University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives concert recordings: Suresh/flute, 1982-12-10

Overview of the Collection

University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives
University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives concert recordings: Suresh/flute
4 items  :  OT-4 reels (7 1/2 ips, 2 tr. stereo, 7"); 4 WAV files (48 kHz, 24-bit); Duration: 2:22:04
Collection Number
Recorded December 10, 1982 at Kane Hall room 210, University of Washington, Seattle.
University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives
University of Washington
Ethnomusicology Archives
Box 353450
Seattle, WA
Telephone: 2065430974
Access Restrictions

Unrestricted: collection is open for research.


Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Suresh was born on 7th January 1946 in Bangalore, as the son of B. Nilakantan, an engineer and Jayalakshmi, a home maker. Even as a toddler, he enjoyed listening to the songs sung by his mother and could sit through music concerts of 5-6 hrs duration. Once, when he was about three, he witnessed a veena-vocal recital by Nilamma Kadambi at Nanjangud. He sat by the side of the artist on the stage and at the end of the concert, patted the instruments with unbounded joy. By then, music had cast its spell on him. 'Get me a teacher to teach flute'- the boy demanded soon after. The boy was put under the tutelage of M.S. Srinivasmurthy, whose lessons he quickly outgrew. He would skip the mechanical drill in musical notes and land on his favourite Mali-tunes, which had fallen on his receptive ears by then. It seemed as though Suresh was 'possessed' by Mali-tunes and the teacher had to tailor his lessons to suit the boy's taste.

In the music festival the following year, seven year old Suresh was presented to Mali, the great flute wizard of those times. Mali gave his flute to Suresh and was enchanted by the tonal quality displayed by the little one. He was willing to tutor the boy himself, but as he was not residing in Bangalore, he suggested the parents to take Suresh to B. Sivaramiah. The happy symbiosis of the loving teacher and the talented pupil developed into a creative playing style and a rising star in Suresh. Mali, who was monitoring the boy's growth, invited Suresh to accompany him in a concert in 1955 at the Century Club in Bangalore. Nine year old Suresh, out of innocence and innate confidence accepted the offer to play a duet with the 29 year old star. The concert, which was purely based on the manodharma (creative elaboration) was staged without any rehearsal.

The first prominent solo concert of BN Suresh was hosted by the Theosophical society of Bangalore on 7th July 1956. It announced "a musical soiree: flute by Master Suresh Nilakantan (boy prodigy aged 10)". Music critics including seniors such as G.T. Narayana Rao later hailed him as the "Child-Pied Piper of Bangalore". Concerts kept coming in search of the child prodigy. The Bangalore Gayana Samaja invited him for a performance in November 1957. In the words of a senior music critic decades later, "The veteran members of the Samaja will recall the scene several years ago here, when the Secretary V.T Srinivasan had literally carried a ten-year old lad to the stage from among the audience. The boy was absorbed in fondly caressing an ordinary bamboo stick.

Suresh's career as a mainstream solo flautist was at its peak in the 60s and 70s. Bangalore K Venkataram served as his friend, philosopher and guide in his music career. Even as a 13 year old boy, he was staged with stalwart accompanists such as Parur M.S. Gopalakrishnan (MSG) on Violin (1959). In his fourteenth year, he have invited for a private jugalbandhi (duet) concert with the Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. M.S Subbulakshmi too invited him for a two-hour recital in private and remarked "I felt as if the Lord Himself was playing His divine tunes". His stature further rose in 1967, when senior musicians such as Lalgudi Jayaraman (violin) and Umayalpuram Sivaraman (mridangam) readily accompanied the 21 year-old for his concert.

Suresh was a loving teacher and trained several flautists. Loka V Shankar, TR Srinath and BK Anantaram are among his prominent students from Bangalore. He had students coming to him for the enrichment of both technique and content from different parts of India and abroad.

In April 1990, Suresh suffered yet another fracture in his left arm. The words of a self-proclaimed fortune-teller who had said that Suresh would not live beyond his forty-fifth year was bothering him subconsciously and made him emotionally weak. He gave his last performance in Mysore on June 29th 1990 and did a small concert tour of Andhra Pradesh. He suddenly fell ill in September and breathed his last on 7th October 1990 at the age of 44. Just before his final fateful turn, he was imploring to his mother, 'Cure me soon. I want to give expression to my novel innovative ideas. You please take them and preserve for posterity'.

The bamboo flute, which is one of the oldest instruments, though simple in its form had not gained the status of a main concert instrument until the late 19th century. Sarabha Shastry and Palladam Sanjeeva Rao were the pioneers in giving independent flute recitals. However, their technique was harsh and could not capture audiences for long hours. Moreover, in the Carnatic system of music, instrumentalists are to imitate vocal compositions. Musical tunes, structures and idioms which are purely meant for instruments have not evolved in the carnatic system, unlike its western counterpart. Thus, in the pre-Mali days fingering and blowing techniques that could help imitate a vocal rendition accurately and give flute its own flavor at the same time, had not evolved.

