Friday, 20 January 2012

The Dravidian flute

We left Fort Cochin by taking the ferry across to Ernakulam.  From there we took a train south to Varkala, a small town with an important Hindu shrine on the coast, just a short rickshaw ride from the station. The temple and shrines are about 300 metres from the beach.  At the beach itself the devout spread the ashes of the deceased and then return in subsequent years to do puja (prayer/ceremony).  To facilitate this, the Brahmins create altars from the sand on the beach.

The real action at this beach takes place at dawn and immediately afterwards.  (Still rather jet lagged it was a few days before I discovered this.)  A mere 50 metres north of this beach, and separated only by easily negotiated rocks, is the tourist beach.  This is populated predominantly by sunbathing westerners in trunks or bikinis. The Indians would also visit,  taking to the waters of the Arabian Sea fully clothed, as is their custom.  

On the cliff above this beach are the small, low rise hotels (ours boasted four rooms) and makeshift restaurants.  The access to these is by a footpath wide enough for delivery rickshaw but little else.  The taxis and other rickshaws deposited their human cargoes at the car park at the end of the cliff path. I enjoyed the respite from car horns, the unrelenting soundscape of roads throughout the subcontinent, and could listen to the mynah birds and the waves.

After a few days I saw a man put a bamboo flute to his lips and begin to play. It was the first live flute I had heard since arriving and I was immediately entranced.  My previous trip had been to the north and, early on, I had bought a flute for a few rupees that sustained me during my six week stay. So far, this time all I had seen were some insubstantial, overpriced 'souvenir' instruments and I was hoping to find something rather better. Now flute man demonstrated some flutes and was happy to let me try some.

He had bigger ones in G and smaller ones in C.  My technique at the time was just as I would use on the recorder, using the pads of the final section of each finger to close the holes.  This made it very difficult to close the holes on the G flutes so I gravitated towards the C instruments.  The intonation was true, at least relative to the instrument.  And the musician, who was also the maker, surprised me by taking an electronic tuner out of his bag to validate the tuning.

Now buying things in India is not like it is in England where, unless it's a second hand car, one tends to accept the initial price.  In India some things are 'fixed price' while others, especially from stalls or independent traders, are negotiable. For the flute I had taken a fancy to, Venugopal would usually (he said) charge 2,000 rupees - about £25.  In India this is an enormous sum - our hotel rooms, doubles, were costing us £3.50 a night each.  For me, because he recognised me as a musician, he was prepared to let it go for 1,500 rupees.

So was he just flattering me? Was this a good price? Was I going to let the tourist's constant fear of being ripped off come between me and a fine instrument?  I have just found a clip of Venugopal on Youtube that makes me think that although compliments came easily to him, he may have been pleased that one of his flutes might go to someone who could play it straight off.

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