Edited Excerpts from an interview •
I’m still in the process of realising that. I’m a student, and the learning process never ceases. But, otherwise, I started my musical pursuit when I was 15 under the guidance of Pandit Rajaram.
You started as a vocalist: why did you switch to the flute?
I was 15 when I began learning vocal techniques. But, within a year, I switched to playing the flute, as my vocal chords weren’t suited for singing. My guru, Pandit Bholanath, suggested singing through the flute, so I started playing the flute. I trained under him for eight years.
Having come from a non-musical background, how difficult was it to establish yourself in the world of music?
It was very difficult, indeed. I got the initial break in 1957, when All India Radio (AIR), Cuttack, hired me as a musician. In 1962, I was transferred to AIR, Bombay. But my performing career really took off after 1965, when I left AIR.
How does it feel to get such vast recognition and awards?
Oh! It is really a great feeling. I was thrilled to receive the Padma Vibhushan from the Government of India. But what I cherish most are the personal compliments I receive after every concert or performance. Your mother wouldn’t feel as satisfied receiving a certificate as she would if you give her a hug and say she’s a great cook.
What kind of support did you receive from your family?
I come from a wrestlers’ family, and my father wanted me to continue the tradition. But I had different plans — of proving myself in the world of music. My father had no clue about my practicing vocal music, and, later, the flute. My two brothers and sister had a certain interest in music, and they were very supportive during my formative years. I used to fake a reason, saying that I was going to the library to read the newspaper, and would then practice playing the flute. I initially worked as a stenographer with the state government while continuing my training as a wrestler. It wasn’t until I got a job at the AIR in Cuttack that my father came to know about my classical music training. He was shocked and cried bitterly, but he understood that I had my foot in an altogether different world.
Who was your guru?
As I said earlier, I initially trained under Pandit Rajaram, followed by Pandit Bholanath. But it was under Guru Annapurna Devi, daughter of Ustad Allaudin Khan, that my music achieved a new depth — essentially, the characteristics of the Maihar Gharana.
Why did you choose to learn the flute from a surbahar exponent instead of a flautist?
I realised that music seemed incomplete without stringed instruments. It was a niche that these instruments had created for themselves in the world of music. I wanted to find the same individuality for the flute, so I learnt to play the flute from a great surbahar player, Annapurna Devi.
With people increasingly switching to rock and pop music, do you see a threat to classical music?
Of course not. Anything created by God always exists, and will always be bright. It is so bright that foreigners have started chanting Hare Rama Hare Krishna in Indian temples. Don’t you remember John Higgins, who was so overwhelmed by Indian classicism that he came to South India to learn and sing? Remember the Kumbh? All of Hollywood came down to India for a dip in the same Ganga that they accuse of being dirty.
You’ve been performing for young audiences for a while now through the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY). Have the youth influenced you?
Oh, the children are just great. They’ve loved me, and, more importantly, they enjoyed my art. This is the audience that I search for. You cannot enjoy the art if you already have knowledge of it. You then end up being a critic. If you are a good cook yourself, you would never enjoy anybody else’s food.