The bamboo flute of South India

Text: Ludwig Pesch | Art: Arun V.C.

The flute has played a key role in India’s artistic life since antiquity. This is evident from writings on dance-drama, mythology, sculptures and paintings. Its playing technique must have been highly developed for a very long time. Different names are used for it, for instance kuzhal (pronounced like “kulal” or “kural”) in Tamil speaking regions; and bānsurī in northern India. In poetry, song lyrics, classical dance items and films, words like venu and murali evoke its association with Krishna, the ‘dark skinned’ cowherd and flute player.

Early Tamil and Sanskrit poets describe the creation of the original bamboo flute. This did not even require any human intervention: it is an easily observed fact that bumble bees make holes in bamboo stems (Sanskrit vamsha) for their nests. These openings later invite the wind to create ever changing tunes in bamboo groves like those found in some parts of the Western Ghats. Here, and in the hills of North-East India, grow the varieties of bamboo preferred by flute makers.

The nest holes made by some insects have indeed the same size as the blowing and finger holes still seen in most bamboo flutes. Any human being living close to nature is bound to be inspired by such phenomena while making music, dancing or telling stories. As expressed in song lyrics, these sounds are remembered as enchanting experiences and therefore regarded as a gift from heaven. Listening to the nuances of bird song has further contributed to a musical symbiosis that emerges time again in different places. The symbolism associated with the seven notes – and also the rāgas derived from them – still echoes such deeply rooted sentiments.

It hardly surprises, therefore, that Pannalal Ghosh, the pioneer of Hindustani flute music, was influenced by “tribal” musicians belonging to the Santal people. Inspired by his music, other flautists sought to develop styles that probe into our bonds with the natural world, something greater and more sublime. This greater “something” most of us seem to be aware of to the extent of longing for it, “naturally” associating it with impressions from our early childhood, and later reminded of these by any encounter with “beauty” even as modern lifestyles prevent us from realizing its essence on a daily basis:

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower.  – Rabindrath Tagore whose My Boyhood Days includes an anecdote on his attempt at making coloured ink from flower petals which “merely turned to mud” (Ch. XI)

With this dilemma we are in good company: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), India’s first Nobel laureate, who established his Santiniketan school and Viswa-Bharati University on and amidst the Santal villages of West Bengal.

Far from being bogged down by the fact that “the superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control”, he compared the Infinite Being to a flute player whose ‘music of beauty and love helps us to transcend our egotistic preoccupations’.*

Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing. – From a letter to his Dutch translator, the writer Frederik van Eeden (signed in London, 9 August 1913)

Ludwig Pesch specialized in the Carnatic bamboo flute under the guidance of H. Ramachandra Shastry (1906-1992) whom he accompanied on many occasions.

H. Ramachandra Shastry (Kalakshetra, ca. 1983)

At the invitation of Smt. Rukmini Devi-Arundale, a gurukulavāsa type of personalized apprenticeship became possible thanks to Kalakshetra College (today known as Rukmini Devi College Of Fine Arts), the “institution of national importance” inspired by Rabindranath Tagore: it was his pioneering institution, Santiniketan, that provided a model for the revival of South Indian performing and visual arts just as related crafts.

Tagore in Kalakshetra
image by L. Pesch

For Rabindranath, who was essentially a poet and artist, the realization and the expression of beauty was the supreme objective in human life. His concept of beauty, according to true Indian tradition, was inseparably connected with truth and goodness. Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful. Thus, aesthetic sensitiveness, in the true sense, is a fundamental aspect of spiritual education. A proper aesthetic culture should also include the perception and expression of the beautiful in human life and social conduct, as well as in art and literature. Rabindranath stated in no uncertain terms that man’s sensory encounter with the environment was as important as his mind’s enquiry into its inner mystery, and any worthwhile society should provide for both.

Source: The Santiniketan Aesthetic in Unesco’s “World Heritage List Nominations”
(accessed 9 June 2020)

Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful

Book recommendation: Pidhana – The Canopy of Life
Tagore’s ideal of uniting practical, academic, artistic and spiritual education amounts to “lifelong education” and “ecology” in the most modern and comprehensive sense, namely in harmony with nature. Kalakshetra’s unique ecology, like Santiniketan, was painstakingly created from a barren stretch of land, over a period of several decades. This process and the unique environment resulting from it are documented in a beautiful book titled Pidhana – The Canopy of Life (Chennai, 2014, ISBN: 978-81-921627-3-7): richly illustrated, this publication tells the story of the trees found in the 99acre campus of Kalakshetra Foundation.

