A Scintillating Sound

Thus far, we have focused on vocalists in our quest to uncover the musician’s inner world. With this interview, we venture out of our comfort zone to chat with Pt. Rupak Kulkarni, flautist extraordinaire.

Rupakji’s unassuming demeanor belies his extraordinary achievements. His music journey began at home with his father, the late Pt. Malhar Kulkarni, before becoming Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia’s student when he was only 8 years old. His debut performance was at the tender age of 11.

An award-winning top-grade AIR artist, Pt. Rupak Kulkarni is the innovative creator of the “Adbhut Bansuri” and the glass flute, and has created ragas “Sonakshi”(based on ragas Marwah, Lalit and Bhairav) and “Rang Malhar”(a combination of ragas Sarang and Malhar). He is a regular at prestigious music conferences in India and abroad, and stands tall as one of the finest flute exponents of the Maihar Gharana today.

Pt. Rupak Kulkarni has played the flute for many melodious Hindi film chartbusters. He also collaborates with many international musicians and has a fusion group, “Sonakshi”.

“The ancient bansuri is a recent entrant in the Hindustani classical music repertory”

When did the bansuri first appear in Hindustani classical music?

Bansuri is a conjunction of two words: baans (bamboo), and sur (musical note). It belongs to a triad of ancient musical instruments from the Vedic era, the other two being the Shankha (Conch) and the Ghatam. The bansuri is Lord Krishna’s divine instrument, and has been associated with folk music for millennia. However, its high pitch and limited range were considered unsuitable for the full range of expression in Khayal. It was left to the genius of Pt. Pannalal Ghosh, who raised the bansuri to the level of a concert instrument with his innovations. Thus, the ancient bansuri is a relatively new entrant in the Hindustani classical music repertory.

Why is a metal flute not used in Hindustani classical music?

The bansuri has an enigmatic, scintillating sound which which is quite different from a metal flute. The way the air molecules travel through the bamboo reed before escaping through the tone holes causes a mixture of vibrations and produces a unique, mystical tone. Also, the bending of notes, an integral part of Hindustani ragas, cannot be easily created by western key-based flutes.

What inspired you to create the Adbhut Bansuri and the glass flute?

The bansuri used in classical music is about 30 inches long and covers two and a half octaves. I wanted to extend the scope to cover the kharaj (lower octave).

To achieve this, you have to extend the length of the reed, but the holes should be positioned such that it is playable by a musician with a normal handspan. After a lot of trial and error, we were able to create a 50 inch long Adbhut bansuri.

With the glass flute, the intent is to dress up the humble bansuri. Its sleek and attractive look makes it stand out in fusion performances. It sounds very close to the bansuri. However, condensation occurs when it is played for long periods of time.

Pt Rupak Kulkarni playing the glass flute

What are some of the instrumental gharanas and what is the style (shaili) that makes a particular gharana unique?

Each gharana echoes the distinctive individuality of its founder. The Gwalior instrumental gharana is the most ancient. The Imdadkhani gharana (founded by Ustad Imdad Khan) was derived from Gwalior. There are other tabla gharanas, sarod & sitar gharanas as well.

An example of gayaki ang

I belong to the Maihar gharana, which was started by Ustad Allaudin Khan. There are two distinctive features of Maihar gharana: the first is a dhrupad influence: dwelling longer on the lower octaves while elaborating a raga. The second is the tantrakari ang, which is an idiomatic plucked-string playing style. It is more staccato in nature, as opposed to the gayaki ang, which has elements of vocal music incorporated into the playing style.

An example of tantrakari ang

Is Raga Dhyan (meditating upon a raga, and its swaras) different for an instrumentalist vs. a vocalist?

One advantage that instrumentalists have is that we can see the notes on the instrument, unlike vocalists who have to imagine it to place it. Otherwise, the process is the same. Raga dhyan is essentially chintan (thought, meditation) and manan (committing musical phrases to memory).

“You have to practice Bhairavi until your last breath”

In Indian classical music, swara is not simply the note, rather it is the space around the note and its relationship with its neighbors. How do concepts like gamakas, andolans translate in the context of an instrument like bansuri?

A swara is always identified in relation to something. For example, it is only with respect to a particular shadja (tonic) that you can identify any other swara in the saptak. The same swara also manifests differently in different ragas. For example, komal dhaivat sounds different in Darbari and Kirwani. Discerning these subtleties, or bhava, and then translating it into the desired tonal vibrations by using breath, fingering and tonguing techniques is the challenge for the student.

I had the privilege of attending concerts with my father and later, with Hari Ji. We would discuss the performance and talk about how the artist unfolded the raga. These discussions fed my own thought process and expression.

I remember Guruji taught me raga bhairavi for 5 years. When I complained about the repetition, he said, “You have to practice bhairavi until your last breath”. That is what made me realize what swarabhyas (study of swaras) means.

Can you share a memory of a performance that has stayed with you?

I remember a memorable performance by Guruji and and Ustad Zakir Hussainji in Mumbai in 1979. They had planned to arrive from Chennai to start the program at 5 pm, but the flight was delayed by several hours. Imagine an irate audience of five thousand people, waiting for the concert to begin. That evening, Guruji and Zakir bhai played began with Yaman and kept going until the wee hours of the morning.

I was just 11 when I witnessed that amazing performance. I could feel it — this is what is raga yaman. The memory of that madhyam still gives me goosebumps. I recall a subsequent concert when Guruji had played raga vachaspati, where the same tivra (sharp) madhyam sounded quite different, and there was yet another performance in raga hemavati, in which the tivra madhyam was different yet again.

