One of the earliest instruments of the sushira (wind) variety is the flute. The flute has various names such as bansuri, venu, vanshi, kuzhal, murali and so on. Under the names of tunara and nadi, the flute was used in the Vedic period. It is one of the three celebrated musical instru¬ments of India, the other two being the veena and the mridanga. In ancient India, the flute was very commonly used in the religious music of the Buddhists. Representations of this are found in Indian sculpture from the beginning of the 1st century B.C. at Sanchi, and later on in Greco-Buddhist plastic art at Gandhara. The sculptures at Amaravati and several frescoes and paintings at Ajanta and Ellora also depict the flute, as played by human and celestial beings, both as accompaniment to vocal music and as a part of instrumental ensembles.
The flute is of very great antiquity. For centuries the construction of the flute has remained more or less constant. The instrument is a simple cylindrical tube, mostly of bamboo, of uniform bore, closed at one end. There are different kinds of flutes and their lengths and number of holes varies. The length can be anything from eight inches to two and a half feet. Long flutes have a rich, deep and mellow tone whereas in small flutes the tone is bright and high pitched.
In addition to the mouth hole, there are six to eight holes arranged in a straight line. The range of the flute is about two and a half octaves, the normal range of the human voice, It seems incre¬dible that such a wide range of notes can be produced from only six to seven holes. The player blows into the mouth hole, thus setting in vibration the column of air inside the tube. The lowest octave of the scale is produced by altering the effective length of the tube by covering the boles with the fingers. The next octave of the scale is produced in the same way bat with increased wind pressure and the third octave is produced in a more complicated way by ‘cross finger¬ings’. The tone colour varies consi¬derably. The first octave is so thick and deep that it is sometimes mistaken by the listeners for the tone of a clarionet. The second octave is smooth and clear and the third bright and penetrating. The player can produce any interval by only opening or closing the available holes with his fingers. The flute is held in a horizontal position with a slight downward incli¬nation.
Where the two thumbs are used to hold the flute in position, the three fingers of the left hand, excluding the little finger, and the four fingers of the right hand are used to manipulate the finger holes. Some of the bamboo flutes used in the north, especially in regions of Bengal is longer than those used in the south. The horizontal flute is enormously popu¬lar in southern India and Bengal. Vertical flutes are more popular in the north and the west. These are held vertically and played through a mouthpiece. The flute is very commonly used in Western orchestras. The flute used in Western music is cylindrical in shape and is made of wood but with a more or less conical head. The finger-holes are large so as to afford greater power and range of expression. The fixing of mechanical keys on the flute is an im¬provement which has revolutionized flute-playing in Western countries.
The flute is one of the many Indian musical instruments which went west and became domiciled there. The flute is an instrument which can be played by it. It is also an impor¬tant constituent of the modern Indian orchestra. The flute has produced some very great virtuosos both in the north and in the south. The name of T.R. Mahalingam is well on its way to be¬coming a legend.