Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pandit Kumar Gandharva: The ultimate rebel of Hindustani vocalism

Pandit Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992) was easily the most original, and the most controversial Hindustani vocalist of the 20th century. His music elicited extreme reactions – either fanatical adulation or outright hostility. But, his musicianship was never in doubt. By the time he breathed his last, he had been decorated with the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Kalidas Samman, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and a Fellowship of the Akademi.

Kumar Gandharva was the ultimate rebel, l'enfant terrible, of Hindustani music. His music bore no obvious resemblance to that of any 20th century vocalist. He defied the structural norms of khayal presentation, created new ragas, new bandish-es, and new styles of voice production and handling melody. His music was refreshing, aggressive, dramatic, and overpowering. But, it was also elusive and mercurial. At the end of his performance, nothing remained for assessment or analysis. The originality of his music could even have launched a new gharana, had he maintained a semblance of architecture in its presentation.

Vamanrao Deshpande, his most sympathetic critic, considers Kumar Gandharva the chief romanticist of Hindustani vocalism. As an artistic movement, romanticism emphasizes the soliciting, rather than merely eliciting, of an emotional response as the primary effort of music. To this extent, Deshpande considers Kumar Gandharva a forerunner of Kishori Amonkar and Pandit Jasraj.

Childhood and grooming

Kumar Gandharva was born Shivputra Siddaramappa Komkalli at Belgaum in Northern Karnataka. Because he exhibited prodigious talent for music, the spiritual head of the Lingayat community renamed him at the age of six. Kumar’s father, Siddaramappa, was a follower of the Kairana maestro, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan, and a close friend of Panchakshari Buwa, one of the most influential musicians of Northern Karnataka. Kumar thus grew up in an atmosphere steeped in music.

Young Kumar was an avid listener of 78 RPM records of classical music, and developed an uncanny knack for memorizing and reproducing the recordings of great masters, faithful to the minutest detail. He did these with deep respect for the quality of the music, and not in the spirit of mimicry or caricature. This talent of his was demonstrated for the first time on a major platform in 1936 at a music festival, with some of the most influential patrons and leading musicians in attendance. Kumar sang for barely 30 minutes, but created an incredible impact on the music community. The 12-year old was himself stunned by the shower of praise and gifts that greeted him as he stepped off the stage.

Convinced of his promise, Prof. BR Deodhar (1902-1989) took charge of Kumar’s grooming, and virtually adopted him as a son. With his modern worldview, Prof. Deodhar proved to be an ideal mentor, and the Deodhar School of Music, an ideal environment for Kumar. Though a Gwalior-trained vocalist and a disciple of Vishnu Digambar, Prof. Deodhar had dedicated his later life to accumulating and disseminating musical knowledge. In earlier years, he had been a pioneering composer and orchestrator of music starting from the silent era in which film screenings were accompanied by live orchestra. He composed music for several films, crossing over into the era of talkies. Ultimately, disillusioned with the film world, Prof. Deodhar concentrated on his school and his academic pursuits. His contribution as an author and musicologist was phenomenal. His school was a major centre of diverse musical activity in Bombay, where the leading musicians of all gharana-s gathered to perform and discuss music. It was in this eclectic environment that Kumar Gandharva’s musical personality was nurtured.

For eleven years, (1936-1947, age 12 to 23) Prof. Deodhar taught Kumar the music of the Gwalior tradition, but allowed him to evolve his own approach to music, unburdened by the aesthetic indoctrination of any gharana. According to some accounts, Kumar was – either during this period or later – also coached by the Bhendi Bazar gharana stalwart, Anjanibai Malpekar. After about five years of training with Prof. Deodhar, Kumar started performing, and began acquiring a following. But, he was still plagued by artistic uncertainty. He had renounced the security of gharana-based music; but did not yet have a grip on music that he could call his own. His search for originality was triggered off soon thereafter by a life-threatening crisis.

In 1947, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It took him about five years to triumph over the disease, which he did by the sheer power of his will. During those years, he was forced to live in the drier climate of Dewas (MP), virtually bed-ridden and forbidden to sing. In virtual exile, he had the opportunity of thinking deeply about music, and indeed, about life and death. At Dewas, he also began responding to the folk music of the Malwa region, and started documenting the songs he heard. As they grew on him, he could extract from them their melodic personalities, and discover their rules of melodic patterning. In later years, many of these melodic frameworks were to become the cornerstone of his musicianship.

