by Deepak S. Raja, Consulting musicologist
Pandit Pannalal Ghosh has remained amongst the least researched and written-about prominent musicians of the 20th century. The history of the Bansuri as a concert instrument in Hindustani music begins with him. Without his contribution to the design of the contemporary bamboo flute, and to its modern idiom, the instrument could have remained just another popular, but marginal, instrument – as it had done for millennia before him. Two other facets of his musical persona – the composer and the orchestrator – are,however, only vaguely present in the memory of the music community. Posterity needed to be kinder to Panna Babu than it has been.
Dr. Vishvas Kulkarni, a senior scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and an amateur flautist trained in the Pannalal Ghosh tradition, has researched the life and work of Panna Babu over a period of 28 years, and has produced this work, which is remarkable for its coverage of the musician and his work, and style of presentation.
Though the work is inspired by the author’s obsessive admiration of his subject, it has all the characteristics of a scientific report, worthy of a scientist engaged at the highest level of technological enquiry. The author has tapped every probable source of
information on his subject, analysed and documented every facet of his subject’s musicianship, and compiled, possibly, every existing document pertaining to his life and work.
Panna Babu arrived on the Hindustani music stage at a time when instrumental music was just beginning to challenge vocalism for idiomatic sophistication, popularity and stature. This phenomenon was triggered by the advent of amplification and recording
technologies, which could now deliver more refined music to larger audiences. These possibilities encouraged a large-scale re- engineering of instruments, and attracted a formidable resource of musicianship to make a bid for prominence.
This perspective is important because, amongst Hindustani instruments, the Bamboo flute was the least evolved in terms of design, idiom, and musicianship. Panna Babu’s Bansuri had to reckon with the historical advantages enjoyed by the more mature instruments. Stated simply, Panna Babu pitched the Bansuri and his musicianship against the likes of Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt. Nikhil Bannerjee, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. The audience for instrumental music, though growing, was still
small. The concert platform was still dominated by giant vocalists like Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Pt. Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Ustad Ameer Khan etc.
In this environment, generously endowed with titans amongst instrumentalists and vocalists, Panna Babu could have achieved his stature only by pioneering work in all departments – instrument design, idiom sophistication, and musicianship.
By the time Panna Babu committed himself to the flute, he was already an accomplished Sitarist, harmonium player, and vocalist. India of that era offered him a bewildering variety of flutes in terms of design and acoustic quality. None of them was an acoustic
machine capable of translating his musical vision into performed music. His first task was to design an instrument that would enable such a translation.
In Section 3 of this book, the author presents an exhaustive survey of the experiments he conducted with different materials, and perforation systems before he settled down to his final solution – a seven-hole 338 Hz treble flute, and a matching four-hole base flute for lower octave melodic execution. Panna Babu’s design, as is known, is now the standard Hindustani classical flute, and has enabled the instrument to remain and grow as a major concert instrument with a national and international following.
In Section 7 of the book, the author presents a detailed analysis of Panna Babu’s music, as evident from the large volume of recordings the author has collected, and as reported by his contemporaries and disciples. It is evident from these notes that Panna
Babu’s basic musical vision was biased towards to the vocal genres of Hindustani music, which followed logically from the fact that the flute is a breath-driven instrument, and is designed for the music of melodic continuity.
However, in Panna Babu’s times, the string instruments (mainly Sitar and Sarod) dominated the instrumental music scene. In the public mind, the Alap-Jod-Jhala movements, inherited by the plucked instruments from the Rudra Veena, had become synonymous with instrumental music. Another interesting phenomenon of those times was the discovery of a number of Carnatic raga-s by Hindustani musicians in an effort to create a national audience for their art. The author harnesses evidence of Panna Babu having successfully adopted the idiom of the plucked instruments (Alap-Jod-Jhala) and several Carnatic Raga-s into his repertoire to create a place for himself in the Hindustani music pantheon of the era.
Like several of his contemporaries, Panna Babu also composed new Raga-s, which he performed frequently, and some of which were also recorded for commercial distribution. The author is aware that new Raga-s, composed by modern maestros, have a high
rate of infant mortality. The composer often ends up being their first and last performer. The reasons for this are complex. The author believes that these attrition rates can be reduced by a systematic documentation of their Raga Grammar. In Section 4 of the
book, the author has surveyed Panna Babu’s creations with the assistance of his disciples, and attempted to document their grammar. This documentation is useful not only for flautists, but also to other musicians who may find these melodic entities
appealing.Though this work contains valuable biographical information in Sections 1 and 2, I find it difficult to classify it under a familiar classification of biographical literature. It is a piece of encyclopedic research, which merely happens to have been undertaken by a scientist-musician, deeply grateful for having partaken of Panna Babu’s legacy.
I compliment the author, Dr. Vishvas Kulkarni on having brought this marathon effort to fruition, and his publisher, Prasad Kulkarni, for having committed his resources to this unique and valuable, contribution to musicological literature. I wish this work
its well-deserved access to a discerning readership.
Deepak S. Raja
September 17, 2019