Kids Corner

                         Gurbachan Singh Sachdev


                  With Ravi Shankar



Gurbachan Singh Sachdev:
His Magic Flute



"We are fortunate to have such a fine musician as G.S. Sachdev in our presence".
George Harrison

"I admire his ability to touch the spirit of the raga he performs and also to move the listeners emotionally with his pure and classical approach".
Ravi Shankar

"... haunting performance ... the sound of his flute rings with an indescribable purity".
New York Times

"Sachdev's playing is the most sensitive I have ever heard. The metal flute is just not capable of the subtleties and nuances produced by the bamboo flute. It is truly transcendental music".
Paul Horn



In ancient times, Punjab's eastern boundaries stretched to the western banks of Yamuna, where the mythological Lord Krishna is said to have 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 pahādi dhun played by the dreamy nomads, entertaining and as if breathing life and poetry into the majestic mountains from dawn till dusk. This sacred ritual thrived since time 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 Gurbachan Singh Sachdev, recipient of this year's prestigious Shiromani Sangītkar 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 has performed worldwide on the bansuri, the bamboo flute of Punjab and India, for over fifty years. The depth of emotion he evokes from a simple length of bamboo is truly awe-inspiring.

Gurbachan is a worthy inheritor of this age-old tradition handed down from master to student, generation-to-generation. With his superb technical artistry, powerful devotion to the Classical idiom and profound love for his instrument, he has carved out a place for the bansuri as a beautiful exponent of classical Punjabi and 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 had 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 female, she was not allowed to follow her dreams.

"I remember her melodious voice coming from the heart, full of emotions while she was churning yogurt to make fresh butter and lassi in the early morning hours, singing Punjabi folk songs all the while. She was sowing the 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 or to 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 (teacher) with whom to study in depth this centuries-old music.

He says, "My teacher, Shri Vijay Raghav Rao, was a very kind, giving and caring teacher with whom I studied for twelve years, and I also 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 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 Punjab 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 1954. He proudly recalls his joyous college principal having declared a holiday to celebrate his landmark achievement.

He underwent extensive training with Vijay ji. To make ends meet, he played the flute in movies, where he worked with a galaxy of music directors such as Naushad, Ravi, O.P. Nayyar, Vasant Desai, Hans Raj Behal and Madan Mohan. His dedication to riyāz and talīm was such that he chose to record only twice a month, earning one hundred rupees each time he showed up 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 Khan School of Music, where he taught until 1976. Sachdev acknowledges the influence of Ali Akbar's music on his playing style.

He graciously recalls the years that he spent teaching at the said school 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 Punjabi and 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, rāgs 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.

Gurbachan's moment came in a Colorado concert in 1975, when Zakir Hussain's magical fingers danced to his dhun on the flute. Gurbachan 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 Gurbachan and Zakir began, in 1970, and ended, in 1976, their formal teaching stints at the Ali Akbar Khan School together.

Gurbachan has largely contributed to the growing awareness in the West of Punjabi and 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 the 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 and South America ... and even back to India!

Though Gurbachan 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, he 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 and Gurcharan Singh, Swapan Chaudhary and Zakir Hussain!

Gurbachan is an avid fan of Gurbani - kirtan by maestros Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, whom he followed during their Bay area visits. He considers their chaste rendition of partāl and dhrupad compositions as phenomenal and particularly enjoys the vintage style of compositions such as "Man japhu rām gopāl" in rāgs kannadā and "Jap man narhare narhar swāmi" in shudh sārang.

Gurbachan takes the listener with him on a highly personal and reflective journey of improvisation in Punjabi and 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.

Gurbachan, one of the world's foremost flutists, brings the spontaneous, perceptive musical sensitivity of a master musician to his performances of classical rāgs. 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. He 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, kalāvati and bhopali, though he has also played extensively rāgs such as chandrakauns, kaushik-dhvani, bageshwari, rajeshwari, ahir-bhairav and allaiyya-bilāval. Interestingly, looking at his choice of rāgs, it seems that he has a preference for rāgs with scant notes, i.e., audav and shādav (five and six notes rāgs) or rāgs, that in spite of being sampūrna (comprising seven notes), dwell on a crooked path (vakra jāti), providing ample opportunity for mīnd and sūt.

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 tāls, measured to the elements sahaj (calm) and saundarya (beauty), confirms this notion. Among the faster patterns, he prefers drut ektāl, though a discerning listener would still notice Sachdev's poise in stillness and calm. He has a newfound penchant for tāl jhumra, in which he is planning a newer album.

Gurbachan is in the process of making educative videos, which I had the good 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 enthusiasts.

Gurbachan Singh 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 classicality and aesthetics. He is an authentic torchbearer of this ancient instrument, the musical note-bearing bamboo, bāns-suri, and a worthy recipient of the Shiromani Sangītkar Award by the people and government of Punjab.


[Bhai Baldeep Singh, a 13th-generation exponent of Sikh Kirtan Maryada (vocalist, percussionist, string player), instrument maker, lecturer and archivist, is also the founder of Anād Conservatory: An Institute of Sikh Aesthetics and Culture.]

August 7, 2008


Conversation about this article

1: Ajeet Nahal (New York, U.S.A.), August 08, 2008, 8:27 AM.

What a fantastic person! What is his contact address, and where can I buy his CDs/DVDs?

2: Bhai Baldeep Singh (New Delhi, India), August 09, 2008, 1:56 PM.

Gurbachan Singh Sachdev's recordings can be obtained from:

3: Raj (Canada), August 10, 2008, 7:40 PM.

I've met Gurbachan ji many times in San Rafael, California. He's such a calm personality, which reflects in his music. My all-time favourite is when he plays the Punjabi dhun, "Dachi valya"; it takes me back to the Punjab of my dreams. However, I rarely see a Sikh in the audience when he performs. The day we learn to support our own classical musicians, that will be the last day for Sikh artists to feel they have to shed their Sikh identity to make a living!

4: Ravinder singh (Delhi, India), February 28, 2009, 4:29 AM.

Mera naa Ravinder Singh hai ji. Te mein gurdware vikhe raagi Singh ji naal table di seva kar riha haan ji. Mein Allahabad Univ. to(n) 5-year de exam vi de chukeyan. Par hun mein bansuri sikhna chahuna, je aap ji di kirpa hove taan.

5: Kim Parish (Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA), August 18, 2014, 3:20 PM.

I have been devotedly listening to GS Sachdev since 1970. Though I love many styles of music and musicians, his is the sound closest to my heart. Thank you, GS Sachdev, for all that you have done.

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His Magic Flute"

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