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Playing the Indian bansuri to the left – Pandit Pravin Godkhindi

Pandit Pravin Godkhindi from Bangalore is a master of bansuri. The bansuri is an Indian side-flute made of bamboo. It is very tall and requires a strong spread of the fingers. It is used in both classical traditions, the Northern hindustani and the Southern karnatic system.

Indian flutist Pravin Godkhindi playing the bansuri tot eh left, wearing a dark green jacket and looking at the viewer.

Interview conducted by Laila Kirchner

Do you see yourself as left-handed or right-handed?

In everything else I am right-handed. Only the flute I play to the left side.

Have you always played to the left?

Yes. Because I follow my father, my guru (teacher). He was also right-handed. He did not have a guru, but was a self-taught musician. During his childhood he started to play the flute to the left side. Later he was able to listen to flutists in the radio, but never saw one, not even in photographs.

Because he started this way, it became a habit. He had to struggle a lot, as he didn't get any tutorial in how to hold the flute. Later he corrected his finger pose, after seeing Pandit Panalal Gosh play, a renown flutist.

When I was born, I saw him always playing the flute to the left side. So I just picked it up.

I saw several Indian flutists playing to the left. Approximately what percentage are left-players?

In the South-Indian karnatic tradition, you will hardly find any left-hand flute player.

Only in the North-Indian hindustani tradition we have about 70 % right- and 30 % left-players.

In the hindustani bansuri tradition, we consider Pandit Panalal Gosh (1911–1960) as the pioneer of the flute. He played right-handed. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, who popularized the bansuri all over the world and my father Pandit Venkatesh Godkhindi played left-handed. And several others. Maybe this is just a habit through practice.

How do they decide that? According to handedness or to tradition?

I think according to tradition. I have never met a flutist who wrote with the left hand and played to the left because of that. All flutists I have seen who play left-handed are right-handers. The reason is the guru. We follow the side, at which we look inicially. In the first lessons, eigther from the parents or a movie or directly from a guru we pick up, what we see. This seems more natural.

What’s the situation for left-handed people in India in general?

Yes, there are many left-handed people. They write with the left hand. Even in cricket there are left-hand ballers. But all left-playing flutists I know and checked in my mind, are right-handed by birth.

There are other instrumentalists, a left-handed sarod player, who plucks with his left hand. That’s totally new! It's accepted but very seldom.

That's so interesting! Here we would only choose to play a left-handed flute according to our handedness or because of a handicap. No right-hander would do that.

Has your left-handed playing ever caused concerns or strange situations?

I guess I have had no strange situation. There are no people who say: Oh, you are playing to the other side! There is a kind of acceptance. From my childhood onwards, people have always accepted it.

Are bansuris made for one-side playing, or are they 'open' to be played on both sides?

Yes, generally they can be played on both sides, to the right and to the left. Traditionally the basuri is made with all holes in one line. But nowadays flute makers place the holes so that even the small fingers can reach the holes more easily. So they are not in the straight line anymore. Even the blowing hole is shifted towards the mouth of the flutist. I manufacture my own flutes with a thumb hole - custom-made.

Flute makers make it more convenient for learners. Because the children lose interest, if they don't get the low keys. So this method keeps the interest in playing high. Any professional flutist has to play with the straight holes, because this is our tradition. But nowadays even professional flutists have made adjustments to play longer flutes more easily.

Only a couple of flute makers are the ones who can play on both sides. Because when they want to personalize the flute and the customer is a left-playing flutist, they make special holes. They play on it left-sided pretty well. They are not very good, but can handle both sides almost equally well.

You play an alto flute and a contrabass flute. I observed that you've hold the alto flute left-sided, but the contrabass flute with the left hand on top and the right hand on the bottom. Why?

Nice observation! When I bought the contrabass flute, it was a ready-made flute from the Netherlands. After some programs with a Dutch musician, I wanted to have my own. But a left-hand contrabass flute was very expensive. So I had to buy a right-hand instrument.

Even when I played commercially for movies in the 90s, they wanted me to play the Western metal side-flute. In 1996 I bought my first Western flute. That time, left-handed flutes were ten times more expensive than right-handed flutes. And in India, they were not available. So I had to buy and produce it right-handed.

Was it easy for you to shift to the right side?

It was difficult! I can't say that it was easy. But not that difficult. Even during childhood, I changed the sides, making fun of it. I showed my father: The guru is playing to the left and that sounds nice and the shishya, the student, is playing to the right, which sounds not nice and is not right. But this was just for fun. But later this made it easier for me to play the Western flute to the right and it was not totally difficult for me to shift.

But the contrabass flute was very difficult. It took me almost two years to master it. I have to stand by the big flute, with my left hand on top and the right hand on the bottom. Even now sometimes I get confused.

Do you teach students playing to the right or to the left side?

I have many students. My son started playing the flute as a toddler and learned from my father and is learning from me now. He plays again left-handed. I tried to tell him, that he should play right-handed, so that he can also play Western instruments, but he saw my father and me always playing left-handed, so he decided to play left-handed as well. He is also a right-handed person.

But there are also Western flutes for left-handed playing.

Yes, but they are more expensive. I think, they should make an equal number of flutes for left- and right-handed, so that they are affordable for everybody.

This is also my opinion. There shouldn't be any difference in costs. But I think it depends on the request of the customers. There should be more left-players, to make it more attractive for the producers…

How do you teach your other students?

Most of them play right-handed. The first inspiration for them, even before watching any flautist on youtube is, that the parents show them Lord Krishna's picture. In all pictures the flute is held to the right.

Some very young beginner students are confused when they look at me. So after some lessons they shift to the left side, because they get a better connection to me as their guru.

We give them support, telling them with which hand they have to close which holes. But some of them can't manage the mirror playing. Once they get used to it, they play only to the left side and don't shift back.

At what age do students start playing the flute?

In our institution, Sanjog Bansuri Mahavidyalaya, we have about 70 - 80 students. They start from around six years of age with smaller flutes. Some as early as four or five years old. Those start with straight bamboo or steel flutes - just for the beginning few months, to make it easier for them. When they have learned the keys, we shift them to the side. As teenagers, they get bigger flutes according to their hand size.

Are there any orchestras or ensembles in which several flutists play together, and if so, how are left-handed and right-handed players set up?

Yes, recently I played a symphony, with about 60 students of mine. A few of them play to the left side. If we use microphones, it's helpful to place the left-players together, so that the mics can be placed better on one side, as we texture it from the blowing hole directly.

Even if I have to place many right flutists in one line, the microphoning is difficult. I would prefer, if there would be 50 % left and 50 % right players.

Photos and video credits: Pravin Godkhindi private


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