The foundation for the cross-fingering technique that Mali had laid was developed by Suresh. Cross-fingering, unlike parallel fingering could bring out better nuances in gamaka-s (embellishments) on the flute. Phrases in raagas that were unimaginable before were possible due to this technique. The 'tuttukaaras', i.e., using the tongue while blowing at appropriate places, helped in delineating the lyrics of a song accurately. Just like the strings on a veena are plucked when the syllables of a song occur, a tuttukaara was to be given on flute on the very same syllables. This brought flute playing closer to the 'gaayaki' style and impressed connoisseurs, who were already familiar with vocal renditions of popular compositions. Having said this, instrumentalists including Suresh never forgot that imitation at its best is only second rate compared to a vocal rendition. He made sure that his playing technique was subservient to the aesthetic experience, which, in his own words, was the main purpose of music. Suresh aimed at evolving a musical style called the 'Bharatiya', blending the best of the Carnatic and Hindustani styles. He experimented by playing Hindustani tunes on a high-pitched Carnatic flute and vice versa. He even gave experimental concerts on the 'Bharatiya flute' in private.

G.T. Narayana Rao, a senior music critic remarks, "People of my generation who have witnessed the birth, evolution, achievements and premature demise of the phenomenon called Suresh will recall with deep feelings, the eternal melodies he breathed through his live instrument, and the evergreen quest he cast through his inquisitive eyes. A solitary note, a gentle curve, a caressing gamaka, or a mischievous tilt would convey the essence of the intended raga, and also suggest the kriti likely to follow. It was like a single ray of light from a distant Blue Giant star: so rich in content."

To mark his first death anniversary, 'Flute B.N Suresh Smaraka Samiti' was established. It brought out a booklet called 'The Poet of Flute – BN Suresh in words and pictures' in October 1991. In its preface, the Samiti remarks – 'the untimely demise of Flute BN Suresh is a quadruple tragedy: he died young, his death was not inevitable, a great artist was lost in him and his zest for life and concern for excellence were permanently interred with him. For his Kith and Kin, the wrench is a personal agony, and for the society, it is the sudden stilling of a melody of rare hues. He has vanished like a dream. But the raagas he enlivened continue to kindle the hearts of all those who came under his spell'.

Flautists of today perhaps remember BN Suresh primarily for his contribution to playing techniques rather than content development. An instrument is after all an obstacle which needs to be tackled when creative ideas in music need to be expressed. Each instrument has its limitations and tries futilely to get closer to vocal music, especially in the carnatic genre. Suresh needs to be credited for his balance in handling both the technique and content, at a time when flute did not have the independent identity which it has today. The field of Carnatic music and flute in particular, has probably progressed from the point where Suresh left it. However, we need to be grateful to the foundations laid by maestros like BN Suresh.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

Recorded by Lorraine Sakata and Maddie Terada with Nagra IVS, Neumann mics.

Performers: B.N. Suresh/flute; M.N. Nagaraj/violin; V. Paraveen/mridangam; B.K. Venkatram/ghatam.


Tape 1 (82-36.1) - Kriti: Gajananayatham (by Mutthuswamy Dikashitar) Ragam-Chakravaka, Talam-Adi; Kriti: Endaro Mahanubavalu (Thyagaraja) Ragam-Sree, Talam-Adi; Kriti: Apparamabakthi (Thyagaraja) Ragam-Kamavardhini, Talam-Rupaka.

Tape 2 (82-36.2)- (Kriti continues from previous tape); Kriti: Raguvamsha (Patnam Subramanya Iyer) Ragam-Kadhana Kathuhala, Talam-Adi.

Tape 3 (82-36.3) - Kriti: Darini Thelusukonti (Thyagaraja) Ragam-Suddha Saveri, Talam-Adi.

Tape 4 (82-36.4) - (mridangam and ghatam continue from previous tape); Ragamalika: Theeradha Vileyattu Pillai (Subramanya Bharathi) Talam-Adi (Tisra); Mogudi (a snake charmer's song); Thillana (Jelgudi G. Jayaraman) Ragam-Thilang, Talam-Adi; Mangalam.

Tapes digitized 4/2016 (WAV, 48 kHz, 24-bit) - 82-36.1.wav (48:46), 82-36.2.wav (17:16), 82-36.3.wav (48:10), 82-36.4.wav (27:52)

Documentation: Concert flyer

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Classical Music--Carnatic
  • Concerts

Geographical Names

  • India--Asia--South Asia
  • Seattle (Wash.)
  • South India

Other Creators

  • Personal Names
    • Paraveen, V. (performer)
    • Rukmini, T. (performer)
    • Suresh, B. N. (performer)
    • Venkatram, B.K. (performer)