Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the pre-eminent Hindustani vocalist breathed his last in the early hours of January 24 after a prolonged illness. He would have been 89 on February 4. Although the maestro had retired a few years ago, his passing away makes the void palpable.
Amongst 20th century giants of vocalism, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi enjoyed a rare combination of popularity and stature. He charmed three generations of music lovers with his renditions of Khayal, Thumree, and Bhajans in Hindi, Kannada, and Marathi. According to reliable estimates, he could have delivered more than 10,000 concerts during his career spanning six decades, and recorded over a 100 discs. He was also the only Hindustani classical vocalist to have earned the Platinum Disc of the Gramophone Company of India (HMV).
Bhimsenji is acclaimed as an exponent of the Kairana gharana (stylistic tradition) of Khayal vocalism, having trained under Sawai Gandharva, the tallest disciple of Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan. He was, however, a reformer of the gharana’s music, and the initiator of an original style, incorporating features of several other stylistic traditions. This explains the influence he continues to wield over younger generations of audiences and male vocalists.
The Bharat Ratna, conferred on him in 2008, was the crowning glory of an illustrious career. Panditji was already amongst the most decorated musicians of the country. Amongst his major awards are: Ustad Enayet Khan Foundation Award (2002), Padma Vibhushan (1999), HMV Platinum Disc (1986), Padma Bhushan (1985), Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1976), and Padma Shri (1972 ).
Childhood and grooming
Bhimsen Joshi was amongst the most distinguished products of the vibrant bi-lingual Northern Karnataka musical culture. He was born into a Kannada-speaking, Madhava Brahmin family of Kirtankar-s, hailing from Gadag in Dharwad district. His father, Gururaj Joshi, was the Headmaster of a Municipal School. He wanted Bhimsen to qualify as an engineer or a doctor. But, Bhimsen’s only passion was music.
The defining moment of young Bhimsen’s life came when, around the age of 12, he heard a three-minute 78 rpm record of Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan, featuring a Khayal in raga Basant, and a Thumree in raga Jhinjhoti. He decided that that he had to be able to sing like the Ustad, and quietly left home one night in search of a Guru, with neither any baggage, nor any money in his pocket.
His search was arduous, replete with ticket-less travel followed by nights spent in jail, destitution, singing for his supper, sleepless nights in strange places, days without a square meal, menial jobs taken up to keep body and soul together, and exploitation by insensitive employers. The three-year long odyssey took him to Pune, Gwalior, Calcutta and even Jallandhar. But, none of these cities delivered to him a Guru.
At the Harvallabh Sammelan in Jallandhar, Bhimsen met the Gwalior gharana stalwart, Vinayakrao Patwardhan. Patwardhan advised him to return home, and start studies with Sawai Gandharva (Rambhau Kundgolkar), the most distinguished disciple of Abdul Kareem Khan. Rambhau had, by that time, settled in Kundgol, not far from Bhimsen’s hometown, Gadag. So, to the extreme relief of his parents, the 15-year old Bhimsen returned home.
Entering Sawai Gandharva’s tutelage was not easy. The Guru demanded a fee of Rs. 25 per month, one-fourth of Bhimsen’s father’s salary. Despite the Senior Joshi’s responsibility for seven children, he made the sacrifice --just to keep Bhimsen closer to home.
Bhimsen’s education was typical of the Gurukul Paddhati in those days. The disciple lived with the Guru, served him in every way, and learnt music. For almost 18 months after formalizing the tutelage, Sawai Gandharva taught him nothing, but tested Bhimsen’s determination by entrusting menial domestic chores to him. Bhimsen passed the test with flying colors. Once the maestro was won over, he stopped accepting fees, and taught him from four in the morning till midnight every day, with only a couple of breaks in between.
Rambhau’s teaching was in the traditional mode, without any notations being written or permitted. All learning was by internalization and memorization. Even after serious lessons commenced, the burden of domestic responsibilities in Rambhau’s household continued to interrupt Bhimsen’s training routine. In dry Kundgol, it was Bhimsen's duty to fetch unending pitchers of water for his guru's house from a distant water tank. "Poor fellow; in the scorching heat, he would carry water on his shoulders… but as he walked he would constantly sing. How many times I've heard him practicing the taans of Multani, Shankara…!" recalled Gangubai Hangal, who was his senior amongst the maestro’s disciples (an interview to Deepa Ganesh of The Hindu). If Bhimsen needed clarifications on his lessons, he sought them from Gangubai. During his apprenticeship with Sawai Gandharva, which lasted about five years, the maestro taught Bhimsen three ragas – Todi, Multani and Puriya. He learnt several other raga-s by supporting his Guru at concerts.
