Hariprasad Chaurasia’s name is synonymous with the bansuri, or the Indian flute, and the prestige it now enjoys among the pantheon of Indian classical instruments. Born in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in 1938, he was also trained in quite another art, though, through his childhood and adolescence: wrestling.
Chaurasia’s father, who ran an akhada (a wrestling centre), wanted the boy to take after him, but fate had other plans. In Breath Of Gold, journalist and writer Sathya Saran charts the story of the maestro’s rise from a staff musician at All India Radio to a coveted music director in Mumbai, and finally a star in the firmament of Indian classical music, trained by none other than the legendary Annapurna Devi.
Told in short bursts of episodes, the book is an impressionistic account, focusing on Chaurasia’s work and legacy. Saran dwells at length on his immense commercial success, especially on his collaboration with santoor player Shivkumar Sharma. The duo, known as Shiv-Hari, would go on to create some of the most beautiful music in recent memory in movies like Chandni, Lamhe and Darr. At the same time, Chaurasia remained deeply committed to the classical purity of his art, both as performer and teacher. His genius is versatile, restless, ever inventive—even in his 80s. In an interview with Mint, Saran spoke about the choices she made as a biographer and her subject’s enduring relevance. Edited excerpts:
A common challenge for biographers is steering clear of hagiography. Did you have to grapple with it?
My years of interviewing have taught me to approach every interview with a fresh mind, without preconceptions. The biographies I have written are also largely interview-based. Despite the fact that I admire the work and creative genius of all the subjects of my biographies, my aim has been to project their journey, their struggles and achievements in a readable manner. I see the biographies I take up as a way to chronicle the life and times of a person whose story could inspire but might well be forgotten unless recorded in words.
I must add that through the writing of a biography, I am deeply invested in the persona of the subject. But I consciously keep the opinions to a minimum and let the subject’s life speak for itself. I am not in favour of fawning—after all every life has its good and bad points, every human has faults and virtues.
A few years ago, Hariprasad Chaurasia’s sons from his first marriage raised objections to being left out of his biopic. Your book doesn’t get into the details of that relationship. Why?
The entire structure of the book spins around his journey through learning, performing and teaching music—and finding a place for the flute that he felt was worthy of the instrument. Only those incidents, and people who were important in that journey and had a role to play, positive or negative, are part of the book. I was aware of the fact that Hariji has two other sons, but as neither of them was vital to his journey as a flautist, I saw no reason to interview them. Their mother does feature in the book, as part of his household.
Why did you use the episodic structure to tell your story? Can you share some thoughts on the form of the book?
I teach journalism, and often feel deep despair at the fact that only a small percentage of students in each of my classes, through the years, enjoy reading. As a magazine editor, I realized that a snippety or episodic format works well as a vehicle to carry even the most serious stories. Chaurasia is a classical flautist. Most readers would imagine the book to be a heavy tome full of classical terminology and heavy facts, hence forbidding in its content. Hariji himself is not ponderous; his sense of impish humour is legendary; and he interacts with his students in a way that keeps him in touch with changing times and mores.
Perhaps by listening to his music through the months of researching and writing the book, I imbibed some of the cadences of the flutes, its high and low notes, the blending of long and short breaths that give the instrument its typical character—and unconsciously adapted the pace in my writing. Besides, anecdotes are easy baits for capturing the non-reader skimming through the pages. Hence, I introduced the interludes which are interesting windows into Hariji’s personality and complete incidents in themselves. I did want readers to feel they were watching a film on Hariji’s life unfold, and I wrote in the present tense to keep that sense of immediacy and contact alive. Though, to be fair, it was only after I completed the book and reread the text that I realized much of it was in the present tense.
Would you agree that Shiv-Hari changed the direction of Hindi film music?
I am not sure it is completely correct to say they changed the flow of Hindi film music. Perhaps they brought back some of the romance and the scent of the earth to it. I would say their film music is on a par with those by many other musical greats, whose craft blended classical and folk traditions to create melody. Whether it is Ravi Shankar in Pather Panchali, Vilayat Khan in Jalsaghar, or S.D. Burman’s Bandhini or Abhimaan (to name two from among his numerous films), or Naushad, Salil Chowdhury, Roshan and Shankar Jaikishen (to name a few among many), [these music directors] bent their classical knowledge to a melody that would appeal to listeners of every level of musical knowledge. Shiv-Hari did the same, adapting their music to the scene. When it worked perfectly, the songs remain. When it did not, they were forgotten. This is true of each musician who has composed for Hindi films.
What would you say is Chaurasia’s enduring legacy in the arena of Indian classical music?
Hariji took the early efforts of Pannalal Ghosh forward, and to him goes the credit of firmly establishing the flute as an instrument worthy of being considered as a solo performer in the classical mode. As (tabla maestro) Zakir Hussain writes in his forward, Hariji achieved for the flute in a single generation what took performers of other instruments many generations to achieve. His dedication to the flute, to his music, his ability to teach generations of students across countries, has helped make the flute among the most popular instruments among new learners of classical instrumental music—a place that was perhaps supremely held by the sitar through the 1960s and 1970s.