The name Bansuri has its roots in the word banse that means bamboo. Originally used as a folk instrument and to accompany dance (sometimes semi-religious) the Bansuri has only recently in this century been used in classical Indian music where it its accompanied by Tablas (Indian hand drums) and the Tambor which provides a tonal drone.
The Hindu deity Krishna is often pictured as a sheepherder who plays the flute and it is often associated with magical or seductive powers. In addition the bansuri enjoys a distinguished place in the history of Indian music and mythology.
In India the flute has been known by many names in addition to bansuri: algoza, bansi, kolalu, kolavi, kukhl, murali, nar, pava, pillankuzhal, pillangrovi, pulangoil, vanu, and vamsi. Under this variety of names the flute was used in both sacred and secular contexts up until at least the sixteenth century. In the fifteenth century after the invasion of the Moghuls the development of gharanas or schools of music came about in the courts of North India leading to the advent of what has become known as Hindustani music. The flute was left out of the repertoire for the most part as it was seen as too basic of an instrument. The flutes high pitch was considered unsuitable for the full range of expression. In addition there was no established form of construction or pitch center for the flute.
In the beginning of this century there were at least three different kinds of flutes in use: transverse (side-blown), end blown and fipple flutes (similar to a recorder), which were made of a variety of materials: metal, wood, and bamboo. They were used in a variety of pitches and ranged in size from fifteen to sixty centimeters (6 to 23.6 inches).
Hear the Bansuri on 'Desert Oasis' from 'Lake Melva Meditation', 'Bop-Ras' and 'Dhyana' from 'Svadharma', 'Bamboo' from 'bamboo dynasty', 'Dhayana' from 'Sa Ta Na Ma', and cuts from 'Riversticks: The Ferryman's Release'.
In the 1940s Amulya Jyoti, AKA Pannalal Ghosh, became interested in constructing a more refined flute. After much experimentation with size and materials, he settled on a bamboo flute of 32 inches in length, with 7 tone holes and a tonic at the e above middle C. This instrument has become the standard bansuri for North Indian classical music. Up until his death in 1960, Pannalal Ghosh was the only well known flutist in Hindustani classical music and raised the Bansuri to the level of a concert instrument, following the vocal tradition.
The next generation of classical bansuri artists included Pannalal's major disciple Devendra Murdeshwar. Also included in this second generation would be Raghunath Seth, also influenced by Pannala Ghosh, Vijay Raghav Rao, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. These last three moving the flute closer to the instrumental style of North Indian classical music that employs the Sitar and Sarod. H. Chaurasia is probably the most well known of this generation, extensively recording and establishing schools in India and Rotterdam.
Well known American contemporary Bansuri artists having studied Northern Classical Indian music would include Steve Gorn, Lyon Leifer, David Philipson, and John Wubbenhorst.
The South Indian flute known in the Tamil language as the pulangoil, or in Sanskrit as the Venu, while also constructed of bamboo, is smaller than the Bansuri, having eight tone holes. When the Northern and Southern traditions began to split in the 14th century, the Carnatic tradition from Southern India used the flute prominently as part of an ensemble and was focused on dance and drama based on ancient Vedic ritual. However, solo music for the pulangoil enjoyed a revival in the 19th century led by Sarabha Sastri. Sastri's style was passed on to his disciple Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, who in turn passed it on to H. Ramachandra Shastri.
The predominant figure on the pulangoil in the period from 1933 until his death in 1987 was T.R. Mahalingam. A child prodigy without formal training, he is regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of the Carnatic tradition. His disciple Dr. N Ramani has been a top-ranked Carnatic flutist since 1947. Other well-known flutists of this time would include K. S. Gopalkrishan and the sisters Kunjumani and Neela Sikkil. Another child prodigy has emerged recently by the name of S. Shashank.