After returning home from Rambhau’s tutelage, Bhimsen felt attracted to the thumree and semi-classical genres, as performed in the Purab (Eastern UP) region. So, he traveled to Benares and Lucknow, to hear the thumree stalwarts – Begum Akhtar, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai. Begum Akhtar recommended Bhimsenji for perhaps his first job as a musician – with All India Radio, Lucknow, a major center of classical music in those days. In 1943, he took a transfer to Bombay, the music capital of the country, which opened the doors of destiny for him.
Bhimsen gave his first public concert of classical music in Pune at the age of 19 (1941), and showed great promise. In 1944, he made his first 78 rpm discs of Marathi and Kannada devotional songs, which gave him tremendous popularity in Maharashtra and Karnataka. In 1946, he started recording classical music for HMV, and these releases also sold extremely well.
In the same year, he achieved a major breakthrough at the 60th birthday celebrations of his Guru, Sawai Gandharva, held in Pune. His performance at the event, with the most influential patrons and the greatest musicians of the era in attendance, heralded the arrival of a new maestro. His fame spread steadily thereafter, and within a decade, he became the busiest vocalist on the concert circuit. By the 1960’s, Bhimsen Joshi’s contemporaries in the profession had begun to joke – enviously, no doubt -- that he knew every air hostess on Indian Airlines by name, and the entire Bradshaw (Indian Railways time-table) by heart.
His career graph zoomed once concert-length recordings became available in the mid-1960s through LP records, and later audio-cassettes. He achieved iconic status in the 1970s after the publication of “Santavani”, a four-hour collection of Bhajans. He also enhanced his popularity with his playback renditions for films. His songs for the Marathi film, Gulacha Ganapati, and Hindi films like Basant Bahar, Bhairavi, Anhoni, and Ankahee brought his voice into homes that had little interest in classical music. Joshi became a universally recognized voice of a resurgent India in the 1990’s with his rendition of “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara” in a series of television clips devised to promote national integration.
Recording industry professionals claim that commercial recordings have contributed much more to Bhimsenji’s success and popularity than any of his contemporaries. Such a proposition is impossible to either prove or disprove because the concert and recording markets stimulate each other in very complex ways. However, there could be something to this belief, considering the insatiable appetite of recording companies for his music, and his willingness and ability to repeatedly give them winners.
Like most other leading musicians of his generation, Bhimsenji did perform for adulatory audiences abroad. But, in a radio interview with the Marathi littérateur, PL Deshpande, he almost brushed aside this facet of his career as insignificant. He evidently placed the highest value on his relationship with audiences at home.
Bhimsen has been singled out -- rather unjustly -- for his limited repertoire of raga-s, and their repeated rendition at concerts and on commercial recordings. He has built up a formidable edifice of musicianship with his renditions of about 20 ragas, mainly -- Darbari, Puriya Kalyan, Miya-ki-Todi, Lalit, Shuddha Kalyan, Miya-ki-Malhar, Puriya, Multani, Marwa, Malkauns, Maru Bihag, Abhogi, Gaur Sarang, Brindabani Sarang, and Jaijaiwanti.
This pattern is not unique to Bhimsen Joshi, and is also understandable. There are, of course, a few gharana-s which pride themselves in performing a wide range of raga-s. A majority of them, however, have a marked preference for a select few ragas which enable them to express their stylistic inclinations most effectively. Further, each musician has learnt some raga-s most intensively, practiced most rigorously, and found most suited to his temperament. He excels in these ragas, and audiences never tire of his renderings of them because he is able to present them with freshness and impact each time. But, because the finest amongst musicians have internalized the concept of raga-ness, they are able to easily master new raga-s, and also create new melodic entities of their own.