That is how I learned that a swara’s frequency is different depending on the raga. Its not explainable, you have to feel it.

“I want you to be a flute pioneer, not a flute player.”

In the vocal tradition, the musician is on a quest to recognize his/her unique voice. What makes the sound of a bansuri player unique? How have you developed your unique style and sound?

Just as every human being has a unique voice, one’s physique, lung capacity, and the way one breathes also produces a unique tone.

One should never blindly follow the guru. You should obey him, but not follow him. I was about 16 years old when I blindly copied my Guruji at an annual function in college. Afterwards, I received many congratulations, but Mrs. Gadre, my political science teacher, came up to me and said, “Rupak, you played well, but I want you to be a flute pioneer, not a flute player.”

Her words spurred me to work on creating my own unique style that was different from my Guruji. I remember I went up to him and asked him, “What can I do to be different from you?”. He advised me to try to innovate within the Alap-Jod-Jhala structure.

Single-handed flute and tabla sangat

My father had learned the gayaki ang from Pannababu, so this got me thinking about blending the gayaki and tantrakari styles. But that experiment did not satisfy me. I began experimenting with various instrument styles and laya. I begin with a dhrupad style alap. I alternate between a stringed-style approach (tantu) and a sarod style when playing taans. I play two types of jhalas, where I vary the speed from fast to super-fast. This is a work in progress — a lifelong sadhana.

“The essence of the raga should be obvious from the first phrase itself.”

Can you explain your process of enfolding a raga?

The very first Shadja should establish the raga; the essence, or the raga-bhava should be obvious from the first phrase itself. It sets the ambience and the mood which binds me to the audience.

A great deal of Chintan is needed to achieve this. I think a lot about the swara I begin with, when playing a raga. As I progress through the swaras, I think about which swaras to emphasize (or not); I explore the relationships between various swaras.

In answering a question about the relationship between swara and tala, Talwalkar ji said, with a vocalist, the tabla is “saath” (companionship), while he characterized the relationship with an instrumentalist as “sangat” (partnership). Your thoughts?

No one can explain this more beautifully than Talwalkarji. Taking this thought further, the tabla sangat is different depending on the instrument. With string instruments like the sitar or sarod, masitkhani, or a slower gat is used, while with a wind instrument like bansuri, a medium or fast paced gat is used. Madhya laya rupak or jhaptal are commonly played.

A example of sangat in Puriya Kalyan

What do you tell your students to pay attention to when they are at a bansuri performance?

First, pay attention to the raga and its swaras. Look at the playing technique — watch the fingering, see how the artist uses kan (grace notes), meend (glissando) and tonguing to bring beauty to the performance. Listen to the rhythm & the improvisations.

These days, Bansuri players are very much in demand in the film industry, but you need to preserve the purity of classical music, and fusion style should not be played in classical music.

Musicians often speak of memorable performances where they were able to convey perfectly what they wanted to express. Can you share any experiences where you felt that the performance matched your expectations?

There are so many variables that affect the ambience that one attempts to create. I remember a couple of years ago, we had an open air performance to commemorate Guru Purnima at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. It is intimidating enough to play in front of Guruji, but Kishori Tai was also there! I somehow gathered my confidence and began with the challenging Miya Malhar, in keeping with the monsoon season. I played two types of jhalas, and played several types of taans in a 9-matra taal. That day, everything was effortless. I treasure the memory of what Kishori Tai said to me that day — “Child, you not only played very well, but you played differently from your Guru”.

Pt. Rupak Kulkarni with his band, Sonakshi

What challenges do contemporary bansuri players face today?

If Panna Babu made playing classical music on the bansuri possible, my guruji took it to the next level. He has opened so many doors for bansuri players: now there is a demand for bansuri players both locally and abroad. But this generation drawn to films and fusion. I don’t blame them — it is a natural outcome of inflation, increasing necessities and what you have to do to survive. The challenge is to preserve the legacy that Panna Babu and Guruji have created in classical music, and take it to the next level.

Please tell us something about the Chinmaya Vidyapeeth, where you are a member of the faculty.

Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth is a university offering programs in the fields of Sanskrit, Indic Wisdom and Performing Arts. The performing arts program is a 5 year integrated course, taught in gurukul-style. Students can also learn sound engineering and technology. Not every student will become a performer, some may venture into allied areas like music direction & music arrangement.

How has music changed you as a person?

More than music, your environment has a deep impact on your life. My father was very god-fearing, as is my wife. Music has many dimensions: it can be romantic, spiritual, even vulgar. If your surroundings are spiritual, the music you choose will exalt you.

“Inner peace is not just for the musician; it should be accessible to the common man too.”

Where does your journey take you from here?

Panna Babu created a place for the bansuri in the world of Indian classical music, while Guruji took the bansuri into the hearts and minds of millions of music lovers worldwide. I want to take the legacy of Panna Babu and Guruji forward.

I always start my performances with at least a 30-minute alap. The alap is the soul of the raga. People say that no one has time for alap anymore, but I think this is something that you have to give to your listeners, unasked. The spirituality and purity of alap leads to inner peace — not just for the musician, but for the listener too.

Alap in Raga Padmavati

We conclude with one of our favorite clips — watch it for a dazzling display of Pt. Rupakji’s technique and artistry.

Interviewing Pt. Rupak Kulkarni opened our eyes to yet another facet of the Hindustani classical music universe. As always, feedback is welcome!

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Ranju Ganesan

Ranju Ganesan

A lifelong student of Hindustani Classical Music