Master of the Bamboo Flute
Other Minds notes with sadness the passing of master classical Indian musician G.S. Sachdev on June 24, 2018, from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at his home in San Rafael, California. Sachdev was the leading exponent of the bansuri, a long transverse bass flute made of bamboo that, in his hands, was capable of the deepest emotional expression, focusing the minds of his listeners into a state of profound peaceful meditation preceding an ecstatic rhythmic conclusion. A memorial service for Sachdev is planned for Saturday, August 18th, 11am-1pm, at Bolinas Beach in Bolinas, California. Further information: https://gssachdev.wordpress.
One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s central musical performers and teachers, G.S. Sachdev, the internationally acclaimed classical Indian flutist, has died. Known for his transcendent, meditative, and deeply spiritual traversals of traditional ragas performed on the bass flute of bamboo known as the bansuri, Sachdev was a prominent and reassuring fixture on the music scene since his arrival from India in 1970. His family reports that he succumbed to non-Hodgkins lymphoma on June 24 at his home in San Rafael.
Gurbachan Singh Sachdev was born on April 24, 1935, in Lyallpur, Punjab, in India to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother. His father Sardar Kartar Singh Sachdev, was a property registrar before he became a building contractor. His mother, Amar Kaur, had wanted to be a classical musician, but females were not permitted to study music. It was she who encouraged her son to pursue music and, after studying medicine at the behest of his father, he turned to music and earned a degree at B.A. from Gandhi Memorial National College in Ambala Cantt in 1954, and after graduation moved to Delhi to be with his parents.
He became a student of flutist Vijay Raghav Rao (1925-2011), studying with him for 12 years and living with him as a disciple for three. With Rao, Sachdev journeyed to Bombay where he found work in the movie industry playing sound tracks and songs for movies while practicing eight to ten hours a day. After long exposure to fusion music, with its popular forms and Western tunings, Sachdev’s eventual reaction was to abandon this day job and devote himself full time to his roots in Hindu classical music and devotional song forms. He was inspired by further studies for many years with sitar legend Ravi Shankar who offered him a teaching position at his music school in Mumbai. The name of Sachdev’s instrument, bansuri, derives from “bans” (bamboo) and “swar” (musical note). The range of the instrument is one octave lower than the Western orchestral flute.
In 1968, Sachdev married Saroj, a student of vocal music and kathak dance. Together they had a son, Amar. But shortly thereafter, Sachdev would move to the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1970 a recording of one of his performances in Uttar Pradesh, at the home of American writer Carolyn North, was brought by her to KPFA and broadcast by Charles Amirkhanian, the Music Director. During an interview with Ms. North she encouraged the Berkeley radio audience to help support a plane trip for the flutist from India to San Francisco where he had been offered a position at the newly formed Ali Akbar College of Music. The appeal was enthusiastically received and Sachdev arrived ready to start a new life. On July 6, 1971, he performed a full broadcast of his music at the Berkeley station that now is archived for free listening online by Other Minds.
As he established his U.S. career he was able send for Saroj and Amar and they have lived happily here with him until his recent death. Sachdev taught at AACM until 1976 at which time he opened his own Bansuri School of Music in Berkeley. He produced many recordings of his performances, most notably “Romantic Ragas,” “Live in Concert,” “Full Moon,” and “Classical North Indian Ragas.” His recordings are available from his official website www.gssachdev.com.
From the beginning, Sachdev felt welcome and accepted in California. Not being descended from a family of musicians, his reception in India never was quite as warm. “Here they did not ask if I was from a family of musicians. That’s very common in India. If you are, they’ll accept you right away. If you aren’t you’ll have a very rough time. And I was one of the latter. I saw that I could achieve in the West what I could not in India.”
A 1975 concert in Colorado, at which he was accompanied by tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, revealed Sachdev’s brilliance to the greater public and led to his giving up teaching for full-time touring. Meanwhile, he began a series of radio broadcasts called “Music of India Master Class” on KPFA.
For decades Sachdev successfully traveled and performed worldwide, especially in Europe, North and South America and the Caribbean. Frequent collaborators aside from Zakir Hussain included tabla masters Swapan Chaudhuri and Jnan Ghosh and shruti box accompanists Elb Sauders and Gay Kagy, his students. Seven years ago he founded the ongoing annual Sivananda Classical Indian Music Festival in the Bahamas.
Sachdev was a graceful figure among musicians whose bearing was dignified, kind and very open to all. He welcomed interest in his own practice and also was open to listening to music of all cultures and styles.
According to Amirkhanian, “I was gratified to watch his engagement with composers and performers from non-Indian traditions.” He appeared as a guest with Zakir Hussain at the Composer-to-Composer Festival in Telluride in 1991 and was intensely engaged with others including Alan Hovhaness, Janice Giteck, Pamela Z, Tom Zé, Paul Dresher, and Louis Andriessen. Later at the 2012 Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, he was paired with Western classical recorder players Michala Petri and Anna Petrini, as well as Dohee Lee, Meredith Monk, and Craig Taborn. “Sachdev would eagerly absorb each other composer’s presentations and then patiently explain his process of improvising within his tradition’s guidelines on an instrument that very few others have been able to master due, in part, to its extreme length and widely-spaced finger holes.”
In his spare time, Sachdev approached cooking in much the same way as his performing, intricately blending and balancing spices for his morning chai with the same enthusiasm with which he would unspool his performances over an hour-long period of intense concentration. He was known for his prowess in the kitchen, preparing meals for such appreciative figures as Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, and Alla Rakha.
In 1989 he told the publication Hinduism Today, “The older I get, the more satisfaction this music gives me. It’s because it takes me deeper and deeper and that’s where I want to be.” Asked if he’d experienced samadhi (intense meditational concentration—union with the divine) while playing this devotional music, Sachdev answered, “Yes. While playing, I have become not there. I feel the flute is shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller until it’s not there. I’m on the stage . . . I am, and I also am not. I’m just gone. Those moments make life worth living and the music worth doing.”