A message for all seasons: Rabindranath Tagore on “the beauty of the flower”

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower.  – Rabindrath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore Sketched by Dutch artist Martin Monickendam on the occasion of a lecture tour in September 1920 © Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Rabindranath Tagore Sketched by Dutch artist Martin Monickendam on the occasion of a lecture tour in September 1920 © Stadsarchief Amsterdam

From Beauty Quotes and Sayings –

More on and by Rabindranath Tagore >>

Listen to Tagore: Unlocking Cages: Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the Bengali writer and thinker Rabindranath Tagore: >>
The acclaimed BBC 4 podcast series titled Incarnations: India in 50 Lives has also been published in book form (Allen Lane).

“I was moved by how many of these lives pose challenges to the Indian present,” he writes, “and remind us of future possibilities that are in danger of being closed off.”1

  1. Sunil Khilnani quoted in a review by William Dalrymple in The Guardian, 14 March 2016[]

Exploring a wealth of rhythmic and melodic motifs: Interactive music session for and with Montessori teachers – Zurich

At the invitation of Christine Urand (Director, Rietberg Montessori School) Ludwig Pesch took the full assembly of teachers on a musical journey across South India: exploring a wealth of rhythmic and melodic motifs suitable for young learners while enabling parents, teachers and care-givers to enjoy music making themselves (even as “lay people”, musically speaking).

This event was also an occasion to explore and discuss the scope for actively participating in an intercultural dialogue, something the presenter has long been known for, while paying homage to Maria Montessori; 1 both as contributor to ISME World Conferences and in association with educational and cultural institutions across the entire spectrum: teacher training, kindergarten, schools, rehabilitation just as staff integration programmes; conservatoria and universities in several countries; and creative projects developed in association with the Goethe Institute and exhibition makers at internationally renowned museums.

Date: 1 March 2018. Events on similar lines have been developed in conjunction with Museum Rietberg (Zurich) on the occasion of exhibitions of rare Indian art (in collaboration with art education staff).

Deutsch: Eine musikalische Reise für alle >>

  1. From 1939 until 1947 Dr. Maria Montessori worked closely with Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra (est. in 1936 in Adyar/Madras, now part of Chennai) These pioneering efforts remain as relevant today as in the early 20th century[]

Lecture recital: Flutes and tambura – Netherlands

Private lecture-recital at Zoetermeer, 21 June 2014
performed by

Usha Ramesh & Ludwig Pesch – bamboo flutes
Mieke Beumer – tambura

About the musicians

Usha Ramesh and Ludwig Pesch were fellow pupils of Ramachandra Shastry (1906-92) during their student days at Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts in Chennai.

Having studied both music and painting – under renowned artist K. Sreenivasulu (1923-94) – Usha further developed her art after moving to Zoetermeer. She has followed courses at the Vrije Akademie and took private graphic lessons from Marjolein van der Velde. As flautist she worked with classical Indian dance ensembles performing at prestigious venues such as Korzo Theater (The Hague), Tropentheater (Amsterdam) and Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). She also gives presentations for school children.

Ludwig accompanied his teacher on many occasions. He taught in several German universities incl. Göttingen, Lüneburg (E-learning courses) and Würzburg. For Bern University of the Arts (Switzerland), he conducted research on Kerala’s performing arts (Sam, Reflection, Gathering Together!). For Oxford University Press he wrote the The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music. He also enjoys introducing Indian music to school children, those with special needs, festival goers and museum visitors (e.g. Salzburger Festspiele, Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, Museum Rietberg Zuerich).

Mieke Beumer worked as art historian at the Amsterdam University Library. Her research brought her in contact with the cultures of South Asia. It is in this context that she came to immerse herself in Indian music and dance.

The tambura (tanpura) played by Mieke looks quite different from any typical Indian-made instrument. Hers is a modern version made from bamboo, redeveloped by a team of instrument makers in Berlin. Yet its simple shape also indicates what the ‘original’ tambura might have looked and felt like; and indeed, little more is needed than a few strings strung across a plain, well crafted resonator. Besides its rich sound, this tambura has yet another property that counts in Holland: it is easy to transport, even by bicycle!

Art: Arun VC >>

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