Living memories

Print edition : March 25, 2011

In the hometown of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, in search of the roots of the Kirana maestro's inspiration.

in Gadag

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in a rare pose.-FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM OF MADHAVA GUDI

DO not forget to say that it is the grace of Lord Veeranarayana that made our Bhimanna a Bharat Ratna, the priest at the historic temple in Gadag, in northern Karnataka, called out to us as we were leaving, referring to the country's highest civilian award conferred on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. He had narrated only a little earlier the story of how Bhimsen Joshi's mother had prayed to Veeranarayana for a son with a voice that resounded like the temple bell. And Veeranarayana blessed her with a son who had a voice that was unmatched in the entire country, he said. The huge brass bell in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple has so rich a resonance that almost all of Gadag can hear it.

It is said that the poet Kumaravyasa wrote his Mahabharata (a Kannada rendering of the Mahabharata) at this temple. Bhimsen Joshi played here as a child. My father used to tell me how the temple was his favourite haunt, the priest said.

Bhimsen Joshi's brother Pranesh remembers how the maestro once asked him when he visited Bhimsen in Pune whether they had cobbled the premises of the temple or is it still as it used to be?

Ever since Bhimsen Joshi passed away on January 24, almost everybody you met had a story to tell about the legendary singer. Our journey to Gadag, his hometown, to explore the roots of the Kirana maestro's inspiration only threw up more stories.

Not just the temple, even the premises of the 100-year-old house in which Bhimsen and his 15 siblings grew up are replete with memories. The pond in which all the children learnt swimming from their father, the backyard where firewood was cut, the places they played in, the trees they climbed, and more.

Part of the popular mythology is how the maverick maestro was always on the move from his early childhood. He followed the note, perpetually trying to uncover its mystery. The moments in which he seemed to touch them were also moments in which they disappeared it was an elusive chase.

The real world, for Bhimsen Joshi, was hence only a meeting point between the finite and the boundless, where formless abstractions took the melodic form. It remained true for all his life, and hence any conversation with him, rooted in the real, was mostly monosyllabic. But if it was a conversation about music, particularly with his guru bandhus, friends and disciples, he was aflame.

The inimitable Kumar Gandharva, who also kept journeying to cling on to that ever mysterious note, would say, As it proceeds, the song only gets more subtle and empty. Bhimsen Joshi, like Kumar Gandharva, experienced that like life, music is also a journey. In the case of music, you never reach the destination.

Bhimsen Joshi at a young age.-FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM OF GODAVARI BAI

People who have watched Bhimsen Joshi closely recall how he would spend hours together on his easy chair without uttering a word; at times his body would break into gestures like one got to see during his performance as if he were engaged in a physical chase.

He went in search of music with a restless obsession. Sur saadhana did not mean a note on the scale something that could be achieved with technical perfection but as Anjani Bai Malpekar, an extraordinary musician of the early 20th century, would say, A deep space to which one gains access through an opening of the self. It becomes possible to enter that space after giving up conventional self-consciousness, allowing the voice to merge with something that seems to be already there.

If Kumar Gandharva sought that higher consciousness in Kabir and nirgun, Bhimsen Joshi tried to find it in Raghavendra Swami of Mantralaya and Pandari Vittala of Pandarapur.

Despite Bhimsen Joshi's spiritual understanding, he, like Mallikarjun Mansur, believed that music was a battle which had to be fought in the real world; it was hardly a drop from the high heavens. Talent had to be nurtured in the fires of individual passion, in the presence and benevolence of a guru. Austerity could take you some distance, he would say, but without the guru the world is blind.

Bhimsen Joshi with his father, Guracharya Joshi.-FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM OF GODAVARI BAI

Susheelendra Joshi, Bhimsen Joshi's younger brother, insists that between the transactions of the real' and the abstract' there has to be an agent as well. The agent, according to him, was their father. In the early days, Guracharya Joshi's resistance to his son's love for music fuelled Bhimsen's resolve to pursue the art. But in the later years, my father's faith in excellence coupled with a deep awe for knowledge led my brother to great heights, Susheelendra said.

When I was a child, my father was already past his prime. My brother was a top-notch artiste on the Indian music scene. Even in the face of difficult times, my father never went knocking on his doors. However, he did not miss a single concert that took place in the vicinity of Gadag, said Susheelendra.

Guracharya Joshi, a meticulous academic, was constantly working, studying, researching, and writing books well into his old age, but he never interfered in his famous son's life. Bhimsen Joshi, too, never did anything that would upset his father's sense of equilibrium and dignity. As a kid, the nature of this father-son relationship haunted me immensely, Susheelendra said.

When Susheelendra was eight, he accompanied his father to his brother's concert at the Sawai Gandharva hall in Hubli. On seeing his father, Bhimsen got off the stage, came into the auditorium and touched his father's feet. After the concert, Guracharya Joshi went up to his son, lovingly put his hands around his shoulder and said, I'll leave now Bhimu.

BHIMSEN JOSHI, LATA Mangeshkar and Madhava Gudi, his student.-COURTESY: MADHAVA GUDI

All right, came the reply. At 11.30 in the night, Susheelendra and his father quietly walked to the Hubli railway station and slept in an empty train. Their train to Gadag was only the next morning. My brother could have easily dropped us to Gadag by car. But he didn't. We slept in a train, cold and hungry. How could one make sense of such detachment? he asked. Growing up, I have realised that he was the embodiment of my father's spirit, a true son. He was deeply attached to my father, but also had enormous respect for my father's sense of dignity. Like my father, he remained a passionate student until his last breath.

Whenever he was in deep moral anguish, Bhimsen Joshi ran to his father. I am always here for you. But we have to live out our respective karmas. Our battles are different. Go Bhimu, you have to face your life on your own, is all he would say.

Bhimsen Joshi's music was marked by creative intensity. He could infuse in his listeners his own anguish, and hence even a stoical and detached Guracharya Joshi would weep after listening to his son.

Bhimsen Joshi never lost sight of the fact that he was a practitioner of the most perishable art. Notes died every moment and sought rebirth. What has happened once in music cannot happen by the same person, again. It was this understanding that made him one of the most complex practitioners of the Kirana gharana.

Bhimsen Joshi was conscious of the constantly evolving nature of all creative, traditional knowledge systems. Hence, gharana music never confined him; it provided a framework for his passionate explorations. He could thereby plumb new imaginative depths without defying tradition, but could constantly redefine it. In Bhimsen Joshi's death, the most original and ingenious phase of the Kirana has come to an end.

BHIMSEN JOSHI AND Gangubai Hangal.-COURTESY: THE GANGUBAI HANGAL MUSIC FOUNDATION

The death of Bhimsen Joshi marks the end of the most vibrant, heterogeneous tradition of the Kirana gharana. All its pillars Sawai Gandharva, Amir Khan, Firoze Dastur, Gangubai Hangal, Hirabai Badodekar and Bhimsen Joshi are gone. All of them enriched the gharana with their highly imaginative artistry, faith and conviction. Deeply traditional, yet highly modern and innovative in their quest, they enriched the existing idiom.

Once, perhaps in the 1970s, Bhimsen Joshi rushed to Gangubai's residence. He pulled her hand and put it on his head and said, Bless me. What's happening? a flustered Gangubai asked. Apparently, Kumar Gandharva gave an outstanding concert yesterday. Today, when I sing, I should be able to match his excellence. Bless me, akka.

The journey of Bhimsen Joshi's music and life mirrors the quest of a creative artiste. Here intellect and emotion are never two separate entities.

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