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Capturing the ‘Breath of Gold’ with one of India’s great flute maestros

Capturing the ‘Breath of Gold’ with one of India’s great flute maestros
Courtesy: Krista Kennell / Contributor | Patrick McMullan Via Getty Images

The author of critically acclaimed biographies of Indian legends such as S.D. Burman, Guru Dutt and Jagjit Singh, Sathya Saran has yet again poured her finesse into her recently published titled ‘Breath of Gold’ on the renowned flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia.

With classical music echoing all around, Sathya fancied singing the songs either loudly or in her head. This gave direction to writing about music legends. “They created this universe of music which is still around us. I write these books for the younger generation.”

Fascinated by the depiction of their lyrics on the big screens by heroes and heroines, she was curious to discover the motive behind the magic. “I got into the history of these singers and found out what made them who they were.”

Taping the virtual conversation organised by Nehru Centre London between the novelist herself and editor Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, Sathya takes the audience through facets of the versatile Pandit Hariprasad.

Magic of the flute

Born to a well-known pahalwan (wrestler) in Allahabad, young Hariprasad would be awakened at the crack of dawn only to be dragged to the akhada (wrestling arena). Disinterested and unwilling to fight, intensified his chances of getting trashed by his opponents.

Having lost his dear mother at a tender age and the sound of her lullabies gradually fading away, “music might have been his way of searching for her,” reveals Sathya. She further narrates, “Hari used to go to the temple and listen to bhajans (hymns). One day they discovered he could carry a tune and gave him a solo act. This is where the affair with music began.”


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His first teacher, Rajaram realised that Hariprasad could sing only in one octave however he had an impressive breath control. Through her piece, Sathya takes us through his journey in finding his forte in the flute. After much pursuance, he began training under Hindustani classical musician Annapurna Devi.

Sathya gets anecdotal while recounting the dramatic preface of the book which superbly describes Hariprasad paying homage to his guru Annapurna Devi with a performance in tandem with his comrade and santoor player the late Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. As he began blowing into the flute, he struggled twice finally having managed to pick up a few notes. “He is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He was breathless and his hands were shaking.”

Train to fame

Like every other artist, the dream to be in Bollywood brought Hariprasad to Bombay, however he had to return back home with misfortune. Hovering in the shadows of other musicians, the flautist began moonlighting. He worked with a group of dramatists until he was in the limelight, playing for music directors as big as Madan Mohan and S.D. Burman at the All India Radio.

“He would be sitting in the corner playing his flute and obsessed with his instrument,” noted the late Shivkumar Sharma.


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As a classical musician, he only began composing in the 1980s. From having worked with filmmaker Yash Chopra on his film ‘Silsila’ to performing with the nightingale of India, late Lata Mangeshkar at Tirupati, Hariprasad’s tunes created history.

On his first tour abroad, the artist had been offered a twelve-minute slot to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1966. His simple ragas received an outstanding response from the audience that was seated with celebrity performers including Yehudi Menuhin, the world-famous violinist.

Master at work

With basic knowledge of classical music, Sathya had an adventure while navigating this particular biography. “I personally met him, his wife, his son and daughter in law. Watched the movies his son had made.”

“You can’t understand a musician unless you listen to him and watch him when he is performing. I did not have that luxury with S.D. Burman but here I did.”

Camping at Bhubaneshwar and attending concerts to watch the Master at work and listening relentlessly to the flute was part of the writing process.


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She explains: “I saw his approach to music; the way he closes his eyes, the way he responds and knows the pulse of the audience. Every performance is not the same. I saw him on good and bad days. When he was in command of the audience. All this nourished the narrative.”

A takeaway that she carried from the artist: “Humility. He never cares about his stature. His humility is touching and real.”

It is stubbornness and perseverance that made Hariprasad Chaurasia the name he is today.

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