HT Brunch Cover Story: The life and travels of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

“It was dark and lonely. I was somewhere between UP and MP, all alone. I had no food or water, and could only pray there were no wild animals around. All I could do was wait for the next train.”

“When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God”

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia has sharp memories of his very first journey by train. His friend Jagannath and he had decided to run away from Allahabad to Mumbai, and seek their fortune in the world of Hindi films. Sure of their talent, one as a singer the other as a flute player, the boys had smuggled themselves onto a train. “Of course the ticket collector caught us,” Chaurasia reminisces. “He gave me a good thrashing, and then realising we were together, threw us off at different stations. He said, ‘If I put you down at the same place, you will just climb on to the next train. Alone you won’t be so brave and will start your journey back home.’”

“Last year, for the first time in 28 years, I did not go to Rotterdam Music Conservatory”

Chaurasia, who would throughout his life prove his strength of purpose, clambered on to the next train, and with luck found his friend on it. The two boys arrived at the awe-inspiring Victoria Terminus station in Mumbai, evading further misadventures by hiding in the toilets when they spotted a ticket checker coming by.

Today, Chaurasia holds a diplomatic passport and flies business class. His trips across the world are planned to ensure he travels in comfort, so he is rested and can perform despite the changed time zones. But even after he became known as a flautist who could charm audiences with his renditions of the classics, journeys were not always pleasant.

“Name any small town or city and there is a good chance I have performed there,” Chaurasia says, as he talks about recitals in little known towns like Satna and Handiya in Madhya Pradesh. “Those days, I travelled third class. Often the accompanists would be from the town I was going to, but later I started demanding that my tabla and tanpura players travel with me. Of course, we were given very little money to perform, but worse still, we were often forced to return empty-handed. When we asked for our money, the organisers would say the person responsible had to rush away but would come soon after the performance to pay us. Sometimes the man would turn up; sometimes, he would not. So we would have to buy even the return ticket and we would travel back with nothing to show for the long journey,” he says, laughing.

Pandit ji with Pushpanjali, his daughter-in-law who plays the role of his manager and is the ‘rock’ in his life, and (right) Sathya Saran his biographer and the author of this piece

Pandit ji with Pushpanjali, his daughter-in-law who plays the role of his manager and is the ‘rock’ in his life, and (right) Sathya Saran his biographer and the author of this piece

He is proud that he has played to audiences in remote parts of Assam, “where even ministers may not have gone. And in parts of Africa that do not find any mention in travel brochures.” How many people can say they have been to Maputo, he challenges. He remembers that performance: the entire audience turned up in formal black suits to listen to him, as if they were going to church. “Once the recital was over, they stood up as one and clapped. It was heartwarming,” he says.

“The Pakistanis said, ‘We like the same foods, the same music, why do they say we are Muslims, you are Hindus?’”

Equally thrilling was his performance at the VOSA Festival in Norway. “A train goes up to the 6,000 feet high venue, and as it was December, it was dark and the snow shone white all around. It was like being in heaven,” he says. “There are eight to 10 stages with different performances at the same time. I was the only Indian there, playing Hindustani classical among the jazz and rock and other Western musical forms.”

Journeys excite Chaurasia. Even as we talk, plans are being put together for his next round of travels. Another whirlwind round of performances, an inauguration in Karnataka, a recital in Benaras, a visit to his gurukul for Holi where he had invited the renowned brothers, Sajan and Rajan Mishra, to bring in the musical festivities. And there are visits to Europe every year once the winter relaxes its hold on the continent.

“Name any small town and there is a good chance I have performed there ”

Chaurasia is practically an honorary European, spending months at a stretch at the Rotterdam Music Conservatory, where he is the artistic director. “Last year, for the first time in 28 years, I did not go,” he says. But his memories include performing for Queen Beatrix of Netherlands at a private recital, ‘presented’ to her as a birthday gift by her husband, Prince Claus.

Chaurasia also has fond memories of his trips to Pakistan. “I have gone three times, and every time the people welcome me and there is a complete understanding of the music and of one another,” he says, adding that he enjoys the food immensely too. Everywhere he went to perform, in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, his audiences told him they missed his music; they missed listening to Lata Mangeshkar and Rafi. I said, “I am here, eating with you.” And they would say, “Yes, true, we like the same foods, the same music, why do they say we are Muslims, you are Hindus?”