His battle against tuberculosis had not only given him new poetic and melodic material to work with, but also an unorthodox way of delivering it. The illness had left him with weak lungs, and a voice with limited tonal range The fluidity of his voice production had also suffered.. (According to some accounts, he also underwent a major surgery which left him with just one lung to work with – a belief he publicly refuted.) By the time he began performing again, his music had totally transformed itself, and Hindustani music discovered the most original vocalist of the 20th century.


Kumar Gandharva’s musicianship is celebrated for its wide repertoire, as much as it is for its other qualities. He presented a wide fare of khayals in common raga-s, rare and complex raga-s, raga-s created by him, thumrees, taranas, tappas, bhajans, modern poetry, and natya sangeet. Some critics believe that his greatest contribution was to the maturation of the bhajan, to which he gave, for the first time, the character of a distinct genre on the classical music platform. While views differ, it is acknowledged that he infused each raga, and each genre, with his own distinctive interpretation.

An important part of his musicianship was the creation of new raga-s, inspired by the folk songs of the Malwa region which he studied extensively. He argued that all raga-s have folk origins, and that an unlimited resource of “raga-ness” is waiting to be excavated from the vastness of the folk tradition. From such explorations, he created (“discovered”) several ragas – Madhsurja, Ahimohini, Saheli Todi, Beehad Bhairav, Lagan Gandhar, Sanjaari, Malavati, and Nindiyari, to name a few.

Kumar Gandharva combined his fertile melodic imagination with an exceptional poetic sensitivity. In the bandish-es he composed, he achieved a perfect compatibility between the lyrics, the melody and the rhythm. When performing with poetry composed by others, he was brilliant in exploiting its musical function, without doing damage to its literary function. His involvement with poetry went far beyond his interest in classical music. His renditions of devotional poetry penned by Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, Tukaram and Meera Bai, and his compositions of modern Marathi poetry by BR Tambe, are considered amongst the highest artistic achievements of his career.

Another distinguishing feature of his music was his unique style of deploying his voice, characterized by short bursts of energy, unpredictable silences, and dramatic variations in timbre and volume. This was partly necessitated by physical debility. But, he had also cultivated it for achieving the impact he wished to make. He regarded the communication of emotional values (Rasa) as the principal function of music. He enriched the experience of rasa in his music by utilizing silences, and systematically manipulating timbre and volume.

Kumar Gandharva was a thinking musician with a well articulated ideology as the foundation of his unorthodox music. Not surprisingly, he never achieved the popularity of his more orthodox contemporaries. But, though smaller, his following was fanatical. It consisted of connoisseurs involved with musical knowledge and keen observers of new trends in the practice of music. His admirers are mainly residents of Suburban Bombay, Pune, and Northern Karnataka. These communities have also been the most prolific nurseries of talent in Hindustani vocalism. Expectedly, therefore, the younger generation of professional vocalists from these communities admits to having been greatly influenced by his style.

He nursed these communities of admirers with imaginatively conceived, carefully planned, and brilliantly executed theme concerts. Amongst his most memorable concerts were his “Seasonal series”, (Geet Varsha, Geet Hemant, and Geet Vasant), “Triveni” presenting his compositions of the poetry of Kabir, Surdas and Meerabai, “Mala Umajlele Bal Gandharva” comprising his reinterpretation of Bal Gandharva’s Natya Sangeet renditions, “Tulsi – Ek Darshan” and “Tukaram – Ek Darshan”, rendering verses from Ramcharit Manas, and Abhanga-s of Sant Tukaram, “Tambe Geet Rajani” featuring the modern poetry of BR Tambe, composed by him, and a theme concert featuring Thumrees, Tappas and Taranas. A few of these thematic selections were also published on discs.

To the delight of his more serious followers, he published “Anoop Raga Vilas” (1965), a substantial collection of his bandish-es, including many in “Dhun Ugama Ragas” – ragas he had discovered through the analysis of folk songs of the Malwa region of MP. The Foreword to the publication was written by Vamanrao Deshpande, an eminent musicologist of his generation.

Kumar's discography is a good reflection of his popularity and diverse repertoire. Between 1962 and 1965, Kumar released twelve Bhajans on six 78 rpm records. Between 1963 and 1988, he released nine Long Playing discs of classical music which included several ragas of his invention, and six Extend Play records of Marathi Natyasangeet, Bhavageet and Bhajans.

