Guide to the Bansuri

The bansuri is an Indian side-blown flute that is mostly used in Hindustani classical music. This instrument was also called tunava or Navi in the ancient Vedic Sanskrit hymns and in other Vedic texts of Hinduism. As well as that, the bansuri was mentioned in the Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, the Natya Sastra.

Traditionally, the bansuri was made out of a single hollow shaft of bamboo. However, some modern versions of this instrument are now made of fiberglass, ivory, and other various metals. In addition, the bansuri has six to seven finger holes, which has about two and a half music octaves. Typically, this Indian side flute measures from thirty centimeters (twelve inches) to seventy-five centimeters (30 inches) and was as thick as a human thumb.Longer bansuris have a lower pitch and deeper tones. Additionally, one end of this side flute has a closed-end. Near to its closed end is the blowhole. Traditionally,the bansuri has no mechanical keys. The notes were created by tapping various finger holes.

In playing the bansuri, performers usually held the instrument horizontally, slightly slanting downward, and was supported by the thumb and little finger. The instrument’s airhole is positioned near the player’s lips as the air was blown over it. At the same time, the fingers were placed on the bansuri’s holes. To play the diatonic scale on the bansuri, the player needs to find where the notes lie. For instance, in a bansuri, the first scale degree of the diatonic scale is always played by closing the first three holes.

In ancient Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu temples, a bansuri-like flute was depicted in paintings. In fact, it is usually in the iconography of their major deity, Krishna. Also, it is linked to the love story of Krishna and Radha. It is stated that the bansuri instrument is revered as Krishna’s divine instrument and is associated with the deity’s Rasa Lila dance, a part of Krishna’s traditional story described in Hindu scriptures. In this legend, the bansuri was sometimes called murali.

A photo of bansuris with various scales

Aside from Hinduism, the instrument is also common in the traditions of Shaivism, wherein Shiva was revered as the supreme being. In early medieval Indian texts, the bansuri is then called Vamsi, which is derived from the Sanskrit word vamsa, meaning bamboo. A performer that uses the vamsa in these Indian texts is called vamsika. Meanwhile, in Temple carvings in Bali and Java, as well as in Buddhist and Hindu arts that dated back from the pre- 10th century period, this bansuri flute was called bangsi or wangsi.

Other names were also called to the bansuri in several Indian regions. Bansuri with six to eight holes was typically called eloo, kulal, bansi, kukhl, murali, nadi, murli, nar, pawa, pillanagrovi, among many others. The bansuri was also used in Nepal, under the name bamsuri or murali. Furthermore, many regional innovations had developed a more complex design of the instrument. In the Himalayan foothills of India, they designed the ‘algoza,’ a twin bansuri which has different keys, constructed in one instrument. With this kind of design, the performers are allowed to play more complex music. In the south and central India, a bansuri-like instrument is called mattiyaanjodi or nagoza.

According to history, the flute is an instrument that can be found in three birthplaces. Egypt, India, and Greece. Of these countries, the side-blown flute, like the bansuri, only appeared in India. Traditionally, the bansuri is produced from a particular type of bamboo. This type of bamboo that is mainly found in Himalayan foothills grows about 11 000 feet with high rainfall. These bamboos were cut in the desired diameter and treated with natural oils and resins to strengthen it. Once ready, artisans examine the straightness, smoothness and measures the dried hollow tube. Afterward, they then mark the positions for the holes and used a metal rod to burn in the holes. Adjustments to the hole’s diameter were made to achieve purity of the notes that are produced by the instrument. Once the holes have reached their performance range, the instrument was then steeped in natural oils, cleansed, and dried. Lastly, it was decorated with either silk or nylon threads.