Blowing Notes on Bamboo

By David Osborn

The Musical Gift of Lord Krishna
Because flutes the world over have such a pure, divine sound, and because their origins are so ancient as to be lost in the misty dawn of time itself, it’s not surprising that the great transverse flute of India, the Bansuri, traces its origins back to the Hindu god Krishna.  Krishna is a blue skinned god, and is commonly pictured carrying or playing a flute, flanked by a cow, and often with a beautiful milkmaid staring him in the eyes – his favorite Gopi, or milkmaid, was named Radha, and they frolicked together in a bucolic village named Vrindavan.  Everyone in the town of Vrindavan was enchanted by the sweet sound of Krishna’s flute, especially his consort Radha. The modern name for Krishna’s flute is Bansuri, which is derived from two root words: Bans, denoting bamboo; and Swara, or a musical note.  In other words, a Bansuri is a simple piece of bamboo that you blow on to produce music, or play musical notes.  The older name for Krishna’s bamboo flute was Murali, and Krishna playing his flute is often referred to by the epithet Murali Manohara, or swaying to and fro while ecstatically playing his flute. 

Krishna was a cowherd, and ever since Krishna first started to play his flute, the Bansuri has had pastoral associations.  Until quite recently, the Bansuri  was mainly a rustic folk instrument, and was not the domain of serious Indian classical music; for one thing, most Bansuris in ages past were quite a bit higher in pitch than the usual classical Indian Bansuri is today.  Then, in the twentieth century, Pannalal Ghosh and his disciples started to play flutes that were much longer and lower in pitch, which they deemed to be more fitting in their overall sound and sonority for both classical as well as light music. -1.  Today, flutes with a fundamental pitch of middle “C” or lower are the general rule, although smaller and higher pitched flutes are also used for some types of pieces.  And so, the modern Indian Bansuri is sometimes called a bass flute, and it is used to play serious Raga music within the North Indian Hindustani system of music.  In the Carnatic system of classical music that prevails in South India, shorter flutes are favored.  The pioneer of the Bansuri flute in classical North Indian music was Pannalal Ghosh. 

Nada Brahma: The Bansuri and the Mysticism of Sound
There is, like a hidden thread running through all the world’s great religions, the esoteric notion that sound, music or vibration is the very creative voice of God.  In the creation account in Genesis, God speaks, and an aspect of existence comes into being.  The prologue of John’s gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word…” as the re-creation of the Genesis account, but many have misunderstood exactly what this “Word” is – many mistakenly assume that it refers to the sum total of all the words in the Bible.  What is really being referred to here is the creative voice of God, which is poetically referred to as the Word.  It has also been called the Music of the Spheres, since it can be heard by a yogi in deep meditation as beautiful, enchanting music.  And the sound of the flute is an important strain in that heavenly music.  Hindu yogic philosophy has a name for this musical path to the Divine via the inner audition of the Audible Life Stream: Nada Brahma, or the celestial Sound Current as the path to the highest God.  Other names for the Sound Current are Akash Bani  (the ethereal Sound), Shabda (the Word), and Nam (the subtle inner vibration that is awakened by chanting the Name of God).

Jesus is very flute-like when he refers to the Spirit as: The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.  – John 3: 8   The great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, has written poems alluding to himself as a hollow flute, which the Divine Player fills with music.  In yogic philosophy, the cosmic vibration of God that echoes through the universes is known as Om, or Omkar.  Many Bansuri players have the Om symbol engraved into their flutes, right above the blow hole, which is that sacred space through which the player creates the sound, like God breathing life into the universe.  This yogic mysticism of Sound also finds expression in Indian classical music itself: Dhun is the name of a musical genre that refers poetically to the Music of the Spheres, which is heard within, in deep meditation.  A fundamental principle in Hindu sound mysticism is to distinguish between the Varnatmik, or sounds in their outer or worldly manifestations, versus the Dhunatmik, the spiritual music that can only be heard within.

