Breath of Gold: Sathya Saran examines flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia's life and music through a fluid, intriguing narrative
Sathya Saran's free-flowing style makes disconnected incidents from Hariprasad Chaurasia's life come together to make the ride more intriguing.
The name Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia brings many images to mind. Despite being a conscious part of India's classical music heritage for over five decades, collaborating with some of the most excellent musicians of his time from across the globe, Hari ji comes across as a loner. Perhaps it might have to do with the instrument of his choosing, the flute, a simple instrument that has no strings to tune, no leather to maintain, just a stick of bamboo with holes where one's breath creates sound. Or was it the fact that unlike several great Indian artistes, he hailed from a family that no connection with classical music. While reading Sathya Saran's Breath of Gold, a detailed account of the life and music of the globally acclaimed flautist, you get a sense of how loneliness has been a constant factor in Hari ji's life, especially the initial years. Born in 1938 in Allahabad, Hariprasad Chaurasia's wrestler father couldn't imagine that his son would dream of anything but khushti, leave alone learning music.
Although best known for her long association with Femina, a magazine that Sathya Saran edited for twelve years, she is also the author of the acclaimed Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey, and Baat Niklegi Toh Phir: The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh. Nestled in between is Sun Mere Bandhu Re: The Musical World of S.D. Burman, a fascinating biography that captures the spirit of Dada Burman, unlike any other book on him and infuses life into the memories of the legendary musician. In the same way, Saran injects a kind of vibrancy in Breath of Gold that makes it easy for the reader to relive Hariprasad Chaurasia's journey. The book's structure is somewhat fluid, and almost like an alaap that you hear for the first time, the narrative takes you by surprise as it doesn't conform to any pattern. Peppered through the course of the journey are many anecdotes that ensure the reader gets to know something new in a story that probably would be familiar to many.
What makes Hariprasad Chaurasia peerless is his decision to unlearn whatever he knew about music and relearn from scratch at a time when he was not only a much established classical flutist but also one of the highest-paid sessions musicians in Hindi films. The ability to take stock of reality and change, adapt accordingly has been a hallmark in Hari ji's life. At a young age, he wanted to be a vocalist, but when his voice thickened, he knew he couldn't publicly perform, so he shifted to an instrument. In the 1970s, Hari ji found that his playing was getting too mechanical thanks to non-stop film commitments and traveling that hardly left him any time for riyaz. His talent had been spotted at a young age by the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan, who asked a young Hariprasad to come to Maihar, but it was his father's fear that stopped him. At that point, Khan saheb told him to seek his daughter, Annapurna Devi, if he ever wanted to learn music as he was too old. It took Hariprasad Chaurasia three years to convince the reclusive Annapurna Devi to teach him, and he would learn from her late at night after finishing his film recordings.
For anyone born in India after the 1960s, the name Hariprasad Chaurasia is considered a synonym for the word 'flute'. With that in mind, the chances of someone out there who might not have heard Hari ji's music would be next to zero. However, few could argue that although India has a rich cultural heritage, the influence of popular cinema and its songs has kept a large number of people from experiencing the joy of classical Indian music. It is here, albeit unknowingly, that the two meet thanks to Hariprasad Chaurasia. Consider this, how high are the chances of people thinking of the theme from Hero, the 1983 blockbuster that launched the career of Jackie Shroff, the moment someone mentions 'flute?' However, few would be aware that the unforgettable musical piece composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, in fact, was performed by one of our most celebrated classical musicians, Hariprasad Chaurasia, who not only played the instrument but also added his unique touch while recording the song.
When it comes to writing immersive biographies, few match Sathya Saran. In someone else's hands, Breath of Gold might not have been the same book as it's not easy to make elements such as structuring, something that editors value highly, almost redundant. At many places, Saran's free-flowing style makes disconnected incidents from Hariprasad Chaurasia's life come together to make the ride more intriguing.