He remembers he took his wife Anuradha with him on that first trip and Manorama, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma’s wife, to keep her company. “So while Manoramaji has visited Pakistan, Shivji has not, which is surprising,” he says. He remembers too how, because Manorama is a vegetarian, the hosts all across Pakistani cities would get new vessels to cook vegetarian food for her, so she could enjoy the meals without fear of any contamination. And at each performance, the “huge audiences would sit quietly listening for hours.”

“[At the Vatican ], the tabla echoes off the walls and disturbs the overall effect. We are still discussing [that when we play there ] maybe we go without the tabla.”

His memories include travelling with other renowned musicians like Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram, the ghatam player from Chennai. “There was one incident,” he says, “when while carrying our instruments from the airport, the ghatam rolled out of the trolley and crashed, breaking into many small pieces. It is a clay pot after all. Our show was scheduled for the next day. But Vikkuji did not despair. He sat all night and carefully pieced the pieces together, and on the evening of the show, the beats rang out pure and clear. Wah!”

High on his list of overseas performances is the possibility of playing at the Vatican. He has played near the holy place but not yet within its confines. “The tabla echoes off the walls, and it disturbs the overall effect, so we are still discussing how to deal with it,” he says. “Maybe we will go without the tabla.”

As the interview ends, and he poses for another round of photos, Chaurasia’s eyes twinkle as he holds up his flute. “I carry it into the cabin on flights,” he says. “Unlike other instruments, I never need to check mine in. My flutes are always with me.”

Rightly so for a man who is never perceived as separate from his music.

His first brush with Royalty

Excerpted from Hariprasad Chaurasia Breath of Gold by Sathya Saran. Published by Penguin .


Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s first overseas trip was to the UK as part of a group show organised by music director Hemant Kumar

1966. It is a strange world he finds himself in, in London… for one, he is cold. His hands are cold, his fingers too, as is the tip of his nose. Worst of all, his flute is not warm and responsive to his touch, but feels cold. He lifts it to his lips, blows tentatively; the sound comforts him, it is almost as clear as always, except for the slightest hint of a hiss. Perhaps if he wraps the flute up in a woollen scarf, it will feel better….

He looks around at the hall he is to perform in. It is huge, and impressive. He has been awed already by the building from the outside, but the semicircular seating, with tiers that rise one over the other in a widening arc is like nothing he has seen before. He does not know if all the plush seats will be filled, there seem to be so many, he guesses it must be some thousands. (The actual number is 5,267.)

His recital is part of an evening of dance and music. He has been asked to play for twelve minutes.

When his turn comes, the audience welcomes him with applause, as is the custom in the West. It warms his heart. He has decided to play a simple raag, knowing that the time given to him is not enough for anything complex. He looks into the dim interiors of the space before him, settles down, signals to the tabla player accompanying him, and closing his eyes, blows into his flute. “When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God.”

For the next stretch of time, he is aware of nothing except his music. He could well be sitting by the Draupadi ghat in Allahabad. Tabla and flute play in tandem, then together, in perfect sync, and listening to the music the audience realises it is in the presence of a true master. When the recital ends, the clock shows that it has lasted twenty minutes. But the audience does not mind. It calls for an encore.

Flushed and happy Hariprasad stands in the wings, waiting for the applause to stop. Then, someone pushes him on to the stage, telling him to take a bow. He stumbles out; then, walking up to centrestage bows his body in a namaste.

It is much later when he realises the magnitude of his achievement. Not only has he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, coveted venue of every performing artiste across the world, but the audience of British and Indian listeners included celebrity performers like Yehudi Menuhin, the world famous violinist.

He celebrates by buying gifts for Anuradha. Perfumes, which in those days, were not available as easily as now, in India.

Join the conversation using #TravelWithALegend

Author bio: Sathya Saran is a senior journalist and is a former editor of Femina magazine. She has penned several books, including a biography on filmmaker Guru Dutt.

Also read: To sitar, with love

From HT Brunch, April 5, 2020

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