For intrepid western travellers Varanasi is an exotic place high on the tourist map. But for Indians, Banaras, as it is known to many, is the seat-hold of religion and music, home to many ancient temples and the ultimate pilgrimage city. Growing up in one of the oldest living cities of the world, Vinod Prasanna, quite naturally, did not escape the influence of music or even spirituality. At the age of ten, a sadhu (hermit) who read his palm told him that he would settle down in a faraway land. The sadhu’s words came true. Melbourne is now home for Prasanna but he brings with him a legacy of his famous family who have continued the tradition of bansuri and shenai playing for more than two-and-a-half centuries. Prasanna himself has clocked more than 400,000 hours of riyaz or musical practice and with more than 17 years of performance and teaching experience, he has established an affinity with Australia’s music lovers.
Interestingly, Prasanna’s grandfather was Pandit Vishnu Prasanna from the famous Banaras Gharana. His mother’s brother Pandit Rajendra Prasanna is also among the top flutists of India. The story of India’s top flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia is linked to the Prasanna family. One day a young Chaurasia, who was leaning singing, heard Pandit Vishnu’s brother Pandit Bholanath Prasanna playing the flute on the radio. So taken in was Chaurasia that he started to train under Pandit Bholanath Prasanna. The rest, as they say, is history.
On October 23, 1997, Prasanna remembers taking the train to his grandfather’s house at Shadara in Delhi. It would be a journey that would change his life. He left his mother and two siblings as also his studies for a while and arrived at his grandfather’s. He started training immediately. His first challenge was the big size of the flute that his grandfather handed him as opposed to the small flute that he played at home. It hurt his tiny fingers but he quietly popped in painkillers as he had made up his mind that he was going to do this “even if it meant death”. “Once I sat down, I carried on with a certain sense of determination and I would not go to the toilet or even drink water. I had to master it. I had heard that that people have achieved so many things out of just meditating for years. This was nothing.”
Such was his fierceful dedication that he started with four hours of practice and quickly went on to 12 hours every day. “My grandfather used to wake me up at 4 am. I used to start from 5 am to 9 am – five hours nonstop, then do some household chores in between, rest, and then start again from 3 pm to 8 pm. Sleep was for 5-6 hours only. In between I used to pay my mother visits. I continued this for a few years.” Before he realised he had gotten ahead of many of his relatives.
“I was in love with the flute; the sukoon or peace that you find in this music is inexplicable. It is good for the brain and health but right music does that… it changes your thinking,” he reflects. “I used to practice so much that it irked some of my relatives. ‘Why is he practising so much’ they would ask”, he says. It was only when his grandfather, someone who has always been supportive and ‘a great human being’ told him, “You don’t need rest but your flute does,” that he took a break.
Prasanna’s first public performance was when he was about 18. Every year in April, at the temple of Goddess Sikhla (confirm name), a shradhanjali or tribute is paid. Here he performed at the puja taking everyone including his relatives by surprise. “But I have no competition with anyone. My competition is with myself and what heights of creativity I can take music up to,” he says, adding, “In any competition there is ego, you may win, you may go ahead but there is a sense of anger. That is not how I feel. I don’t want to become a Hariprasad Chausrasia. I want to become me by deriving the best out of that creativity.”
After this debut show, Prasanna started giving a few performances around Varanasi. During one such concert, a team from France documenting the existence of different kinds of music around the world spotted him and his friend on the tabla. Prasanna became the only Indian musician to make it to the French documentary film titled Odyssey and in 2003 he was invited by the French government to stay in France for a month and conduct workshops. “It was my first trip abroad, very good exposure and good money but being a vegetarian I struggled with the food,” he laughs.
After coming back from France, Prasanna continued with his performances in Varanasi but with modest income. After four years, an offer from Germany came to take part in demonstration of Indian music and his horizons broadened with more foreign trips including Japan where he gave 45 performances in two months. He recalls his mother, who passed away last year, not wanting him to go abroad as ‘most people do not return’ but he says in India “once you go abroad people automatically start respecting you.” For all his travels and experiences, Prasanna made it to the local news but his aim was not become famous. “I am only looking at bringing new innovations to my music by maintaining the level of purity in my music which is the raag or the classical Indian tradition. Even when I do fusion, I try and maintain the original raag. I can’t at any cost see the raag disintegrating or being disturbed.” He explains that Indian vocal music includes the shenai, flute, sitar or tabla – something not many are aware of.
