The bansuri, this simple instrument made of bamboo, most ancient of instruments, has only recently come into its own in recent years. For this reason there is no tradition of making quality instruments. Only a generation ago, the bansuri players of India, if they wanted a quality in-tune instrument had to make their own. More recently there has been a great increase in the quantity and quality of instruments available commercially. There are individual makers who produce professional-standard instruments, not only in India but also in America and Europe. However, most of the flutes available, especially to the beginner, are to be found in music shops. These mass-produced shop flutes are almost invariably somewhat out of tune, and sometimes very much so. They are made to formula, and why they are not accurately made is that makers only take into account the length of the instrument, and not the diameter of the bamboo or its thickness, all of which can vary considerably. Thus it is possible to find shop flutes which are of the same length, with the same-spaced holes, labelled with the same letter and yet not it tune with each other. Another confusion for the first time buyer is the labelling system . For instance, a flute where Sa is D, can be marked B, or it also be marked A, as some makers indicate the scale of the flute from Pa instead of Sa. And yet there is another older system of indicating scale which can still be found, where, for instance a D-flute can also be labelled ‘white 2’ This is taken from the colour of the keys of the western keyboard, where Sa is equated with middle C Therefore C is ‘white 1’, Csharp is ‘Black 1’, D is ‘white 2’, D sharp is ‘black 2’, E is ‘white 3’ etc.
In fact, these shop flutes are fine for beginners, while they are still getting to grips with the mechanics of playing the bansuri. It is only when the student begins to play with a drone or tambura background that the inaccuracies of intonation become evident. Even then, it is possible to tune a flute (see chapter 10) . It is often worth doing if from every other aspect the flute is a good one (quality bamboo, good tone).
The first time buyer will also notice that there are some bansuris with six finger holes and others with seven. This last seventh hole is situated at angle to the other six so that it can be reached with the little finger. From it, another note, Tivra Ma can be played, and in the main playing scale, the use of the seventh hole ensures a smooth transition between the upper and lower registers, that is from Pa to Ma. The addition of this extra hole is no particular indication of overall quality. There can be 6 hole flutes that are excellent and seven hole flutes which are of poor quality, but where possible it is always better to purchase a flute with a seventh hole. This hole is always difficult to cover, as it can only be done with the tip of the small finger, and even then only on small flutes. As flutes get bigger in size the distancebetween the six and seventh hole becomes too great for the finger to reach. Only with base flutes does the seventh hole become again accessible.Recently bansuri makers have bean putting a seventh hole on the underside of the flute, so that the player, sitting in a cross-legged position, can tip the flute down to close the hole against the knee. It is an awkward procedure, and can only be done in the slower parts of performance, i.e. the alaap. The other method of reaching theseventh hole is the addition of an extension key.

The bansuri is not one instrument, but many, ranging in size from Sa on middle C to very small instruments up to an octave and a half higher. These different sizes are used for different musical purposes, for accompaniment, recording, solo etc. For the professional who engages the full variety and scope of bansuri playing, a full range of instruments is needed, a flute in every semitone , i.e. a flute C, one in C sharp, one in D one in D sharp, one in E etc. The beginner is recommend not to attempt the bass flutes, (the accepted standard concert bansuri in now generally accepted as being in E) but to begin on a much smaller flute, and work their way down to bass flutes in stages. It takes time to for the hand and fingers to achieve the stretch needed.


Milind said...

Clive - This is a very comprehensive espose` of the Bansuri. Being a Bansuriya myself, I appreciate the effort that you have taken to bring esoteric knowledge to the public. This needs wider publicity. Thanks for this Clive. Any assistance that I can provide, do let me know at milindnz@gmail.com



My India -Through Lense EyE said...

Hi Clive, I want to learn playing bansuri and to tell you the truth I have no knowledge of Music and could not understand the basics that you have mentioned in your article. I request if you could guide me which Bansuri should I buy to start learning. I am from India and live in Delhi.

Adam said...

Dear Clive,

I have been trying to find out how to purchase a good quality Hindustani Bansuri. I live in Bedford, UK.

I would travel to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for lessons but I work many weekends which would interrupt the lessons which I see are held on Sundays.

The website bansuriflute.com looks interesting, but perhaps there are other teachers?

Any guidance on starting would be most appreciated.

Best wishes,


Adam Thornton said...

Ooops, my e-mail address is oneworldfamily@hotmail.com


Bibek Ranjan Basu said...

Pandit Dipankar Ray teaching Hindustani Classical Music with the medium of bansuri (Indian bamboo flute). For more information, please visit www.fluteguru.in or dial +91 94 34 213026, +91 97 32 543996