‘GS Sachdev: Shiromani Sangeetkār of the Punjab’ by Bhai Baldeep Singh

In ancient times Punjab’s eastern boundaries stretched to the western banks of Yamuna where Lord Krishna played his mellifluous flute as his cattle grazed. As we trek further up to the once magnificently Punjabi Himalayan belt, we can still hear the pahadi dhun played by the dreamy nomads entertaining and as if breathing life and poetry in to the majestic mountains from dawn till dusk. This sacred ritual thrived since times immemorial until man created tools larger and heavier than himself. Fascinatingly, man has made wonders albeit with tools that could measure his subtle self and imaginative finesse and the bansuri of GS Sachdev, recipient of East Punjab government’s this years’ Shiromani Sangeetkar award, is an example of this subtlety.

He is an illustrious flutist, recognized worldwide as one of the premier performers on this traditional instrument. He performed worldwide on the bansuri, the bamboo flute of India, for over 50 years. The depth of emotion he evokes from a simple length of bamboo is truly awe-inspiring. Sachdev is a worthy inheritor of this age-old tradition handed down from master to student, generation-to-generation. With Sachdev’s superb technical artistry, powerful devotion to the Indian Classical idiom and profound love for his instrument, he has carved out a place for the bansuri as a beautiful exponent of Indian music.

Born in Lyallpur, Punjab, in 1935, Gurbachan took up the flute at the age of 14. “My father, Sardar Kartar Singh Sachdev, was a Patwāri before he became a building contractor. He wished that I become a doctor but it was my mother, Amar Kaur, who was a big inspiration behind my music and my success as a classical musician. She herself wanted to be a musician but being a girl, she was not allowed to follow her dreams. I remember her melodious voice coming from heart, full of emotions while she was churning yogurt to make fresh butter and lassi in the early morning hours, singing folk music of Punjab. She was sowing a seed of music in me, full of deep human emotions and pains and joys of life. As soon as she witnessed my passion and deep desire for music, she went out of the way to help me emotionally and financially and did not allow anybody to come in my way (interfere in my quest). With my stubborn nature and her help and Waheguru’s kirpa, I could fulfill my dreams. I did my pre-medical exams to join medicine, but I was so taken in by music that I dropped the idea of becoming a doctor, which was then a very prestigious profession in India, and I have never felt sorry for renouncing it.”

Gurbachan did his pre-medical degree at SD College in Shimla, but was so strongly drawn to the flute that he soon fully devoted himself to it. It took him a long time before he could find a guru with whom to study in depth this centuries old music. He says, “My guru, Shri Vijay Raghav Rao is a very kind, giving and caring teacher with whom I studied for 12 years and also have had advanced lessons with Pandit Ravi Shankar for many years”. He recounts a memorable concert of Baba Alladdin at Sapru House in New Delhi in the year 1954, in which Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Panna Lal Ghosh played the tanpuras while the legendary Pandit Anokhe Lal accompanied on the tabla. It was this example of artistic mastery that enticed him to full immersion in music.

A Panjab University graduate from Gandhi Memorial National College, Ambala, he won the only prize for his University at the 1st Inter-University competition held at Talkatora Gardens, New Delhi in the year 1954. He proudly recalls his joyous College Principal having declared a holiday to celebrate his landmark achievement.

The years he spent in Mumbai between 1958 and 1966 were very enriching as he underwent extensive training with Vijay ji. To make ends meet, he played flute in movies, where he worked with a galaxy of music directors such as Naushad, Ravi, OP Nayyar, Vasant Desai, Hans Raj Behal and Madan Mohan. His dedication to riyaaz and talim was such that he chose to record only twice a month, earning hundred rupees each time he showed in the recording studios. His prowess as a musician and as a compassionate teacher was recognized early on by Pandit Ravi Shankar who offered Sachdev a teaching job at his music school, Kinnar, in Mumbai.

In 1970, immediately after an enthralling performance in New Delhi, he was requested by the legendary sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to teach bansuri and Indian classical music at his school in California. Encouraged by his now octogenarian Aesthetics mentor, Professor SK Saxena, former Head of Philosophy at the Delhi University and presently a fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademy, New Delhi, Gurbachan Singh accepted this offer from the sarod maestro and moved to the United States to join the faculty of Ali Akbar College of Music, where he taught until 1976. Sachdev acknowledges the influence of Ali Akbar Khan’s music on his playing style. He graciously recalls the years that he spent teaching at the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music during which he had the extraordinary opportunity to imbibe musical values and subtleties from the great Ustad.

