Strolling around McLeodganj, renowned world musician and flautist, Milind Date, finds a treasure of high quality flutes… and a master flute maker who also plays a mean flute. Photos and text by Milind Date.
The Kunga Guest House in McLeodganj is on the road which goes to the Bhagsu Nag Temple. By all means it’s actually a small alley. On one side of the alley are buildings with shops and on the other side, there are many roadside stalls selling various things like T-shirts with exotic prints, brass artefacts and Tibetan handicrafts. One day when I returned to Kunga for my siesta, I was surprised to see a big stall selling flutes!
Now it’s always been a challenge to find good flutes. Thankfully over the last few years, some really good flute makers have emerged – previously it was a really tough job to find a flute that was good in tone and also good in pitching. Naturally, given my vocation I had assumed that by now I knew all the good and well-known bansuri makers in the world, and thus it was a big surprise to find almost professional quality flutes right there in McLeodgunj, and that too opposite the Guest House I was saying in!
I looked over and realised that no one was looking after the stall. I figured maybe the stall-owner had gone for his siesta too. A couple of neighbouring shop keepers were lazily looking at their mobiles and a few dogs were in deep meditation not paying any attention to anything around them. I went near the flute stall and had a closer look. To my astonishment the flutes were very good. Honestly, I have never found even okay-quality flutes in Pune, so imagine the serious shock I received when I saw some good flutes in a small Himalayan settlement – it was like meeting an old friend totally unexpectedly in a space shuttle!
I approached the stall and picked up a couple of flutes and played a few notes and realised that the flutes were good as I had thought. I was hungry, so I went into Kunga, had a nice but hurried lunch and returned … to find a guy now sitting near the shop.
I strolled around the shop. He didn’t pay even the slightest attention to me. I observed that his main customers were children and foreigners. Then I picked up one flute and started playing it. Within no time he rushed to the shop and started listening to me with a surprised expression on his face. I played some melodies for 3-4 minutes and soon a crowd had gathered to listen. I stopped and waited and soon some of the spectators suddenly wanted to buy a flute. I told I would return and strolled towards the market. Am sure he must have sold at least 3-4 flutes – they weren’t exactly cheap!
I returned in the evening, and this time the Flute-seller welcomed me with a big smile and his neighbours too were looking at me with a certain curiosity. His name was Ramkrishna and he was from Nepal. A very sweet guy, and he could also play the flute quite well. Apparently, he comes to McLeodganj every season and then after the tourists have departed, he goes back to Nepal. I started looking at more and more flutes and I was quite happy with the general quality. I chose several – perhaps 10-12 flutes and asked him: “Can I take these to my room? If I like some, I will buy, and the rest I shall return.” He hesitated a bit. So I told him that I would be in town for a week or so. He was okay with the idea then.
I eventually decided to purchase 20 good flutes. I showed him a concert-sized ‘E’ flute and asked him: “How much is this flute?”
“What should I tell you Sir? You are a master, give me anything you feel,” he replied.
“At what price do you sell these to others?”
And as I learned, tourist places in India had three sets of prices: Highest for the foreigners; a little lesser for Indians from outside the location, and the most economical for locals!
We eventually agreed upon a price for all the flutes, and he was very happy and I was satisfied with my haul as well. I had also noticed some beautifully carved flutes in his shop. One day I saw him carving a flute and realised that Ramkrishna was carving all the intricate designs himself. I asked him to carve him some design on one of my concert flutes and he did a beautiful job, even drawing my face on that flute.
Thereafter, it became a routine for me to wake up, freshmen up, and have breakfast with Ramkrishna on the lovely terrace of Kunga. Then we would go our ways. In the evening when I returned from my excursion, we would have another tea and then both of us would pick up a flute and play alternatively sitting on the road, by the side of Kunga. Sometimes, people gathered around, some bought flutes, most stayed and listened … and then later in the evening I would retire to my room.
On all my subsequent visits, this routine rarely changed. I always bought flutes from Ramkrishna and we would always sit playing the flutes around the corner!