A Closer Look at the Bansuri: Not Just Any Old Bamboo Flute
Although both flutes are blown transversely, there’s a world of difference between the classical Indian Bansuri and, say, a typical “hippie flute” made from an ordinary piece of bamboo.  First of all, our “hippie flute” is full of nodes, or what are commonly called “joints”; in addition to the node that forms what would otherwise be the “cork” stopping the bore or interior of the flute near the blow hole, our “hippie flute” probably has at least one, maybe two, more nodes that have been cleared or reamed out on the inside to extend the air column.  By contrast, the Bansuri has no nodes at all, not even near the blow hole; there is usually a cork or stopper there, which is often made out of hardened rubber.  Because our “hippie flute” has nodes, it may also have indentations or cross-sectional irregularities in the bore, including kinks in the bore where the nodes have been reamed out – which can all negatively impact the sound and tuning of the instrument.  By contrast, the Bansuri, because it has no nodes, has a bore that is remarkably straight, cylindrical and regular, giving it a very balanced and uniform sound and consistency of tuning and pitch.  In spite of all its quirks and eccentricities, you might occasionally get a “hippie flute” that plays decently, in spite of them, but this is usually the exception rather than the rule. 

The Indian Bansuri, to be truly authentic, has to be made from a piece of bamboo with no nodes, even though its total length may extend well over two feet.  I have seen Carnatic flutes from South India that were made with a node serving as the cork or stopper near the blow hole, but that was the only node that was present; most importantly, there were no nodes anywhere along the crucial body or air column of the instrument.  The best North Indian Bansuri are made from bamboo of the Schizostachyum genus, of which there are many subspecies, with the best bamboo for making Bansuris to be found in the Assam region of northeast India. -2.  Besides being very straight and cylindrical, and having no nodes whatsoever along the entire length of the instrument, other distinguishing characteristics of Bansuri bamboo are that it is very light and thin walled, and that it has almost no tapering at all from the top end to the bottom, with the top end being, at the most, only about a millimeter wider in its bore diameter than the bottom.  For the smaller, shorter Carnatic flutes, other geni and species of bamboo may also be used, such as the South Indian Ochlandra travancorica, or Tavancore Bamboo, which has a shorter internode length, slightly thicker walls, and a greater bore taper from top to bottom.

Other than these subtle features would indicate, the Bansuri is simplicity itself.  It is one long, straight bamboo tube or cylinder, with a cork or stopper near its top end, a blow hole near the cork or stopper, and six or seven finger holes along the length of its body – that’s it.  Because the bamboo is so light, delicate and thin walled, the holes are usually burned in to the flute rather than drilled, as drilling might split the bamboo.  To further protect against splitting, the bamboo cylinder is bound with strong cord at either end, as well as at other places in between, which is something that can serve as much of a decorative function as a protective or reinforcing one.  In contrast to the modern silver flute or Boehm flute, which has an air column width to length ratio of about 1: 30, the air column width to length ratio in a Bansuri is a bit wider, being about 1: 25.  This makes for a broader, more robust tone for the Bansuri  than for the silver flute.   Because the walls are quite thin in both instruments, both have a tone that is remarkably fluid and vibrant.                        

The Basics of Indian Music on the Bansuri
The standard Bansuri has six finger holes along its length.  If one starts with all holes closed and opens each of the holes completely in sequential fashion, from bottom to top, one produces a major scale.  In North Indian classical music, the notes of the major scale are as follows:  Sa (Do – all holes closed); Re (Re); Ga (Mi); Ma (Fa); Pa (Sol); Dha (La); Ni (Ti – all holes open); Sa (Do – all holes closed, but overblowing into the second register).  Although this may be the simplest way to produce a simple major scale on the Bansuri, this is not the way it is usually done, especially when playing classical North Indian Raga music.  The classical way of playing is to start in the middle of the flute, with Ma / Fa (bottom three holes open) and use that note as the Tonic / Do or Sa.  If one starts with this note as the Tonic / Do or Sa, and goes on up the scale in sequential fashion uncovering the holes one by one, one will find that the fourth note of the new scale (previously Ni / Ti), now Ma / Fa, is raised by a half step from where it would normally be in a major scale.  In Indian music, this is called Tivra (sharpened) Ma. 

The note that follows this Tivra Ma or raised fourth is what was previously the upper Sa or Do, with all the finger holes closed, but overblowing into the upper octave; this is now the fifth degree or Pa / Sol of the new scale.  From here, one continues opening the holes sequentially, one by one, until one returns to the bottom three holes open, but overblowing into the higher octave, which is the new upper Sa, or Do.  The scale that one has just played, if one has fully opened each of the holes in sequence, is like a major scale, but with a raised fourth; in North Indian classical music, this is called the Kalyan parent scale – in the system of the old Greek modes, this would be the Lydian Mode.  In order to correct things to return to a normal major scale with Sa / Do in the middle like this, we must flatten the fourth note of the scale; in other words, we must lower the Tivra or sharpened Ma / Fa to a natural or Shuddha Ma / Fa.  This is usually done by sheltering or only half opening the top hole, with all the holes below it being completely opened.  After this correction or adjustment is made, we get a normal major scale.  