It takes more than mere musical knowledge and talent, of which there is no dearth in the Indian classical music context, to become a star. It is the moment when a gifted artist touches the ineffable defying the elements of the finite, colours, musical instruments, ragas and their notes, which are a mere breath length worth and at best, the residual in the listeners and performers memory. Mostly this moment happens in private but when it happens in a public performance, it is the ticket to stardom. Sachdev’s moment came in a Colorado concert in 1975, when Zakir Hussain’s magical fingers danced to his dhun on the flute. Sachdev acknowledges this concert as the one that established him as a performer and he wasn’t to look back after that. His hectic tour life prompted him to stop full time teaching. It is interesting that both Sachdev and Zakir began, in 1970, and ended, in 1976, their formal teaching stints at the Ali Akbar Khan School together.

Sachdev has largely contributed to the growing awareness, in the West, of Indian classical music. In 1976, he opened the Bansuri School of Music in Berkeley, California. He produced a world music radio show and conducted the Music of India Master Class on KPFA Radio (where he explained what to listen for in North Indian music). He performed lecture-demonstrations in elementary schools under the auspices of Young Audiences of the Bay Area, a national organization dedicated to bringing music to schools. In addition to performing all over the world, he regularly presents lecture-demonstrations, workshops and master classes at university level. These pioneering activities have brought about appreciation and acceptance of this traditional music in the United States. His growing world fame has taken his music to Europe, Asia, India and South America.

Though Sachdev has been living abroad and going round the world with his music tours, he has retained strong ties to his roots. A family man laced with humour, humility and kindness, Sachdev is a typical Punjabi who loves to cook: in fact, he can easily boast of having beguiled the taste buds of people like Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha, Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh, Swapan Chaudhary and Zakir Hussain!

Sachdev is an avid fan of Kirtan by maestros Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh whom he followed during their Bay area visits.

Sachdev takes the listener with him on a highly personal and reflective journey of improvisation in Indian classical music that transcends all geographic boundaries of musical origin and style, and touches the very core of universal musical expression. For sheer beauty of sound, this music is unsurpassed. Sachdev, one of the world’s foremost flutists, brings the spontaneous, perceptive musical sensitivity of a master musician to his performances of classical ragas. Above all, he knows how to let the music flow naturally and peacefully with such depth of feeling that the audience is held as if under a spell, evoking that sense of eternity within the moment.

In 1992, he was one of the top ten winners of the “Billboard Critics” choice award for his album “Flights of Improvisation”. Sachdev has been a recipient of the 1993 Billboard music awards in the alternative/world music category for his performance on “Global Meditation”.

An exotic amalgamation of tranquil, meditative playful and titillative, he relishes blowing the winds through maru-bihag, kalavati, bhopali though he has also played extensively ragas such as chandrakauns, kaushik-dhvani, bageshwari, rajeshwari, ahir-bhairav and allaiyya-bilaval. Interestingly, looking at his choice of ragas, it seems that he has a preference for ragas with scant notes, i.e., audav (five notes raga) and shadav (raga using six notes) or ragas, that in spite of being sampoorna (comprising seven notes), dwell on a crooked path (vakra jati) providing ample opportunity for meend and soot.

His playing tempts you towards a state of samādhi and has an uncanny power to silence the noise within. Furthermore, his choice of vilambit and medium-slow paced taals, measured to the elements sahaj (calm) and saundarya (beauty), confirms this notion. Among the faster patterns he prefers drut ektaal, though a discerning listener would still notice Sachedev’s poise in stillness and calm. He has a newfound penchant for taal jhumra, in which he is planning a newer album.

Sachdev is in the process of making educative videos, which I had the fortune of previewing during my recent visit to his place in San Rafael, California. Initially this project was exclusively designed for his Brazilian students, but I am sure it will benefit all bamboo-wielding students.

Sachdev is one of the few musicians who have resisted the recent temptations to fuse music and make a fast buck, simply because of his profound grounding in and the understanding of the classicality and aesthetics. He is an authentic torch bearer of this ancient instrument, the musical-note-bearing-bamboo, bans-suri, and a worthy recipient of the Shiromani Sangeetkar Award by the Punjab Government.

Bhai Baldeep Singh. A 13th-generation exponent of Sikh Kirtan Maryada (vocalist, percussionist, string player), instrument maker, lecturer, archivist, and founder of Anād Conservatory, an institute of Sikh aesthetics and culture. He was on the Bhasha Vibhag awards committee.
Photo by Amarjit Chandan