All you wanted to know about the Carnatic flute: Your consummate guide

know about the Carnatic flute

If you have heard the sounds produced by the Carnatic flute, your ears have been privy to some of the sweetest melodies ever produced. The tunes from this humble wind instrument can instantly transport you to a serene setting even in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of daily life. Unassuming, inexpensive, and easily portable, these are just some of the many reasons to love and learn the Carnatic flute. 

Types of flutes

There are many different types of flutes all around the world: the Chinese dizi flute, the Japanese shinobue, the Indian bansuri and venu (the Asian flutes are usually wooden and played horizontally); there are a range of Western flutes – concert flute, alto flute, bass flute, piccolo, baroque flute (usually made of metal and played vertically). South American flutes are multi-barrel flutes and are called panpipes

Venu is the name of the Carnatic flute. While it has been popular in South India for well over a century, its inclusion in various Western genres has taken its melodies to a global audience.

About the Carnatic flute

Called the ‘venu’, this instrument is as old as the hills, so to speak! It is mentioned in the Natya Shastra, a text on music and performing arts. Made of bamboo, this keyless instrument is played sideways (called transverse flute), and has eight playing holes and one blowing hole. It has a range of two and a half octaves. It is also called pullankuzhal in Tamil and kolalu in Kannada.

It would be interesting to understand the subtle differences between the two Indian flutes – bansuri and venu. 

Venu vs Bansuri

  1. There are two types of Indian flutes – the venu and bansuri. While the Carnatic flute used in South India is called the venu, the Hindustani flute used in North India is called the bansuri. 
  2. The venu uses thicker walled and darker bamboo than the bansuri. Also, venu has eight playing and one blowing hole while bansuri uses six playing holes and one blowing hole. 
  3. There is also a subtle difference in which these two types of Indian flutes are constructed keeping in mind the different systems of music. Consequently, there is a variation in the way in which these flutes are held and played.
Lord Krishna playing the bansuri

If you are looking for live online Carnatic flute classes, reach out to SaPa. SaPa has online and physical classes in various disciplines – from vocals to instrumentals and more.

Introduction of the flute to Carnatic music

It was in the late 19th century, with Indian venu player Sarabha Sastri, that the Carnatic flute became a part of Carnatic concerts. Despite (and perhaps because of it) being visually challenged, he had the singular ability to pick up a raga on listening to it. He introduced scientific fingering techniques for the Carnatic flute; his innovations enabled all the Carnatic ragas to be played on the flute. His fingering technique system was so intricate that it enabled flautists to play even the slightest gamakams as required by Carnatic music; so comprehensive and all-inclusive was the system that he developed. This helped the flute cross the barrier from folk to classical concerts. 

Some decades later, another famous flautist, T. R. Mahalingam aka Mali, brought about more changes in the flute, right from design to holding style and fingering techniques, which increased the control levels of flautists. Most significantly, he introduced breath control into the art of flute playing, which enabled flautists to play continuously.  It is said that Mali was able to play a note for over 40 seconds – in a single breath! This breath control enabled him to play both lower and higher octaves with great volume. His work popularised the flute as an influential and important part of Carnatic concerts. It is Mali’s fingering system that is taught today – a system that has made it easy for students to learn the Carnatic flute – even for beginners.

The Carnatic flute has made headway not only in India but in different parts of the world as it has successfully mixed with Western music as well.

What is the oldest instrument in the world?

The Neanderthal flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995 and estimated to be at least 50,000 years old, is believed to be the oldest known musical instrument in the world. It is believed to have been made from the bone of a cave bear. While some scientists have raised questions about the idea of Neanderthals playing music, the music played on it has been described as hauntingly beautiful. And the evenly spaced holes on the flute are also a compelling argument that it was carved for music. 

Another bone flute was discovered in 2008 in Germany dating back to 43,000 years ago. This was believed to be made from a vulture’s wing bone. Others in the region have discovered bone flutes made of mammoth ivory that were estimated to be about 35,000 years old. 

Interesting to ‘note’ the ‘timelessness’ of music, isn’t it? 

Important elements in playing the flute

1. Maintaining posture

The Carnatic flute is typically played while being seated cross-legged on the floor. (You may sit on a mat or use cushions to be comfortable.) It is important to sit with your spine erect and your chest and shoulders stretched open to enable your lungs to fill with air. Balance the knotted end (playing or blowing end) of the flute on the groove between your  lower lip and chin. Ensure that you hold the flute with a firm and stable grasp. 

Note: Practise in front of a mirror to ensure your posture and technique of blowing are correct. 

2. Fingering techniques

The flute is held horizontally rather than vertically (like the Western flute). The flute is slightly tilted towards the ground. Place your right thumb (for a right-handed person) under the flute with the other four fingers placed behind the flute and used for closing or opening the holes. The left thumb is stretched horizontally under the flute and the other four fingers are placed in front of the flute and used for covering the holes. Do not hold the flute with your palm but with your fingers. Various sounds are produced in the venu based on whether the holes are open, partially covered, or fully covered. 

3. Embouchure 

Embouchure means the method of placing your mouth on the mouthpiece of a wind instrument to play it. With the Carnatic flute, practise releasing air slowly through your lips; it must be smooth and even so you are not gasping for breath. Do not blow out air making an O shape with your lips. Rather tuck your lower lip under your upper lip to produce sound. Air should go into the flute in a slanting way such that not all the air from your lips goes into the flute. This will enable the appropriate sound to emanate from the flute. 

4. Finger movements

Finger sliding and cross fingering are some techniques that are used to move across the holes and produce different notes with different fingering styles. With finger sliding, players move across holes while sliding rather than by bluntly opening and closing the holes. Cross fingering enables you to play notes using different finger formations.

5. Breath control

This involves knowing when to take and release breath so as not to interfere with the tone or tune of the melody. Yoga and breathing exercises like pranayama are known to be good for improving the singing voice; they can help with better breath control for wind instruments too.

Tips for beginners playing the Carnatic flute

Tips for beginners playing the Carnatic flute
  1. Ensure that you practise good hygiene – both oral and hands to keep your flute germ-free. Also, clean your flute regularly.
  2. Ensure that your neck is in line with your back rather than bent towards the flute. You could literally save yourself that pain in the neck!
  3. Practise the embouchure with your lips before you try it on the flute. 
  4. Practise breath control. All wind instruments require you to control your breath so you are inhaling and exhaling at the right time. 
  5. Practise blowing into the flute and slowly increase the length of time you blow in a single breath.
  6. Record and listen to yourself. 
  7. Learn to read Carnatic notation so that your focus will be on the instrument rather than deciphering the notes. 
  8. Develop an ear for Carnatic music and the flute’s role in it for you to be able to visualise and internalise the potential of the flute.
  9. Learn with a professionally trained flute player so you don’t have to work on unlearning before you really start learning.
  10. Practise what you learn – even if it is for 10 minutes a day. Regularity makes a huge difference in the way you sound.

Are you interested in learning the Carnatic flute? Would you like to learn from educators who are performers? Join SaPa’s Carnatic flute lessons now!

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