Some say the bansuri has divine origins. Hindu myth holds that it was popularised in part by Lord Krishna, the god of love and tenderness, who used it to (among other things) gain favour with fellow deities and seduce the milkmaids of Braj.
It has long been considered a symbol of both Krishna’s beauty and his pride, with the lyrics of poetic thumri songs commonly describing its intoxicating power: “the women of Braj have become restless…hearing the tone of the flute, they have gone crazy”. These same women sometimes appear in the later verses, addressing the instrument directly and seeking to lessen its (unsubtly symbolic) power over them: “Flute, what kind of pride are you filled with? You’re not made of gold, nor made of silver, nor studded with gems.”
Until comparatively recently, this sort of criticism chimed with the general opinions of the Hindustani establishment, who saw it as a simple folk instrument, incapable of playing ‘proper’ classical music. But today these critics are pin-drop silent, thanks to the innovations of 20th-century icons including Pandit Pannalal Ghosh and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. The humble stick of bamboo now commands worldwide respect.
There are few sounds that arrive to you more smoothly. The even textures make it feel like the air itself is exhaling, with each note bringing a steady release of tension. Melodies have rounded corners, with artists playing in a ‘singing’ style, freely moving around in the spaces between notes (something you can’t do on a Western flute). If the saxophone extends the human capacity to scream, perhaps the bansuri brings a new dimension to how we can whistle. Either way, it’s a primal, immediate satisfaction.
There is something pleasingly direct about watching a bansuri performance too. In contrast to the complex mechanics of some Indian instruments, little is hidden from the listener with a flute. The crowd at a sitar recital will marvel at – and be distracted by – how far the strings bend, and at how fast the musician’s hands move across them.
But the bansuri shows few of its workings from a distance – the experience is all about the music itself, bringing a particular focus and purity. Expect to come out both exhilarated and relaxed by a sound that has enchanted the human race for millennia.
● Read next: What is khayal vocal music? What happens at a khayal concert? – another primal musical texture (also read my longform interview with bansuri master Pandit Rupak Kulkarni: ‘The only thing you need is to be in tune internally’).