Written by Sameer Manekar
At the age of 11, Rupak Kulkarni gave his first solo flute performance at Darbar Hall, Baroda. He remembers the day when his father, late Malhar Rao Kulkarni, took him to Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to teach him advanced flute. “Panditji had said, ‘Rupak is now my son, and I will take care of him, you don’t worry about that now’. Since that day my attitude towards music changed. I have felt since then that I have to work very hard and live up to his expectations,” says Kulkarni, who performed in Pune last weekend.
The flute, for Kulkarni, is one of the most magical instruments. “Whenever I am playing the flute, I feel I’m close to nature. I feel very grounded with the flute,” says the 50 year old. Inheriting the legacy of music from his father, and guided by Pandit Chaurasia, Kulkarni an avid proponent of the Maihar Gharana, traces his music to Ustad Allauddin Khan and Annapurna Devi.
Having grown up in the guru-shishya tradition, Kulkarni says it is a bond like none other. Talking about Pandit Chaurasia, he says, “My guruji kept his word. He came for my wedding, he had a concert that day which he cancelled, and even came for the upnayan sanskar of my son. Every time I invited him, he was there.”
A guru himself now, Kulkarni who is a professor at the School of Kalayoga in Chinmaya University, admits that the basic guru-shishya relationship though the same, has seen many changes over time. “Youngsters these days are very inquisitive. When we were learning, we would not question a lot. Today, they want deep insight into everything, so that’s a good thing because then even we tend to think deeply. So it is better for them as well as for us. We then ask our guru, how can it be like this, why is it like this or like that, which we never asked before. And that is good, it challenges us and also strengthens their knowledge.”
A master of dhrupad, khayal and tantrakari styles, Kulkarni is also the inventor of the adbhut bansuri, a 50-inch wooden bansuri that is 20 inches longer than a normal flute. “In a normal bansuri, we can access only up to half-octaves. So to go further and access a base octave, I created this adbhut bansuri.” Despite being longer, the distance between holes is similar to a normal bansuri, but it creates sounds on the whole octane base. He is also the creator of the glass bansuri, which he claims has been created as a gimmick, as a fun element for fusion concerts. “It is transparent but sounds exactly the same as a bamboo bansuri,” he says.
While the debate continues in music circles about classical music being elitist, Kulkarni doesn’t think so. He credits Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Chaurasia, and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma for breaking the barrier, and taking classical music to the common man. He talks of how at the same time, they retained the authenticity and essence of Indian classical music.
Kulkarni has performed in numerous concerts and music conferences. He has collaborated with many Western musicians as well as contributed to Hindi films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Fiza, and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. Being aware of the changing technology of music production, Kulkarni refutes any threat to the instrument because of software. “Applications and software cannot match Indian instruments such as sitar, sarod, santoor, and even shehnai. Their sounds cannot be copied, and their samples cannot be made. You need meend and alankar in every note in music. Popular media requires classical music to enchant the masses, be it Bollywood or Western classical music. Many songs today are based on ragas that have such depth that we do not need anything else.”
His advise to youngsters who have to battle parental pressure when they choose music as a career: “Music should never die from the heart. I think whoever takes music as a career, even if they cannot perform, they can teach, they can play for films; there are many streams that can be explored. Music is an undying profession, there is inventions and improvisations that keep happening.”