Amongst romanticists of the post-independence era, Kumar Gandharva’s path was thornier than that of the other two – Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj -- because his rebellion against the tradition was more comprehensive. Kumar dispensed with the aloofness as well as the architecture of Khayal vocalism. He was therefore a difficult musician for his contemporary audiences to handle. Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj, on the other hand, deviated on the aloofness factor, while respecting the architectural features of khayal vocalism. Their music was therefore more accessible, and gave romanticism a respectable place in the tradition. Kumar Gandharva deserves his place in history not only as a romanticist pioneer, but also as a radical who forced the khayal tradition to re-examine its moorings, and consider alternative models of musicianship.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shubhendra Rao -- "The soul remains Indian; but we cross a few boundaries"

Shubhendra's e-mail of July 1,2004 to Deepak Raja

My father was a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar since 1949, much before I was born. He remained one of his closest disciples and in our house in Bangalore where I grew up, Guruji (Pandit Ravi Shankar) was worshipped as God! Even as a very young child, I was supposed to have shown my talent in music and could sing all the notes even before I could speak. I would even sing film songs in musical notations!!! This talent was noticed by Guruji too and he tested me when I was 3 years old by singing many complicated Taans which I could easily notate in swaras. Not being too strong physically because of my age and not being able to hold the Sitar in its normal position, I would hold it like a South Indian Veena (perhaps seeing my mother practice).

My first memory of my life is also of that day when Guruji, Alla Rakhaji came home to see my grandmother and have dinner with us. The year was 1968 and I was 3 + a few months at that time. My father asked me to play for Guruji which I did. They were very impressed and I have vivid memories of Guruji telling me that I should hold the Sitar in the normal position from then on and practice.

My father was my first Guru and he was very methodical in his teaching--stressing a lot on the exercises and different compositions that he had learnt from guruji. What others found difficult like meends, gamaks came easy for me and every year, whenever Guruji visited Bangalore for concerts, he would check my progress and give a few suggestions. My first lesson from him directly was in the year 1973 in Mysore where he sat with me for more than an hour and taught me Raga Bhairav, teaching me some chalans, meends and a beautiful sargam. Whenever Guruji had master classes for his senior students, my father would record these lessons and the first thing we would do together when he returned to Bangalore was to write down the notations and I could practise it the next few months. I still remember once when he returned from Benaras and there was this difficult Taan in Bilaskhani Todi which Guruji himself had said was very difficult and I could pick it up very fast just by listening to it once from a cassette.

From 1977 onwards, Guruji started calling me to different places like Bombay, Delhi and other places to teach me, either alone or with a few selected students. Then, I could get to spend 10-15 days with him and he would sometimes teach for 7-8 hrs in a day!!! At the same time, he asked me to play in his compositions and recordings that he would do. The first opportunity for me to sit and play with him on stage was in 1983 when I played with him in Delhi in Siri Fort along with 3 senior students of his. At this point, I was the baby in his group of students since I was just 18!!!

It was in 1984 that he asked me to move to Delhi since he had plans of staying in Delhi more and more. I jumped at this opportunity and even though I had 2yrs still left to finish my college, I left everything and moved to Delhi. The next 7-8 yrs were years of practice and learning and absorbing the music. Sometimes, teaching would be at midnight when he felt like it or at 7 in the morning. Even though he would go out on tours, I continued to stay in the house and practice as much as possible. I started playing with him on stage regularly from 1984 onwards and many times, he would take ragas that I had not previously learnt and talas that I had not practiced. Next day he would then sit with the same raga and we would go through it in a detailed way.

The insight he has given me into this music---the spiritual feeling to approach it with---Raga clarity and strict adherence to the raga without taking any liberties with the raga--the different moods of different ragas---everything I have absorbed from him. His humility towards the music is something I have seen and taken with me.

Performing career

I did play a few concerts when I was young--in some youth festivals or competitions but on Guruji's advice, I stopped performing completely till 1987 when an organiser in Bangalore sought Guruji's permission for me to play in a major youth festival. Since then, I have been performing regularly all over. Some of the major music festivals are Shankar Lal festival in 1993 and 1995, Saptak festival many times, Harvallabh Sangeet Mahasabha, Dover Lane Music Conference and others.

