family first lived in the village of Amanatganj (near Barisal, a city in south-central Bangladesh) and later moved
to the town of Fatehpur in Satkhira District in south-western Bangladesh.
Two apocryphal incidents
happened to young Pannalal which had an influential bearing on his
later life. First, at age 9 while looking for a stick, Pannalal
found a flute floating in the river. He retrieved the instrument
and so began his lifelong relationship with the bansuri. Two years later, when Pannalal had gone to the cremation ground to attend the last rites of one of his schoolteachers he met a sadhu who held both a conch and a flute. The sadhu asked Pannalal if he could play the flute, and young Pannalal obliged. The sadhu gave him the flute and told the boy that music would be his salvation. This removed the doubt from the mind of little Pannalal and he selected Flute as his main instrument.
There was a political
unrest in 1928, and every youth was possessed with the freedom movement.
Pannalal also joined this freedom movement. He enrolled in a gymnasium
where he learned martial arts, boxing, and stick fighting and practiced
physical culture. Pannalal was very fond of physical culture. He
became the best student and champion of this gymnasium. He became
more involved in the freedom movement and the British Government
started keeping a watch on his movements. So at the age of seventeen
Pannalal left Barisal and went to Calcutta in search of livelihood.
Pannalal came to Calcutta to stay with his elder sister, Parimal Kana Roy, who was an accomplished singer, and her husband, Lalit Chandra Roy, who was a very good boxer. They both practised boxing together. Pannalal was then working for the "Prabashi" press (a Bengali Magazine). In the teeming metropolis he found himself without any credentials
except that he was a boxing champion and had won the All Bengal
competition in boxing. One
year later, at the age of 18, Pannnalal lost his father.
With his skill as a boxer and martial art
expert, he later landed a job as a coach in an athletic club in Calcutta.
At this time Pannalal, who
was already playing sitar, began to focus his attention on bansuri.
Economic necessity drove him into performing music for the silent
films in Calcutta. After a few years, he brought Anil Biswas, who was a great friend since his chilhood in Barisal, to Calcutta, to stay with him in the same house. Anil Biswas was a very good singer and composer. Pannalal began to play in his musical
productions. It was during one such production when Anil Biswas
was directing music for a dramatization of a work by the renowned
poet Kazi Nazrul Islam that
Pannalal decided that he needed a bigger flute who's pitch and sonority
would be more appropriate for both classical and light music. He
met an old Muslim toy vendor who was also proficient in making flutes.
With his help Pannalal experimented with various materials including
metal and other types of wood, but decided bamboo was still the
most suitable medium for a larger instrument. He finally settled
on a bansuri which was thirty two inches long, with a Sa (tonic)
at kali "Do" (the second black key on the old harmonium scale). As
a flute of this size was hitherto unknown, a rumor arose that Pannalal
had had surgery to cut the webbing between his fingers to facilitate
the large span required to cover the finger holes of the instrument.
Of course, he had no such surgery, but through dedicated riyaz (practice),
Pannalal invented and perfected the technique to play the large
instrument. At this time he would get his bamboo to make flutes
from discarded packing materials found at Diamond Harbor, the large
port of Calcutta. Deforestation had not yet consumed the forest
around Calcutta, and the bamboo was believed to have grown close
to the city itself. He practiced hard and perfected the technique
of vocal music on flute. At this time he realized the need for meend
from madhyama swar to nishad or dhaivat shrutis in ragas like Bihag,
Yaman, Bageshree and many others. He experimented and invented the
seventh hole of madhyama.
He became famous for his
flute playing and started getting performances at the major music
conferences. At this time he came in close contact with great maestros
like Ustad Inayat Khan (sitar), Ustad Dabir Khan (Been), Ustad Amir
Khan (sarod), Ustad Badal khan (sarangi), and vocalists such as
Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Majid Khan, Pt.
Tarapoda Chakraborty, Pt. Bhismadev Chattopadhyay and many others.
His quest for knowledge and purity of tradition made him acquire
intricacies of music from these erudite musicians.
In 1936 Pannalal began working
with Rai Chand Boral, music director of the well known 'New Theatres'
and one year later he met his first guru, Kushi Mohammed Khan -
the 'Harmonium Wizard'. In 1938 as music director of the dance troupe
of the princely kingdom of Seraikella State, Panna Babu (as he was
affectionately known) was one of the first classical musicians to
visit and perform in Europe, which he found rather agitating and
unsettling. Soon after his return to India his guru expired. Thereafter
he underwent training from Girija Shankar Chakravarti. In 1940,
Pannalal moved to Bombay on the advice of his first disciple Haripada
Choudhary (who had himself recently moved to Bombay). There he joined
the Bombay Talkies film studio and gave music to quite a few popular films
including 'Basant' (1942) in collaboration with composer Anil Biswas. Panna Babu's wife, Parul Biswas, (sister of
Anil Biswas), was a graceful singer of kirtans who became one of
the first well known playback singers for the new 'talking' films.
Pannalal first met the legendary
Ustad Allaudin Khansahib, (reverentialy
known as 'Baba') in 1946, when Baba came to Bombay with his disciple,
Pandit Ravi Shankar. Initially,
when Pannalal asked Baba to teach him Khansaheb replied, "You are
already well-known, you don't need to study more." Pannalal implored
Baba to please teach him so that he could learn "authentic music
and sur." In 1947, Pannalal's lifelong yearning to learn music from
a true guru was fulfilled when Allaudin Khansaheb , convinced of
Pannalal's sincerity to learn, accepted Pannalal as his disciple.
Pannalal then accompanied Baba to his home in Maihar, where he received
intensive taalim (training) from Khansaheb for some time.
Under Baba's firm yet understanding tutelage, he blossomed into
the wizard of the bamboo reed.