This playing of the musical scale starting in the middle of the instrument, with the bottom three holes open and the top three holes closed, has definite advantages to it, as well as its particular disadvantages when viewed from another perspective.  Most specifically, this scale arrangement has particular relevance to North Indian classical music and its solfeggio or note naming system.  In North Indian classical music, Ma / Fa, or the fourth note of the scale, is the only note that can ever be Tivra or sharp / raised by a half step.  Pa / Sol (all holes closed) can never be altered – think of it as the Perfect Fifth.  Sa / Do, as the tonal center of the piece or Raga, is also perfect, and can never be altered, although there are some scales or Ragas that do not use the Fifth.  The remaining four notes of the scale – Re / Re, Ga / Mi, Dha / La and Ni / Ti, can only be flattened – which is accomplished on the Bansuri  by only half or partially opening its associated hole.  In terms of the instrument’s gamut or playing range, the classical middle Sa arrangement creates a lower register that extends only down to the Pa / Sol below the basic tonic or Sa / Do.  The middle register is our middle to middle scale discussed earlier; and the upper register is everything above that high Sa or Do, as far as the player’s facility or virtuosity can take him.

Playing the Bansuri
In drawing some broad contrasts  between the Indian Bansuri and its modern incarnation, the silver flute or Boehm flute, we could say that the latter is more mechanical and synthetic, whereas the former is more natural, flexible and organic.  The silver flute has mechanical levers and keys opening and closing the tone holes for the different notes, whereas the Bansuri has open finger holes which can be open or closed, either totally or partially, as well as stroked or caressed obliquely by the fingers to produce slides and portamentos.  Because most modern Western musical instruments are so mechanical in nature, I believe that the Western musician, when constructing or playing a melody, thinks more of stringing together a succession of notes, with each one played “straight”, or without ornamentation.  By contrast, it is said that Gamak, or ornamentation, is the heart and soul of Indian music.  “A melody without gamak is like a moonless night, a sky without stars” – or something to that effect goes the old saying.  And so, an Indian musician or Bansuri player usually adorns his or her notes with ornamentation. 

To obtain the altered or chromatic notes, the Bansuri player half opens the holes; even though some chromatic notes can be produced by cross-fingering, this is not the usual method.  When playing a piece in a scale or Raga with many chromatic notes, the Bansuri player must work on his execution, to hit all the chromatic notes spot on and just right.  In addition, the pitch of a note can be altered or lowered somewhat by tilting the head down and changing the blowing angle into the sound hole, blowing more downwards to lower the pitch.  In addition to what we would call chromatic notes, or the sharps and flats, as it were, Indian music is famous for having microtones, or notes that fall “in the cracks” in between the half steps of the Western chromatic scale.  The Bansuri, however, is well equipped to provide these subtle microtonal inflections of pitch; in addition to being able to close or open the holes to any degree desired to raise or lower the pitch by minute increments, the player can also alter the blowing angle, providing subtle inflections of both tone and pitch.  All these factors make the Bansuri a very feeling instrument. 

Playing a classical Indian Raga on the Bansuri  is like a musical meditation.  First, the spirit or mood of the Raga awakens, unfolding itself as it does so, in the Alap section in free rhythm, starting from the tonic note or Sa.  In the Alap section, the Bansuri  player explores the basic musical and expressive possibilities of the Raga.  Then comes the Jor section, the presentation of the main musical theme or composition; the Tabla (Indian drums) joins in, and the element of rhythm enters the picture.  This is followed by the Ghat, in which the tempo and virtuosity pick up, and the Bansuri as the solo or melodic instrument and the Tabla as the rhythmic instrument play back and forth in call and response.  Finally, the Bansuri and the Tabla come together for the final climax, and the performance ends.  A Raga is commonly thought of as being nothing more than a musical scale, but actually it is a lot more than that – it is a melodic type or framework, complete with its own personality and predispositions of phrasing and expression; Raga is also defined as that which enchants the mind.  But if you’re not into all the rigors and intricacies of Raga and Tala, no need to fear – you can enter into a musical meditation with the Bansuri anytime, and play any melody that comes to you.          

1.  Pannalal Ghosh 
2.  Schizostachyum