My first international visit was to Moscow when Guruji asked me to play in his creation--Inside the Kremlin. My first solo tour internationally was in 1993 to North America and since then, have been performing all over the world every year. I have played in some major music festivals like WOMAD and also collaborated with some non-Indian musicians like Chinese instrument called Pipa played by Gao Hong, Jazz Flutist James Newton---have composed music for ballets. I am also working closely with my wife Saskia who has modified and adapted the Cello for Indian Classical music. We compose and play together special pieces for the Sitar-Cello. Our music is what you could call an extension of Indian classical music because the soul remains Indian but we cross a few boundaries. These compositions have been received with great acclaim internationally.

(c) Deepak S. Raja
The finest recordings of Shubhendra Rao have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.  IndiaArcMu@aol.com

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bilaskhani Todi: a requiem for Miya Tansen

The creation of Bilaskhani Todi, is attributed to Bilas Khan, one of the four sons  of Mian  Tansen  (1491-1583), the legendary musician  who served  the  Mughal Emperor  Akbar (Reign: 1542-1605), and composed many Ragas, including Mian Ki Todi. Since the present Todi variant is currently the only Raga explicitly attributed to Bilas Khan, it is often referred to as, simply, Bilaskhani.

Legend  has  it  that Tansen thought poorly of Bilas Khan's  talent  as  a musician and had virtually disowned him. It was  at Tansen's funeral, that the grieving Bilas Khan  composed  this version of Todi, which became popular later as Bilaskhani Todi. According to another legend, Mian Tansen indicated, before his death, that the  next "Khalifa" (heir to the Tansen legacy) would be that son  of  his who  could  sing Todi, using the swara material of Bhairavi.  It  is  this challenge that inspired the Bilaskhani Todi.  Interestingly, the  Bhairavi of  the Hindustani tradition is, to this day, called Todi in the  Carnatic (South Indian) tradition.

Thus, according   to  legend,  by  the  evidence   of   inter-changeable nomenclatures,  and  by  the  identity of swara  material, Bhairavi  and Bilaskhani  Todi  are  siblings. However, their  phraseologies  and  their dominant  emotional content are as distinct from each other as cheese  is from soap. Bilaskhani is  a raga of pain, poignancy and pathos. On the  other  hand, Bhairavi,  in  its  various manifestations, can  range  from  the  deeply devotional in fervour to the romantic.

Bilaskhani Todi Scale: 
Ascent:   S r g P d S'/ Descent:  r’ n d M g r / g r n. d. S

The skeletal phraseology of this raga is made interesting by the rules of inclusion and omission. Ma and Ni swaras are omitted in the ascent, but are included in the descent. Ga and Pa swaras are present in ascent, but either missing or subliminally intoned in the descent. The observation of these rules results in the creation of a zigzag phraseology typical of Bilaskhani Todi.

Skeletal phraseology: 
r n. S r g/ r g P [or] r g d P/ g P d S’/ r’ n d M g r/ g P d M g r/ r g M g r/ g r n. d. S

The distinctive phraseology of Bilaskhani is so critical to the differentiation of this raga from Bhairavi, that almost any phrase, if ineptly handled, can blur the distinction. This is one of the reasons why, in vocal as well instrumental music, the raga is generally found to have been performed by mature musicians. The key to Bilaskhani, however, lies in its pain and pathos. Truly great renditions of this raga are, therefore, few. Amongst the many recordings I have heard of this raga, those of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Ameer Khan (all published) qualify as text-book renditions for their grammatical as well as aesthetic values.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York, 
Producers of the finest recordings of modern and contemporary Hindustani classical music. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Raga Nat Kamod : sustained by a single bandish

Nat Kamod belongs to an important segment of the Jaipur-Atrauli repertoire of compound ragas, in which Nat (sometimes called Shuddha Nat) is blended with other ragas. According to Dhondutai Kulkarni, the seniormost Jaipur-Atrauli vocalist, the gharana performs as many as 50 different compounds of Nat. The most frequently heard amongst these have been Savani-Nat, Bhoop-Nat, Nat-Bilawal, Nat Malhar, and of course, Nat Kamod. All these compounds are derived by blending selected phrases from the gharana’s primary Nat bandish “Bairan nanadiya” with phraseologies of other ragas. Each Nat compound has a different set of Nat phrases incorporated in it, thus avoiding the cliché’ ridden Nat identification more commonly heard in Nat compounds of other gharanas.

