The thin, wavering, reedy, warbling sound of a bansuri, the genuine sound of India, wafted up from the river’s edge every night for the eleven nights I slept in Varanasi, in a guest house overlooking Rana Mahal Ghat.
After the ceremonial fires of the big puja at nearby Dasaswamedh Ghat had been extinguished, the crush of onlookers had gone home or to their hotels. The ghats emptied and the din turned to silence. The boatmen had tied up their boats until morning, settling into the bottoms with their blankets. The masseurs, haircutters, vendors and other denizens of the Main Ghat had rolled out their mats to sleep. All the water buffalo herders had settled their beasts and rolled into corners with their thin blankets pulled over them. The burning ghat in the distance heaved a perfume of wood fire and charred corpses into the dark — then the flute player came out.
He would sit on a platform, under a lamppost, surrounded by his acolytes, gently playing. I couldn’t see him clearly. Sometimes I couldn’t see him at all. On the far side of his platform, steps descended to the Ganga, the water lapping the stone, inviting prayer as it had for centuries. He and his troupe sometimes occupied the steps, out of my view. Yet hear him I could. The flute-playing sadhu, holy man, chillum smoker, musical guru sent sweet strains floating into the night, echoing across the river and back. Ma Ganga herself rode that sound, a goddess on a swan.
For several nights without leaving my room or its old, crumbling stone balcony, without seeing the face of this flute player on the ghat, or knowing anything about him, without knowing for sure where the sound was coming from, I played concerts with him. For, as clearly as I could hear his flute, he could hear mine. He led the dance. I gently followed. He created the melody; I offered accents. The way I play recorder, alternating different rates of vibrato with pure tone, bending some notes, as well as the deeper sound of the tenor, creates a sensuous voice, the plaintive sound I brought back from the Andes decades before. It’s non-Indian, but worshipful, full of power and emotion appropriate for Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi.
Finally I went to meet him. We became fast friends. He treated me as if I were another sadhu, a respected spiritual elder. His group crowded around us to watch and hear us play and talk about music. We played the Peruvian Andean song “El Condor Pasa” together. Most of all he wanted to hear me play “A Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and when I did he exclaimed with delight. I played my tenor recorder, which everyone admired and handed around to examine, its beautiful African blackwood turned in classic English recorder fashion. We discussed its monetary value and decided it was worth a great deal. I gifted him a plastic alto recorder, nice quality, good sound, and he treated the gift as an honor worthy of a king. He in turn gave me one of the bansuris he sells to tourists. I tried to play it but as always found the transverse flute defied my puckering ability. I’ve never been able to get such a transverse flute to sing. He helped me, though. He turned the flute just so against my lips, and for that instant I found I could make the instrument soar.
About that time some young girls came by offering little leafy bowls bearing flowers and flaming votive candles to be set afloat on the Ganga, another way to worship Shiva. I took a few and offered silent prayers for peace, harmony and healing as I watched them bob and drift onto the current. The flute player and his acolytes watched and applauded.