In 2006, Prasanna also won the prestigious Sahara All-India Flute Competition. He also forayed into teaching. He credits himself with changing the style of teaching, making it scientific so people understand it. “My style of teaching is not instant, it is taught step by step, I focus on a solid foundation and you need two years at least.” With Varanasi being the hub of tourists, he had about 600-700 students mostly foreigners before he migrated to Australia in 2008. But his motto was charging minimum fees “because I had gone through a lot of hardship learning music. I didn’t want that somebody with a passion for music must go through such hardship.” In fact, one of his long time students in Australia Owen Foreman (check name) who has been with him for three years sometimes proxies for him when he is unable to do so because of other commitments.
His ex-wife, an Australian student, was the reason Prasanna moved to Australia but fate and destiny has different ways of working, he says. One of his early performances In Australia was at the Global Harmony festival in Coffs Harbour, where his music was received well. Together with brilliant Australian tabla player Glen Kniebeiss, he stunned audiences at the Bellingen Global Carnival in 2008. In 2009, he also performed at the Music for Meditation at the Federation Square and at the Fairfield Amphitheatre Summer Concert Series. He was also part of the inaugural celebrations for the 2009 opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and performed with Dya Singh at the Premier’s 2009 Sustainability Awards, and at The Melbourne Arts Centre for the Multicultural Arts Council, Victoria. In 2009, Vinod’s music was also featured on the soundtrack to Australian film The Taj. In 2010, Vinod's music was enjoyed by thousands at the Woodford Folk Festival where he teamed up with Glen Kniebeiss again.
Incidentally it was at the Music for Meditation fusion performance that he met Australia’s renowned drummer and percussionist David Jones and bass and effects (guitar) Evripides Evripidou. Together, the three came out with an album titled Brothers - A magical coming together of three musical brothers. One review says, “These brilliant instrumentalists went into the studio to see what would come out of their meeting....what resulted was one of the finest Indian Jazz fusion albums of the year.” Prasanna says the album was made without practice and after 30 mins of meditation. “People loved it. It’s a different type of music.”
In 2012, when internationally acclaimed musician and humanitarian Ani Choying Drolma from Nepal came for her first ever Australian tour, Prasanna was roped in to play for her. “Ani’s music is very sensitive,” he says.
It is apparent those in the field of music know him but sadly the Indian community has not been very understanding, he rues. He was asked to play at the Diwali festivals but for free. Prasanna who gives two charity performances in a year says, in all honesty, that he cannot afford to play for free. “This is my bread and butter too. If I ask you to go and work in your office for a day without any pay, would it be easy? Plus I put in a few hours of practice every day. This is my profession, a lot of people don’t understand.”
It has been said that Prasanna’s sublime flute song takes the listener on deeply moving journeys, both musical and spiritual. Wherever he plays, he captures the hearts of his audiences. Of late, he is experimenting with frequencies in music and healing through sound. “The flute is such an instrument that it touches the heart directly, it can enlighten a listener for a moment. I am doing a research on frequency. In one frequency, there exists many frequencies, and when you play certain frequencies you get goose bumps. I am working on those frequencies.” He cites the examples of two experiments at Byron Bay where he played an alaap (the opening section of a typical Indian classical performance). In one episode, a listener began trembling so much that Prasanna believes it was the body’s reaction to letting go off the stress and trauma from inside. Later the listener said he felt good and that he had never experienced something like that. At another time, a lady who admitted to never having slept so well for the past 15 years said after the sound healing she had a good sleep in so many years. It is these levels of transcendence through the purity of music that Prasanna is aiming to understand and experiment further.
Prasanna’s music pays homage to both ancient and contemporary Indian music. So far, he has cut six albums on classical music. His latest CD with Glen Kniebeiss on the table is called ‘Samay’- an exquisite recording of Indian Ragas for the different times of day. His long term goal is to educate both Indians and Australians on the beauty of classical music through the flute. Clearly, as the rightful heir to the musical treasure of his ancestors, Prasanna is riding the waves.