He introduced the flute to Hindustani music. Why then has Pandit Pannalal Ghosh been forgotten?
While Bengal is celebrating Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, July 31 marked the birth centenary of another Bengali. It would be unjust to view Pandit Pannalal Ghosh in any regional context; a man who was single-handedly responsible for introducing the bansuri to Hindustani music surely deserves to be remembered as a legend, without any geographical qualifiers. However, the total absence of celebrations on Ghosh’s 100th birthday in his home state was jarring, especially in light of the hysteria around Tagore. To music lovers, though,the lack of enthusiasm emphasis’s a truth that they would rather ignore. Ghosh, who passed away in 1960, has become what the ghost of every great musician tries to resist: a forgotten maestro. But Indian music owes him too much for us to forget him. More than anything else, he gifted the flute to the world of Hindustani music. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the reigning maestro of the bansuri, has said, “Panna Babu was the first person to bring the bamboo flute to the classical stage. It was a folk instrument before that.” The journey from folk to classical was not quite linear; a number of factors contributed: Ghosh’s lineage, his immediate geographical surroundings in his native Barisal (now in Bangladesh) and, of course, the combination of talent and enterprise that enabled him to see the vast possibilities that a length of bamboo contained. Ghosh’s father, Akshay Kumar Ghosh, was a sitar player and his brother Pandit Nikhil Ghosh was a tabla player (who later became one of the most influential musical figures of the twentieth century). It was entirely against the odds that Ghosh started playing the flute. There are several versions of how Ghosh first came upon the bamboo flute, including one that involves a chance meeting with a sadhu. Ghosh’s nephew, tabla and sitar maestro Pandit Nayan Ghosh, offers the family version, which, though less outrageous, still has a whiff of the apocryphal. The Ghosh family in Barisal had a well-populated cowshed and young Pannalal would often take the cows to graze. He had picked up a small flute that cowherds usually played, and on the basis of the talim (education) he was receiving on the sitar from his father, he would try to play musical patterns on the flute. “The ancestral house was on the banks of the Kirtonkhola River,” says Nayan Ghosh. “While swimming in the river one day, he (Pannalal) chanced upon a long bamboo stick that was half-flute and half-walking stick. It basically came floating down the river and to date nobody knows where it came from.” It was certainly one of the great serendipities in the history of music. Ghosh became obsessed with this new contraption; the flute part of the stick was bigger than any flute he had seen before and the depth of its tone immediately got him practising on it. Using that as the prototype, he made similar flutes and began to realise that the timbre of this new instrument actually allowed for fullfledged Hindustani classical presentations. By his late teens he had shifted to Calcutta, India’s cultural capital at the time. It is significant that his performing career as a soloist overlapped with the likes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar; yet, audiences across the country embraced this new instrument and its first ambassador. In fact, the present-day ambassador Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia had wanted to learn from Ghosh, and even went to All India Radio in Delhi to meet him. “But some people did not want me to learn from him,” he says. “I don’t want to take names, but they just did not let me reach him.” Though he was selftrained in terms of the technical aspects of playing the flute, Ghosh learnt from a number of gurus, including the harmonium exponent Khushi Mohammad Khan and vocalist Girija Shankar Chakraborty. As a result, his playing style remained a mix of several influences, until Ustad Allauddin Khan accepted him as a disciple in 1947. Flautist Nityanand Haldipur, a disciple of Ghosh, says, “His music found a certain focus when he started learning from Baba (Allauddin Khan). He used to say that before he met Baba, he let his imagination run free to paint whatever picture he wanted. But under Baba he realised that beauty finds true expression only when it’s framed in a definite canvas.” Ghosh was already an accepted maestro at the time when he went to Khan, but the new talim added further maturity to his playing. Haldipur insists that Ghosh’s recordings post-1947 are significantly richer than the ones before.
In spite of the Maiharstyle training (known for its emphasis on tantrakari) under Khan, Ghosh retained the strong gayaki elements that he had developed before. As Nayan Ghosh says, “He could reproduce on the flute absolutely anything that the voice could produce: meends, gamaks, murkis, the works.” Perhaps for these rivetting reflections of vocal patterns, Ghosh’s style is often categorised as ‘gayaki ang’. This is a rather casual (and unfair) appraisal of his music; on listening closely to his recordings, it is easy enough to identify the several tantrakari patterns in his renditions, including jhala stroke patterns of the sitar and the sarod. He managed to strike the perfect aesthetic balance between gayaki and tantrakari: he never tried to be the virtuoso that he very easily could have been. He was always loyal to the mood of the raga and his renditions of ragas like Darbari, Yaman and Shree, contemplative ragas that are usually associated with khayal or with instruments like the sitar and the sarod, are astonishing artistic achievements.
Alongside his career as a soloist on the classical stage, Ghosh led a parallel and equally successful life, playing and composing for films. When he first arrived in Calcutta, along with his friend Anil Biswas, both of them joined New Theatres, under the aegis of Raichand Boral and Pankaj Mallik, two giant composers. (As composer Tushar Bhatia, an aide of Biswas’ said, “Naushad would go about in a dhotikurta in Bombay just so that people would associate him with this Bengali duo.)
Biswas played a key role in Ghosh’s life. Having moved to Bombay first, he kept asking Ghosh to follow. His requests were bolstered when Ghosh’s disciple and wrestling mate Haripada Chaudhury found success as a flute player in the Bombay film industry. (Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia had also started out as a wrestler in Allahabad.) Apparently, Chaudhury had called Ghosh to say, “They are going mad hearing me play. Can you imagine what will happen when they hear you?” His assessment was correct: Ghosh became a sensation in the industry.
He played in several songs that went on to become super hits, including Ek bangla bane nyara from President and Mohe panghat pe Nandlal from Mughal-e-Azam (which was the last song he played). A special song was Mein piya teri tu maane ya na maane from Basant Bahar, which was almost a duet between Lata Mangeshkar and Ghosh. It is believed that while recording the song, Mangeshkar stopped and said to Ghosh, “Itna meetha mat bajayie Panna Babu, mein gaa nahi pa rahi hoon.” (Don’t play so sweetly, Panna Babu, I find it hard to sing.)
Ghosh died at the age of 48. It is needless to say that both the worlds of Hindustani and film music suffered a shock. There are a few of his recordings available as CDs and online, but the number falls far short of what would please his fans. However, there is enough joy to be found in what is available. If you’ve never heard him before, his Darbari is a great place to start. As soon as the meend from komal nishad arrives at komal dhaivat, nibbling at the bait of shudh dhaivat on its way, you know exactly what Lata Mangeshkar had meant in the studio: Pannalal Ghosh’s music is the sort that transcends analysis and compels immersion.