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Pannalal’s Magic Flute

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Pannalal’s Magic Flute

The Times of India, August 31, 1969

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

61 - Pannalals Magic Flute

PANNALAL GHOSH, the unrivalled maestro of the flute was just on the threshold of his fifties when he suddenly died of a heart attack in Delhi in 1960. Almost a decade has since gone by yet his music remains sui generis, unequalled by anything before and after, and one cannot but feel it will be a long time before another flutist of his stature emerges to fill the void his death has left.

To say that Panna Babu did for the flute what Bismillah Khan has done for the shahnai is plainly to make a specious statement. For the pasioral flute had remained for centuries a simple folk medium till Panna Babu picked it up and raised it to the status of a major concert instrument. The shahnai, on the other nand, had long achieved pride of place in temples and princely courts by its association with auspicious events and ceremonial occasions and its migration to the concert hall almost seemed a natural development. In this sense, Panna Babu’s was an achievement even greater than Bismillah Khan’s.

But behind this achievement lay years of relentless experimentation and unending research. The story of the evolution of the tiny, shrill-sounding cylinder into a giant, deep-toned classical instrument is the saga of a life that revealed an immensity of talent, a fecundity of imagination, a boldness of spirit, an earnestness of effort, a singleness of purpose and a uniqueness of achievement-all so characteristic of Pannalal Ghosh.

Music beckoned to Panna Babu when he was only 7 an age when most boys are occupied with games and other diversions of childhood. And while he played simple, breezy tunes to the delight of the local village folk of Barisal, his inventive genius toyed with the idea of extending the tonal capabilities of his flute as a medium of classical music. Thus followed a systematic study of its structure and technique.

A variety of material, from aluminium and brass to plastic and bamboo, came his way, one after another, in equally varied shapes and sizes, before he decided on the last and added a seventh playing hole to evolve the flute he had long visualized. Having thus tailored it to his requirements, he developed and perfected a style of playing that marked a radical departure from the centuries old style of flute music.

This was in the mid-thirties, at a time when no one had even foreseen the possibility of harnessing the bansuri as an effective instrument for the unfolding of elaborate classical melodies. The listeners were struck as much by the tonal quality of Panna Babu’s flute as by the range and variety of his improvisation. So perfect was its adaptation to classical articulation that it could afford the illimitable nuances of the human voice with a naturalness all its own. In point of depth, range and volume, it could vie with plucked instruments like the veena, the sitar and the sarod.

It was not long before Panna Babu’s originality and virtuosity in enlarging the scope of his medium to wider panoramas of musical form and design brought him distinction as a pioneer in the introduction of gayaki to the woodwind. The stir he created in the music world was truly phenomenal. So much so that even in his own life-time stories came to be woven round the ‘secret’ behind his supreme command of the instrument. Popular belief even had it that he had a surgical operation to realign his fingers to the widely paced holes of his large-size flute. The real secret was instinct, technique and practice which combined to make him the greatest North Indian flutist of this century.

Indeed, there was nothing musical that Panna Babu’s flute did not create. His touch was soft and sure, his blowing was smooth and soothing; and he explored the resources of his delicate but difficult instrument with the humility and reverence of a true devotee. Added to this was his implicit adherence to technical fidelity and formal purity a quality one finds but rarely in the latter-day rendition of North Indian music.

No less infinite was his range of musical expression. He was an interpreter par excellence with an instinct for the spirit of his theme. If his fingers had the mellowness to create the solemn, reposeful sequences of a slow-tempo Marwa or Darbari, they also had the viva city to evoke the dramatic appeal of a high-pitched Sohini or Adana. His devotional tunes conveyed full yet soft emotion even as his lyricism heightened the sensuous charm of his Thumris bhatialis and Kajris.

What really made Panna Babu’s music so evocative was a mystical element in his melody, which in term generated a mood of spiritual awareness in listener. Passage after passage that he played came to us as the utterance of a deeply moved soul.

How exactly Panna Babu’s music acquired this quality of detached intensity, this tendency to introspection, is not difficult to know. He was a deeply religious man, He had his spiritual initiation from Swami Birajnanda, a direct disciple of Swami Vivekanand. The profound Influence of the teaching of Ramakrishna had shaped his character and personality. Music to him was thus inseparable from the spirit and filtering the experience through a highly sensitized individuality, he gave it incomparable expression. And therein lay the fascination of his music.

Panna Babu was virtually self-taught musician as were Elgar, Wagner and Wolff. Strange but true, he had not found his real guru, Ustad Alluddin Khan, till he was thirtysix. Yet he had made his mark as a gifted flutist when new theatres, the well known film studio in Calcutta spotted his talent and employed him on its orchestra staff for background music in 1934. This proved fruitful in two ways. For it was here that Panna Babu met Rai Chand Boral, the famed composer and music director, and Ustad Khushi Mohammad Khan, the noted harmonist. While the former initiated him into the mysteries of film music and orchestration, the latter give him systematic instruction in flute-playing. An other great composer from whom he benefitted was Himanshu Datta.

Meanwhile, during the formative phase of his career, Panna Babu also came under the influence of three great men of the time; Gurudev Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, who had pioneered a renaissance in the contemporary music and poetry of Bengal, and Pandit Girija Shankar Chakravarty, the eminent musician and musicologist, who had an enviable repertoire of composition ranging from dhrupad to thumri.

It was however, Ustad Alluddin Khan who exerted the strongest influence on the development of Panna Babu’s idiom. The centenarian maestro is acknowledged as the greatest living orthodox teacher in North Indian music and perfectionism is the key note of his teaching. He infused that virtue in his disciple even while he encouraged him to develop his individuality in expression. That explains why Panna Babu’s style presented so unique a blend of technique and temperament, of authenticity and appeal which constitute the hallmark of Allauddin’s Seniya Gharana,

Panna Babu’s contribution to the enrichment of the raga repertory of North India also showed a rare synthesis of tradition and experiment. His new creation like Dipavali, Jayant, Chandra-Mouli and Nupur – Dhyani as also his Hindustani adaptation of Carnatic ragas, were marked by structural authenticity and enduring appeal. So were his Kalinga Vijaya, Ritu Raj and several other thematic compositions which he offered us as conductor of the National Orchestra of AIR.

Panna Babu had made Bomnbay his karmabhumi for well over two decades till he moved to Delhi to join AIR in 1956 and this writer had the privilege of intimate association with him during that even full period. He endeared himself to his friends by his amiable this position and affability. He was man of plain living and clean habits and his recipe for professionals was regular practice, intigrety of character and a practical outlook on life. He had the pride of his calling but non of its prejudices. He was totally above the jealousies of professional rivalry and he hed his contemporary musician in high instinct.

His music was silenced by the cruel hand of death some nine years ago. But the art of this maestro is not lost to the world. For this era of tapes and long-play records has captured and treasured many of the inspiring moments which Panna Babu always strove to create.


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