As a Bharatnatyam dancer, even the smallest note of a flute has me sitting up in attention, with my feet ready to dance to it. There was also a time that my father would get teary-eyed listening to flute concerts on the tape recorder. Those were the days when learning an instrument, especially the violin, tabla or harmonium, was an important part of growing up. Today, though, they seem to have been replaced by the guitar and synthesiser. There seem to be fewer takers for the flute, which becomes apparent when you speak to flautists who once used to be teachers.
The World Flute Festival in New Delhi, this year in the sixth edition, is perhaps an attempt to bring the flute back into the mainstream. "The flute is one of the oldest musical instruments in our culture and this initiative began as a way to keep that tradition alive," says Arun Budhiraja, founder of Krishna Prerna Charitable Trust that organises the festival. While the flute is known to people as just a musical instrument, this festival is a step towards showcasing its spiritual and healing capabilities, he explains.
For artistes performing at the festival, it is an opportunity to allow the audience to experience music in its purest, most fluid form. "Classical music does not come across effectively from a car radio, and does not demand attention the way more 'pop' forms do. It is more subtle," says Bhimanna Jadhav, an exponent of sundari, which is a shenai-like wooden wind instrument. The sundari is a double reed wind instrument that has seven to nine holes and is made of shisham. Jadhav's ancestors were, in fact, those who created this instrument and the family has some of the few artistes who still perform with the sundari.
But to make classical music forms more attractive and appealing to listeners, artistes often need to add elements of fusion to their music. "A contemporary flavour to classical music adds to its shelf life. This is very important if we want to keep the classical music market steady," says Praveen Gokhindi, a flautist from the Dharwad region in Karnataka. This region is particularly famous for having given the world exceptional musical talent in the form of maestros like Bhimsen Joshi,Gangubhai Hangal and Kumar Gandharva.
Artistes will also use rare flutes and wind instruments, especially those that face the threat of extinction either because there are no artisans to create them or because there aren't enough artistes to play them. These include the narh, an ancient flute that is played in the desert regions of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, "the Nepali flute" that is made of wood instead of bamboo and used by cattle-herders in Nepal and bhorrindo, which is played in the regions of Kutch and Sindh and is shaped like a lamp.