be noted that the flautist with the best tone, Sachdev, plays the most narrow flute.

2. Fingering - Play scales from the different Thaats. You will find that certain komal notes tend to pull your hand into slightly different positions. Find the hand position that is the best compromise for the most Thaats, and stick with it. Don't use your finger-tips, but use the pads of your fingers and lay the fingers flat on the holes. Pay careful attention to the position of the thumb of the left hand, as it carries more stress than any other finger. When making the half-holes, open the side of the hole which is farthest from the embouchure. 

3. Rhythm - Play with a metronome, and with tabla if you can. You will find that this is a reality check. You may think you are playing the pieces in rhythm, but unless they work out with the metronome or tabla, you're not.

4. Tonguing - Actually say the syllables "Ta Ta" while doing those exercises specifically recommended for tonguing. Later, you can try "Ta Ka Ta Ka" which is called "double tonguing," meaning at the front and back of the tongue.

5. Memorization - Indian music must be played by memory. When you get the piece memorized, and are playing it correctly, that is the beginning of your practice, not the end of it. Only then can you begin to make it sound like music.

Fingering Chart for the Twelve Swaras

r X X ∏ O O O
g X ∏ O O O O
m ∏ O O O O O
P O X X X X X or X X X X X X
d X X X X X ∏
n X X X X ∏ O

X = Closed Hole
O = Open Hole
∏ = Half-hole

All the notes in the first two octaves have the same fingering in both octaves, except for the low Pa, which requires all six holes to be covered. If your flute requires cross-fingerings or alternate fingering in the second octave, it is defective and you should get another one. It will retard your technique.

 Learn more about the
North Indian Bansuri Flute
Where to purchase a Bansuri Flute
Bansuri Playing Guides & Instructional Videos
Recorded Music

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