Bhimsen has been candid about the limitations of his repertoire, without being apologetic. But, like many others, he has responded to public demand and the goading of recording companies, by recording an entire series of “Unsung Ragas”, many of which are rare, and even created new ragas like Kalashri ( a blend of Kalavati and Rageshri) and Lalit-Bhatiyar (combining Lalit with Bhatiyar).
No other 20th century vocalist, with the exception of Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, has held his audiences in abject surrender like Bhimsen Joshi has done. Panditji’s unique bonding with audiences is attributed to several factors.
The most significant facet of his musical personality was his voice with all its qualities – precision, richness, power, range, malleability and agility – and the emotional involvement he invests in every rendition. Veteran connoisseurs have also noted that, over the years, there had been no change in the youthfulness and freshness of his voice, and delivery. Another important aspect was his wide repertoire of genres, and his equal command over all departments of musicianship in each of them. The third substantial facet has been his amazing consistency as a performer. Amongst vocalists, his consistency rating has been matched, in the last 60 years, perhaps only by Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan. Enhancing the influence of these qualities was his ability to astutely judge profiles of audiences, select the repertoire most suited to them, and to deliver it with gripping impact.
Bhimsen Joshi’s star started rising while the titans of the pre-independence era – Kesarbai Kerkar, Omkarnath Thakur, and Krishnarao Pandit -- were still active. He built his career sharing the stage with formidable contemporaries -- Gangubai Hangal, Hirabai Barodekar, and Roshanara Begum of his own gharana, Ustad Ameer Khan of Indore/ Bhindi Bazaar, Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan of Patiala, and DV Paluskar of Gwalior. The stature and popularity of Joshi, a classicist, remained unaffected by the later rise of the hugely influential romanticists – Kumar Gandharva, Jasraj and Kishori Amonkar. His musicianship has shone brightly amidst such a galaxy because his vocalism could outgrow the shadows of orthodox Kairana without sacrificing its essentials, and evolve into an original modern style with a broad-spectrum appeal.
During his long career, Bhimsen Joshi trained a few competent students. If they do not feature in the “Who’s Who” of the next generation, his is not an isolated case. With the demise of aristocratic patronage after independence, music became an extremely stressful and nomadic profession, which left thriving musicians with neither the time, nor the temperament, for being effective Gurus. However, thanks to the ample availability of his recordings, Bhimsen Joshi’s influence pervades all of male vocalism. In fact, today, it is difficult to find a male singer below 50, who has not been visibly influenced by him.
Bhimsen Joshi is greatly admired for setting up an organization for hosting the annual Sawai Gandhrva music festival at Pune in the memory of his Guru. The festival, held consistently for 58 years now, is Bhimsen’s unique contribution to India’s cultural life. The three-day festival features some of the finest musicians in the country, while also providing a platform for the launch of promising young talent. The concerts begin at 8.00 pm and end in the wee hours of the morning, with audiences ranging from 7000 to 15,000. During the event, Bhimsen Joshi worked like any other volunteer, often seen sweeping the stage, bringing the instruments of other musicians to the concert platform, or helping younger artists tune their Tanpura-s to perfection. The Sawai Gandharva Festival has now acquired a life of its own, and bids fair to survive its founder.
The best known passion of Bhimsen Joshi outside music was cars. He always owned a fleet of big cars in which he loved driving himself and all his accompanists, along with their instruments, to concert locations within a motorable distance. He had his share of car accidents; but nothing could make him quit driving. His passion for cars was, not surprisingly, accompanied by an astonishing knowledge of automobile engineering. He once told an interviewer --. “If I had not been a musician, I would have happily spent my life as a garage mechanic tuning engines of cars”.
Other than his romance with cars, Bhimsen was a man of simple interests – yoga, swimming, and football. Though he had slowed down on his concert engagements after turning 75, he demonstrated his lifelong commitment to physical fitness at the age of 85 by performing for 40 minutes at the 55th Sawai Gandharva Festival in December, 2007.
Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was the last of the great 20th century classicists in Hindustani vocalism. His most valuable legacy is the massive archive of music, recorded over a period of more than 60 years, covering a variety of genres. In this, he bequeaths to the nation a library of some of the finest specimens of 20th century vocalism.
© Deepak S. Raja 2011