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From boxing to bansuri: Pt Pannalal Ghosh

by Abbi

The 100th Birth anniversary of Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, the legendary flutist which was on July 31 this year, went largely unnoticed. A boxer turning to flutist seems to be some kind of anachronism but that precisely was the turn of fortune that gave music lovers of this country an all-time great flutist. Pandit Pannalal Ghosh belonged to a time when music was popularized by the All India Radio (AIR). His concerts over the AIR earned him much fame.

The events that influenced Panna babu to take to flute are rather interesting. First, at the age of nine while he was looking for a stick to herd the cows, he found a flute floating in the river and he picked it up. Second, two years later, he found a sadhu who held a conch and a flute and asked whether he could play the flute. When Pannalal obliged, the sadhu blessed him and said that music would be his salvation.

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Pannalal started focusing his attention on the bansuri at the age of 18; until then he was playing the sitar. Economic necessity drove him into playing for silent films in Calcutta. It was then that he realized that for light music he needed a bigger flute. Pannalal experimented with various materials including metal and other types of wood, but finally settled for bamboo which he found to be the most suitable medium for a larger instrument. He finally settled on a bansuri which was thirty two inches long. He practiced rigorously to achieve perfection on playing the long instrument. Pannalal’s desire for learning from the famous Ustad Allauddin Khan was fulfilled in 1947 when Khan Sahib saw his sincerity and accepted him as his disciple. Six months of intense tutelage under the great Khan Sahib made him a wizard of the bansuri. Pannalal incorporated alap, dhrupad-ang-gayaki, tantrakari, jhala, thumri, dadra and folk music into his performance style on bansuri. He was also well versed in tabla and rhythm, he performed difficult tals as jhoomra and tilwara. His music was steeped in devotion and had an intangible ethereal element, immense emotional depth and was infused with spiritual profundity. In addition to introducing the larger instrument, Pannalal Ghosh is credited with inventing the bass bansuri and introducing the six-stringed tanpura, high-pitched tanpuri and the surpeti or sruti box into Hindustani music.

Though Pannalal had played the flute in several film songs accompanying Lata Mangeshkar, he found film work distasteful. He took to spiritualism and took the vows of Ramakrishna. When he expressed his desire to take to sanyas to his Guru Swami Birjanandji Maharaj, the Guru advised him that he could attain Moksha only through music. Pannalal continued and his impressive rendition of Raag Darbari Kanada in the 1956 national programme on AIR won him accolades.

His untimely death in 1960 put Hindustani and film music into a state of shock. But the melodious sound of flute in ‘Ek Bangla Bane nyara’ and ‘Mohe panghat pe nandlal’ reverberates till now.


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