Flute Playing Techniques - Past & Present

The very first record of some one playing flutes dates back to the times of Lord Krishna himself. Although there are many Sanskrit verses describing beautiful sounds that Lord Krishna produced, there is no written material describing the techniques adopted by him.

We have heard of Sarabha Shastri, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, and a few others attaining fame as flutists of since late 19th century till the arrival of flute genius T R Mahalingam, somewhere around 1930. Other contemporaries of Mali include Tiruppambaram Swaminatha Pillai, Perunjeri Muthu Pillai, Ramachandra Sastri, Dindigul S P Natrajan, (disciple of Mali), K R Ganapathi, T Viswanathan and N Ramani (disciple of Mali) , Sikkil Sisters etc. Of these, the Sikkil Sisters, T Viswanathan and N Ramani are still performing.

I would like to state here that I need to bring in the names of flute artistes inevitably, since it is not possible to evaluate the contributions in terms of advantages and disadvantages of the techniques adopted by them. Also it is difficult to conclude as to which of the styles has been the best since no artiste is willing to consider any other as the best. This should not be construed as a personal criticism of any artiste since every artiste has painstakingly made his/her own contribution to the flute playing techniques.

I have often read the speeches and writings of old timers, and even had conversations with some of them, which suggested that the flute was not really considered as a good solo instrument since it sounded very different from the then existing vocal form of music and did not have as much respectability until 1930's.

It was in the year 1934 that the flute genius T R Mahalingam made his debut and the flute as an instrument gained a great status among other Carnatic music instruments. In fact, the whole scenario changed as Mali developed into a great maestro with his mesmerizing sound and great musical values, matching with the highest standards of vocal music of all kinds. He ruled the flute world until his death in 1986 and most of the flute playing techniques prevalent before his arrival faded into insignificance. Most of the prominent flute players of even today are the descendents/disciples of Mali and have been using his technique entirely or with some variations of his techniques.

When we evaluate the contributions of the past masters, we need to talk about Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and his technique. Contemporary fame need not be mistaken for the best. In this context, I would like to demonstrate a composition in Raga Sahana as played by Palladam Sanjeeva Rao. Let me describe the differences between the flute playing techniques of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and his predecessors and that of Mali.

Whereas Palladam Sanjeeva Rao played a seven holed flute, Mali introduced an 8 holed flute (excluding the blowing hole). While Palladam Sanjeeva Rao used parallel fingering, Mali adopted cross fingering. I had the good fortune of meeting with Mali when I was six years old and Mali was in his last year of life. He did explain to me that he adopted his cross fingering techniques by observing the Nagaswaram players. Going by the number of flutists adopting the cross fingering techniques developed by Mali and also the acceptance of their styles till today, we can state without any hesitation that Mali's flute playing techniques are the best. After stating that Mali was the pioneer of this cross fingering technique, one should admit that he himself played Carnatic music to a near-vocal perfection. I also use the same cross fingering technique. I learnt this from my father who happens to be a disciple of Dindigul S P Natrajan, a genius in his own right, and the first disciple of Mali. Although, visually we see many flutists of Mali's school appear to hold the flute and also operate fingers similarly, differences definitely do exist.

Now, this brings me to another point. After having learnt major flute techniques actually one artiste differs from the other either partially or entirely. This is predominantly due to the difference in their understanding of vocal music as represented by different schools. Therefore, when we talk about flute playing technique, we also have to talk about the different schools of vocal music, like that of Palghat K V Narayanaswamy or Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao or R K Srikantan. Honestly, all my flute techniques developed involuntarily and instinctively in my effort to translate my knowledge of vocal music. Although, I very much belong to the Mali's school, my own output from the flute is different from that of either Mali or many of my senior colleagues who are performing today.

My father used to play the flute until I was 6 years old, and all that I learnt from him was only by observation. On Mali's suggestion, he however stopped then and I was not exposed to any flute performances, live or recorded, till I was 14. Therefore, I should summarize here that I have been impelled to develop my own variations in flute technique to reproduce the repertoire on the ragas in the style of KVN and my other vocal teachers. During my musical training from my 6th to 14th year, I did not even know how others were playing flute and I was only concentrating on the repertories of my vocal masters. My only aim was to reproduce those sounds perfectly and in fact I used to instantly reproduce compositions as soon as I was taught. It did not require any additional effort. My father recalls his own learning experience under four teachers. All of them were flutists and taught flute through notations, and my father was always disappointed and frustrated by his own flute playing. It is from his failures that he learnt to provide the right input for me. I am compelled to make a strong and offending statement - "Instrumentalists should never learn music through notations; they must be vocalists first and instrumentalists later. Most teachers in this century have committed the grave mistake of teaching students without knowledge of good vocal music, as South Indian classical music is almost meant to be a vocal form of music."

When a flute player has learnt a good style of vocal music without the help of notations, a lot of fine finger movements and sound modulations develop in him. These fine and miniature forms cannot really be described or taught to students since these techniques almost map the heart and soul of an artiste.

