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The Bansuri-wallah

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March 2004
The Bansuri-wallah

By RADHIKA VYAS SHARMA

"I really enjoy playing at weddings! It gives me a sense of being able to contribute to the joy all around." Jeff Whittier's, 55, pleasant assertion illustrates his unique nature. A serious artist committed to the propagation of his art, Whittier seems devoid of high-strung idiosyncrasies. Whittier's offbeat choice of instrument and profession has brought him a life of both spiritual reward and the occasional disappointment. The Indian bamboo flute, the Bansuri, is his muse and he has pursued her affection relentlessly.

The Bansuri, (bans = bamboo, sur = musical note) once the instrument of Lord Krishna, really came into it own in the 20th century when great artists like Pandit Pannalal Ghosh elevated it to its present concert status by playing marvelous music through it. Yet, the bansuri has still not received the worldwide regard that it deserves, which means that its proponents have to still walk on a rocky path. Whittier too, has had his share. "I have been able to consistently play the Bansuri because I have very modest goals and have not been consumed by ambition." Whittier is nothing if not modest. In his 34-year performing and teaching career he has evoked great regard as a teacher and fine craftsman.

Whittier honed his craft in the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music, in San Rafael, and is a student of flute maestro G.S Sachdev. After having turned professional, Whittier soon realized that good quality bamboo flutes were hard to procure and this triggered his interest in flute making, eventually pushing him a towards excellence in this craft. Whittier has created over 30,000 flutes in his entire career and many of his creations have had illustrious destinies, gracing television commercials, Broadway shows (The Lion King, Aida, The King and I and Miss Saigon) and the hands of maestros like Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and David Philipson (Xena: Warrior Princess, TV 2001 Millennium programming, Man from Elysian Fields [feature], Perfumed Garden [feature]).

Whittier makes a variety of flutes, the Indian bansuri, the Chinese flutes, the Japanese flutes and the Turkish flutes. But his heart is indisputably with the bansuri. "About 95 per cent of the flutes that I make are the bansuris." I glance at his flutes and ask him whether he likes to paint his finished products; he shakes his head disapprovingly. "Most good musicians like the raw unfinished look of bamboo. If a flute is painted they feel like it is a cover-up job, which it invariably is!" Bamboo is the preferred material because it produces a cornucopia of overtones in terms of sound quality and user dexterity that cannot be produced in metallic flutes. Indeed, flute making, which started out as an ancillary job for him, now shares time with his other passions-- teaching and performing. But making flutes and selling them provides for half of his income. It took six years of trial and error before Whittier perfected the art of making flutes. Now it takes Whittier one afternoon to fashion a flute, the bamboo for which comes from Hawaii and India.

Whittier teaches at home and at the Bharati Kalalaya in Fremont. He is also planning to make a CD this year and has authored a self-published book called Playing the Bansuri - A Manual for North Indian Flute.

His meticulousness is evident to all who come in contact with him. Says Srinivas Kashyap, an entrepreneur and a student at Bharati Kalalaya, "I have found Jeff to be incredibly knowledgeable about Indian culture in general and a very patient and flexible teacher."

Another student Anthony Joseph (Tony) says, "I have been learning music from Jeff since the past two years and I feel that Jeff's understanding of western instruments (besides the bansuri) gives him great depth and breadth as a teacher. He focuses on helping us get our fingering right and can really relate to the level of the student, but at the same time maintains enough distance so that the student's creativity can flower." ?Fingering' is a technique that initiates the student in the process of holding the bansuri well.

Structurally, the bansuri is a cylindrical tube, with one sealed end, and uniformly placed nodes that could be either six or seven. While the six-hole bansuri can be used to play the material, the results will not be as satisfactory, due to the inherent limitations of the instrument. The seventh fingering hole enables an extra half-step of range, but it also creates many more possibilities of fingerings especially in negotiating register breaks in both directions. "It's good to get your fingering right but don't forget to blow!" laughs Whittier.

Whittier continues to practice for two hours each day and plays many instruments: the Sarangi, guitar and the tabla. Nevertheless, there are always challenges in trying to keep traditions alive in an MTV-driven world. "Music piracy hits musicians very hard and unless there are dramatic changes in the way in which society looks at artists, they will find it very hard to survive." He says.

Leslie Schneider, a friend and student who has also accompanied Jeff on the tabla, shares some insights about him. "Jeff is a very thoughtful person and is very appreciative of life. Like many other performers, he listens to diverse kinds of music but with a lot of discernment. There is something about his nature that puts him in touch with the subtler feelings of humanity and that resonates with people. Jeff is very tenacious and has a great sense of responsibility for each ?raga', which many times means working on a phrase till he gets it right." Talking about his humility and modesty, she adds, "Sometimes people underestimate modest artists like Jeff. If more people knew what was going on in music they would not necessarily believe that only an artist with extroverted confidence could deliver. "

Whittier has been to India three times and is a member of the Theosophical Society. He has a great affection for India and feels very drawn to Indian culture. "A few years ago, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia told me to stop taking lessons, and focus more on giving concerts. Once I put my boys through college I shall be able to perform more frequently in India." Whittier's kids play the tabla, the violin and the bansuri.

At the end of our conversation he parts with a gem, "I always tell all my students, play with your heart and soul and remember, when you get a piece right, it is the beginning of your practice and not the end!"


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