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Sublime Genius – Pannalal Ghosh

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Sublime Genius – Pannalal Ghosh

His music was sublime. His commitment to his art, total.

Pannalal Ghosh was the finest flautist in Hindustani music. A visionary who evolved a new style of playing the instrument and imparted a classical cachet to it as well.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the maestro whose dazzling artistry opened new horizons before his premature death 27 years ago.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, May 17, 1987 

The pastoral flute had remained for centuries a simple folk medium, till Pannababu picked it up and raised it to the status and dignity of a major concert instrument.

The pastoral flute had remained for centuries a simple folk medium, till Pannababu picked it up and raised it to the status and dignity of a major concert instrument.

If it is the sitar, it must be Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan. If it is the sarod, it must be Amjad Ali Khan (not Ali Akbar Khan!) And if it is the flute, it must be Hariprasad Chaurasia. These are – to cite only a few examples – the sort of myths most sponsors of mammoth musical events seem to have somehow sought to build up, strengthen and perpetuate among rasikas all over the country over the years.

What is, however, ignored or overlooked in the process, is the fact that the world of classicial music is much wider, richer and more varied. There has been a glorious line-up of men of initiative and vision who, in the decades gone by, pioneered new styles and vogues in the field, by sheet talent, genius and dedication. Ironically, few of them are remembered today.

Pannalal Ghosh is one such great maestro, the significance of whose contribution to woodwind music seems to have been almost forgotten today. He was only 48 when he suddenly died of a heart attack on April 20, 1960.

The pastoral flute had remained for centuries a simple folk medium, till Pannababu picked it up and raised it to the status and dignity of a major concert instrument. The shehnai, on the other hand, had long achieved pride of place in temples and princely courts by its association with auspicious events and ceremonial occasions. The shehnai’s migration to the concert hall, therefore, almost seemed a natural development. In this sense, Pannababu’s was an achievement far 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, within its short span, an immense talent, a fecund imagination, a boldness of spirit, an earnestness of effort and a singleness of purpose – all so typical of Pannalal Ghosh.

Music, beckoned to Pannababu when he was only seven years old – 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 folk of Barisal, now in Bangladesh, his inventive genius toyed with the idea of extending the tonal capabilities of his flute. Thus followed a systematic study of its structure and technique.

A variety of materials, from aluminium and brass to plastic and bamboo, in varied shapes and sizes, suggested themselves and bamboo was the most appropriate.

Even so, the medium had many limitations. But he overcame them with extensive research, backed by his amazing innovativeness. In the first instance, he increased the length of his bansuri to 32 inches (48 cm) with a corresponding increase in its bore, in order to facilitate the rendition of profound, serious melodies, like malhar, todi, darbari or marwa. Next, he added an extra playing hole at the lower end of the instrument. The idea here was to extend its tonal range and also make possible the rendition of the finer points, such as khatkas and murkis, commonly associated with light classifical and lighter musical themes.

Last but by no means least, was Pannababu’s invention of a special bass flute, consisting of only four playing holes, to enable the performer to reach the lower (bass) shadja. This also helped the player to extend his capability in rendering any melody. The increase in the size of the instrument, coupled with the performer’s anatomical limitations, made it necessary to restrict the number of playing holes to four, producing only the five swaras, namely, panchan, madhyam, gandhar, rishabh and shadja, in the lower octave. This in other words, comprises an entire half octave in the lower register.

It was in the mid-thirties that Pannalal Ghosh evolved and perfected a style of flute-playing that marked a radical departure from the centuries-old technique. That was the 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 Pannababu’s flute as by the range and variety of his improvisation. So perfect indeed was its adaptation to classical articulation that it could afford the illimitable nuances of the human voice with a naturalness all its own.

What is more, it was Pannababu who pioneered the introduction of gayaki to woodwind and thereby enlarged the scope of his medium to encompass wider fields of musical form and design.

His touch was soft: his blowing was smooth and soothing; and he explored the resources of his sensitive but difficult medium with the humility and reverence of an ardent worshipper. Added to this was his implicit adherence to technical fidelity and formal purity – a quality one finds but rarely in the latter-day practitioners of Hindustani music.

No less infinite was his range of 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 vivacity to evoke the dramtic appeal of a racy, high-pitched sohoni or adana. His devotional tunes conveyed full yet tender emotion, even as his lyricism heightened the sensuous charm of his thumris, kajris, bhatialis and bauls.

Pannababu was virtually self-taught; he did not find his real guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar, till he was 36! He inherited his passion for music from his father, Akshay Kumar Ghosh, who was a government official but also a sitarist and equally interested in physical culture.

Pannababu first made his mark as a prospective flautist when New Theatres, the well-known film studio in Calcutta, spotted his talent and employed him on its orchestral staff for background music in 1934. This proved fruitful in two ways. It was here that he met Rai Chand Boral, the celebrated composer and music director, and Khushi Mohamad Khan, the noted harmonist. The former initiated him into the mysteries of film music and orchestration. While the latter gave him systematic instruction in flute-playing.

New Theatres, it would appear, had correctly sensed the youngster’s potential, if we go by the fact that his first month’s salary of Rs. 45 was increased to Rs. 100 from the following month. As Pannababu often used to say. “This salary was equivalent to a thousand rupees today.” He also benefited from the guidance of Himanshu Dutt.

But the strongest influence on the development of Pannababu’s music came from Ustad Allauddin Khan, who is acknowledged as the greatest living orthodox teacher in Hindustani music of the present century. Perfectionism was the keynote of the Ustad’s teaching and he infused that virtue in his devoted disciple even while he encouraged him to develop his individuality in expression. That explain why Pannababu’s style presented such a unique blend of technique and temperament, of authenticity and appeal, of tradition and experiment – all of which constitute the hallmark of the Ustad’s Seni gharana.