Nat Kamod is a rare raga, derived as a compound of Nat of the Bilawal parent scale, and Kamod of the Kalyan parent scale of Hindustani music. Its rarity is also reflected in the rarity of its documentation.

Nat:  Ascent: SRGMPDNS’: Descent: S D P M R S
KamodAscent: SR/PM^P/NDS’: Descent: S’NDP/M^PDP/ GMPGMRS
(Scale documentation: Subbarao B, Raga Nidhi, 4th impression, 1996, Music Academy, Madras.)

Manikbuwa Thakurdas, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, is the only authority to have offered a discussion on the melodic personality of the raga. He argues that the popular Kamod, as documented above, is not pure, as it has a fragment of Nat (GMPGMRS) embedded in it. As the pure Nat went out of circulation, the residual phrase of Nat in Kamod got wrongly associated with Kamod. (Raga Darshan, Vol. IV. 1st Edition. Laxminath Charitable Trust, Rajpipla, Gujarat).

Thakurdas, however, concedes that in compound ragas, the parameters of raga grammar, such as the aroh-avaroh (ascending and descending scale), vadi-samvadi (dominant and sub-dominant) swaras, and even chalan (skeletal phraseology) are irrelevant. The musician has considerable freedom in blending the two ragas, the only relevant yardstick for the compound being its distinctiveness, aesthetic appeal and coherence. This perspective is even more valid for a rare raga like Nat Kamod, whose chalan tends to get defined by the bandishes in circulation.

Only four recordings of this raga are available as a reference point. They belong to Dhondutai Kulkarni (India Archive Music, NY), Sharafat Hussain Khan of Agra gharana (unpublished), and Kesarbai Kerkar of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana (one unpublished concert recording, and one 78 RPM compilation: HMV/EMI: EALP:1278). All three musicians have performed the same bandish (Nevar baajo). This bandish has virtually been synonymous with the raga for over half a century, and is perhaps the sole repository of its raga-ness still in circulation.

Based on Kesarbai, Dhondutai, and Sharafat recordings, the chalan of the Nat/ Chhayanat biased treatment of Nat Kamod may be documented as follows:


Interestingly, the bandish performed by the three appears to tilt the raga’s melodic personality towards Nat more than Kamod. However, Sharafat Hussain’s rendition appears to have allowed traces of Chhaya Nat rather than pure Nat into Nat Kamod. That Sharafat has rendered it in ultra-fast tempo, while Kesarbai has rendered it in medium tempo Teental might possibly have influenced the blurred presence of Nat in his rendition.

In itself, however, the confusion of pure Nat with either pure Chhaya or with Chhayanat is not rare considering their proximity, and the difficulty these ragas have in maintaining their independent raga-ness in rendition. This is probably why the pure Nat has gone out of circulation, to be replaced by compounds such as Nat-Bhairav, Nat-Bilawal, Nat-Bihag etc., and pure Chhaya has disappeared leaving its trace primarily in Chhayanat. In conclusion, Nat Kamod appears to belong to a group with fluid grammatical boundaries, with the burden of identification resting substantially on the bandish.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of Raga Nat Kamod have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, (1922-2011)

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.

Beyond music

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

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Confucius – “It is only the Superior Man who can know music.”

Reproduced from: “The Wisdom of Confucius”
Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, New York.1963.

The inner nature of man is the province of music; that of ceremonies is his exterior. The result of music is perfect harmony; that of ceremonies the perfect observance of propriety. When one’s inner man is harmonious, and the outer man thus docile, the people see it in his face and do not quarrel with him; they look at his behavior and they become neither rude, nor indifferent. Hence the saying – “Carry out perfectly ceremonies and music; and give them their outward manifestation and application, and there will be nothing under Heaven difficult to manage.”

Let music attain its full results, and there will be no dissatisfied minds; let ceremony do so, and there will be no quarrels. If courtesies and bowings marked the government of the Kingdom, there would be what might be called music and ceremony, indeed. Violent oppression would not take place; the princes would appear submissively at the court as guests; there would be no occasion for the weapons of war, and no employment of the five punishments; the common people would have nothing to complain of; and the Son of Heaven no cause of anger. Such a state of things would be universal music.

All modulations of sound take their rise from the mind of man; and music is the inter-communication of them in their relations and differences. Hence even beasts know sound; and the masses of the people know the modulations; but they do not know music. It is only the Superior Man who can know music.

© Peter Pauper Press: Mount Vernon, New York. 1963