Flautists are something of a rarity in Carnatic music (the flute as a Carnatic concert instrument came into vogue only in the latter part of the 19th century), and there are still only a handful of artistes, especially in Kerala, who perform solo kutcheris on the flute. “It’s probably as much for the practical difficulty of playing the instrument as it is for the limited scope for flautists in Kerala,” says A.K. Raghunadhan, one of the more prominent flautists in Kerala. Over the past 12 years or so, the Chalakudy-based Raghunadhan, has been making a name for himself for his dexterous and skilled essays on the flute. Raghunadhan has performed on many stages in India and abroad and is a permanent member of Baul artiste Parvathy Baul’s troupe. He also has number of popular albums such as ‘Muraleeravam’, ‘Harimurali’ and ‘Classic Trio’ to his credit. Excerpts from a chat with the 34-year-old artiste...
Taking to the flute
Music has always been a part of my childhood. I come from a family of maddalam artistes. My paternal grandfather, the late Vellattanjoor Sankaran Nambeesan, was a renowned maddalam artiste and was once Pramani at the Thrissur Pooram, among others. My father, Krishnan Nambeesan, too is a maddalam artiste. As such my brother, Sateesh Babu, and I were taught the basics of percussion (keli) when we were children. I’ve been trained in vocals too. I am a keen enthusiast of keli but never considered that as a profession. Instead, growing up, I was more interested in my father’s old flute that I found in a cupboard. After hearing me play it a couple of times, and perhaps realising my potential, my father enrolled me for classes with a well-known artiste named Chalakudy Sharath. I’ve been going with the flow since then.
My gurus and lessons learnt
In Kerala it’s quite difficult to find gurus for the flute. I learnt from Sharath sir for a year or so and he is the one who told me that I should think about taking it up seriously with more prominent gurus. For a while afterwards, I learnt from Chennai-based flautist Vasanthi Sekar. For the past 10 years now I’ve been a disciple of violinist Thrissur C. Rajendran and continue to be his student. I also have the privilege of being mentored by flautist Kudamaloor Janardhanan. In fact, he is one of my staunchest supporters and best critics. For long I played with a flute that he gifted to me. In fact, recently, when I mentioned to him that the flute had got damaged, he promptly gave me another!
Style of playing
I try to focus on sahitya. Any flautist who understands the swara sthanam can play a composition but it’s understanding the nuances of the sahitya that adds that magic touch. I’m also a stickler for tradition; it’s what gives me the most satisfaction. I have a flair for manodharma too. Experiments are fine but its best only if it is within the bounds of tradition. One can get the best out of the flute with the support of the violin, and percussion support of the mridangam and the ghatam – and perhaps the thavil too. I’ve nothing against fusion music but I don’t think it touches the souls of the artiste and the listener as much as classical concerts do.
The challenge in playing the flute
Practically, it’s very difficult to play the flute. Unlike most other instruments in Carnatic music, the flute engages every part of your body, from the hands to the mouth to the breath. That can be very taxing and requires a lot of stamina. One of the other biggest challenges is that the tune of the bamboo flute is susceptible to slight variations in temperature. It takes a lot of skill to tune it on stage and keep the sruti in check. If the sruti is off for a flute, it’s much easier to spot when compared to other instruments. Then, there is also the problem of finding good guidance in Kerala, be it gurus or authoritative figures to critique your performance, which is vital to the growth of an artiste.
Turning flautist full-time
I teach math at SRC Upper Primary School, Edakalathur, Thrissur, which allows me enough of free time to concentrate on my passion for the flute. It’s all about balancing and I don’t believe in compromising one for the other. Unlike vocalists and other instrumentalists, the comparative number of classical performances for flautists is limited. Thus in the present circumstances it’s not very financially viable. One day, though, I would like to quit teaching and focus solely on my passion.