This rare synthesis of tradition and experiment lent a new dimension to his melodic invocations, like Dipavali, Jayant, Chandra Mouli and Noopur Dhvani (composed in memory of his second daughter, who died in infancy). This was equally true of his Hindustani adaptations of several Carnatic ragas. They 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, when he joined the National Orchestra of AIR in Delhi, towards the end of 1956.

Before he came down to Bombay in 1940, Pannababu had the opportunity to tour Europe with a troupe of Chhau dancers as much director. It was again as a music director that Pannababu began living in Bombay. Under the banner of Bombay Talkies, he scored the evergreen music for Basant. Even though he composed the music for a dozen or so films that came his way, he soon realised that film music did not suit his classical impulse. He gave it up and obtained the tutelage of Ustad Allauddin Khan in 1947.

I vividly remember by first meeting with the maestro at the Bombay AIR studios in October 1949. I had been an ardent fan of his woodwind music since 1941 – through his radio concerts. I have nostalgic memories especially of his duets with D Ame’l which were regularly broadcast from AIR Bombay on Gokul Ashtami Day, year after year. The understanding between the two artistes was truly remarkable. They played by turns, supplementing and complementing each other in conjuring and projecting a heart-warming, melodic build-up.

I also have bitter-sweet memories of my last meeting with the maestro 10 years later – in October 1959. The place was HMV studios in Bombay, where he had come to record his music at the instance of G. N. Joshi, then HMV’s recording chief. Pannababu was his usual sunny, affable self and he had recorded his repertoire without any retake. He had come to Bombay from Delhi on a brief holiday – and he returned to the capital, only to go away from our midst forever, barely six months later.

It was during my few visits to his residence in Bombay as well as Delhi, that I saw the human side of the maestro’s personality. His Bombay home at Malad, then a sleepy little town, was an old building.

The maestro would receive me with a broad smile that seemed to come from the innermost recesses of a loving heart. Though he looked always cheerful and humorous, he was a man of few words, more willing to listen than speak. There was restraint and dignity in his thought, word and deed. I have watched him immersed in meditation and worship, seated in a yogic posture, before his family deity at home. Equally deep was his devotion to daily rivaz and reading.

A generous guru, Pannababu built up a fairly large following. Among his leading direct disciples are Haripada Choudhary. Devendra Murdeshwar (who is also his son-in-law), V. G. Karnad, Suraj Narayan Purohit. Rashbehari Desai and others. The are other flautists like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Raghunath Seth, whose playing bears the deep impress of his style. All things considered, however, his art was sui generis and it passed into oblivion with him.

But he was mindful of his obligation to posterity. He has left behind a fairly large repertoire of recorded music through tapes and long-playing discs. In these are enshrined many of the sublime moments which Pannababu always strove to create and share with his listeners. In this sense, one can say that his music is not totally lost to coming generations.


Mohan Nadkarni profiles playback singer Parul Ghosh, wife of the maestro How many of our present-day playback singers or music directors, let alone film-goers, have heard of Parul Biswas, who later came to the known as the wife of the flute maestro, Pannalal Ghosh? How many are aware that she was the sister of Anil Biswas, that stalwart among the music directors of yesteryear? Or that she was herself a pioneer playback singer in her own right?

Quite possibly, most of today’s film celebrities may not have even cut their musical teeth when Parul Ghosh, like Kanan Devi of the New Theatres of hallowed memory, rules supreme in her field. The old-timers still in our midst recall with nostalgia the charm and variety of her songs in film like Basant, Hamari Baat, Jwar Bhata, Milan and Namaste.

Born at Barisal (also the birthplace of Pannababu, which is now in Bangladesh) in 1915, Parul inherited her musical propensities from her mother, Satyabhama Biswas, who was a popular exponent of Kirtans. She entered the world of playback singing after she came down to Bombay with Pannababu in 1940. Parul’s debut as a playback singer and her career in the profession was admittedly much too brief, but no less significant. That was the time when public opinion was not still completely reconciled to the idea of a non-professional artiste, who was also a housewife, taking to a career in the celluloid world.

Those who have seen the Bombay Talkies hit, Basant, will forever remember those utterly charming solo ditties, like Meri chhoti si man mein, Ummeed unse kyat thi, and duets such as Kanta lago re sajanwa. Gori more Ganga ke par and Aya basant sakhi. Parul lent her voice to Devika Rani in Hamari Baat. It was A. R. Kardar’s Namaste, in which Parul sang for Protima Das Gupta, that took her and her listeners to great heights. The permanent break from a highly promising career came when Parulo chose the life of an average Hindu housewife, looking after domestic affairs, attending to her illustrious husband and her two daughters, Sudha and Noopur. The younger one, Noopur, succumbed to small pox in her infancy in 1951.

This misfortune, in a sense, started a chain of tragic happenings in the family. Pannababu died in Delhi in 1960 when he was at the height of his fame. It would seem as though Parul’s cup of sorrow was not full even after her husband’s death. Even as her own health started rapidly deteriorating, she lived to see the death of her only surviving daughter in 1976.

Utterly disconsolate and ailing, Parul Ghosh died at Malad in Bombay, on August 13, 1977, unsung and unhonoured. It is therefore something to be grateful for the fact that Parul Ghosh finds place along with old celebrities in the reissue of an impressive line-up of evergreen hits recently brought out by the Gramophone Company of India (HMV) to mark ‘Fifty Years of Playback Singing.’

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