Some illustrations:

Playing flute in Gamanasrama, Kalyani, Poorvikalyani and many other Prati Madhyama ragas is a challenge since its difficult to connect the Madhyama to Rishabha through Gandhara. Some typical combinations in Poorvikalyani are listed below.

1. ga ma da ga ma ga ri
2. ga ma da sa ni da pa ma ga ri sa
3. ri ga ri ga ma, ga ma ga ma da, ma da ma da sa
4. da ni ni ma da da ga ma ma ri ga ga sa ri ri da sa sa
5. ga ga ma ga ga ma ga ma, ma ma da ma ma da ma da , da da ni, ma ma da, ga ga ma ga ri sa.

Use of transposed fingering techniques and multiple flute system and its advantages:

Flutists in South India close two holes from the top for the Sa (tonic note) of the middle octave and this is the reference pitch as well. Obviously, the choice of using the first two holes to produce the note Sa is the normal standard procedure and this choice became inevitable since flutists always play compositions meant for vocalists. This particular choice almost covers the normal vocal range, that is, from the Ga of the Mandra sthayi (lower octave) to the Pa of the Tara stayi (top octave). Also, flutists of South India have been using flutes of pitch varying from D # to G #. For example, Mali played only with a short flute corresponding to about G or G # because of its tonal clarity i.e. sharpness of notes and also to match the lyrics of the compositions. If Carnatic compositions are played in long flutes or the bass flutes, the notes/lyrics jumbled and appear very hazy. Swift and clear movements are possible only in short flutes. While the flutist chooses the two holes closed as Sa, he encounters a lot of difficulty in connecting notes like Ri - Pa or Ga - Pa. Thus, flute playing technique were far from satisfactory in the pre-Mali period.

There are some ragas like Hamsanadam Sa Ri2 Ma2 Pa Ni3 Sa), where if one tries to play phrases like pa ma ri, ma ri, ma ri, ma sa ri sa sa, it is not possible to execute it well even using Mali's techniques. I thought about this for quite some years and this problem led me to the discovery of the technique that I call the transposed fingering technique. For example in this technique, I use flutes of many different pitches and with different fingering on each, I am able to merge them into the same tonic Sa as that of the standard flute. In this technique if two holes closed produce the tonic note, in other flutes of different srutis, the same tonic note is produced when 3, 4, 5 or even 6 holes are closed. Correspondingly all the other finger positions shift and in most cases the half note fingering become the full note fingering and vice versa, although some of the prominent flutists in the South were using long flutes to play specific songs at the end of the concerts. To my knowledge, I was the first to introduce the multiple flute system which afforded more than four octaves in the sound range and also made all the difficult combinations easier and better. To master this technique, the only requirement is that one has to have a very fast thinking mind like a computer.

Techniques required to play Ri (1 or 2 or 3), Ga (1 or 2 or 3) and Ma1:

Even listeners with limited can notice that some flutists are unable to connect the note combinations given above without a jerk. Actually, Mali was the first person to have overcome this problem (demonstration).

As you see, I play Ma1 in the same finger position as Ga3. This is possible if one has high intensity blowing and also this is possible by tilting the flute towards the exterior direction from the normal position. Although I have not observed how Mali used to play, I also ended up using the same technique. This is probably because Mali also played the gayaki (vocal) style on the flute.

Even in this there are differences between Mali and myself because of the difference in vocal input. If Ma1 is played in Ga3 position, then one will have to produce Ga3 in Ga2 position. Again, for long I did not know the details of the various techniques that I have been using but I had to keenly observe it in connection with the presentation of this paper. I am myself wondering If I have been doing this.

Therefore, just to summarize the status of the flute playing, I have been able to reproduce the most common and difficult musical combinations of vocal forms and also non-vocal forms with the help of the Multi flute system or by Mali's techniques (acquired on my own) or by modification of Mali's technique. Translation of rhythmic ideas using flute techniques:

As much as a flutist tries best to reproduce his vocal understanding, he has also got to understand the rhythms of South Indian music. This particular aspect becomes handy in the execution of swara prastara, where one can almost play a mridangam on the flute.

Flute playing using the best of techniques is one aspect. But its application in a concert and the appreciation by the audience is another very subjective matter. For instance, if a flute artiste is performing before a vocalist or lovers of vocal music, he will be appreciated only if he is able to bring out the best form of vocal music in his flute, and if he tries to incorporate other techniques which are not akin to vocal music, he might come in for criticism. Whereas the gayaki style of flute playing best suits the raga and composition, the use of non-vocal style of flute playing comes in very handy in the execution of Ragam Tanam Pallavis and also in some exclusive compositions that best exploit flute playing techniques. Therefore, many flutists do not like to attempt those compositions where the phrases demand such continuity or they may avoid playing these variations in that composition or end up playing something very inaccurate.

I can conclude here that this divine instrument which had least respectability one century ago, is now flourishing as one of the most beautiful and sought-after instruments among Carnatic music instruments today.

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