Musical genius

Print edition : February 25, 2011

Bhimsen Joshi at a performance. He was a true star whose popularity cut across a wide variety of listeners. - COURTESY: FAMILY ALBUM OF GODAVARI BAI

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011) symbolised an era in Hindustani classical music.

THE demise of Bhimsen Joshi on January 24 in Pune marked the end of an era in Hindustani classical or, more accurately, Margiya music. He was 89. As a singer, he was a true star whose popularity cut across a wide variety of listeners, from the rasikas, or connoisseurs, to the uninitiated who were enthralled by his marvellous voice. I remember being thrilled by his robust and miraculously honey-dripped rendering of the raaga Kalashree on All India Radio (AIR) over 40 years ago. It took me some time to realise it was a long-playing record courtesy HMV (His Master's Voice), now Saregama, broadcast by the radio station. It must not be forgotten that he had been an AIR Lucknow staff artiste in 1941-42, doing three 10-minute broadcasts every week as a bhajan singer. He then shared a room with the not-yet-famous shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Bhimsen Joshi he was not called a Pandit as yet came to AIR Bombay, now Mumbai, in late 1942 so that he could be close to Pune, where stayed Sawai Gandharva, the musician who was to recognise the true potential in him and awaken the lyrical aspect of his musical persona.

It was not until 1946 that the limelight shone on him. He was 24 years old, had a powerful, very melodious voice and great tayyari, or preparedness. Whatever he sang was elegantly presented, even beribboned'. He had the stamina and the strength. He became the darling of the Harballabh Music Conference in 1948 in Jalandhar, (East) Punjab, which saw a dazzling presentation by singers of the Patiala gharana, especially Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who could sweep an audience off its feet with his virtuosity. Soon afterward, Bhimsenji conquered Calcutta (Kolkata) and had devoted listeners, especially at the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference in the 1960s. They would forgive him for anything, including his non-musical transgressions, especially in his later years.

In 2008, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in the country. It was a distinction that he was to share with Bismillah Khan, his former roommate, who was honoured six years earlier.

Arduous journey

It had been a difficult, even turbulent, journey through life for Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. He had run away from his home in Gadag town, in Dharwad district of Karnataka, as a young boy to pursue a vocation in music. A singer of bhajans, he had caught the spark from his mother Godavari, a pious woman. Legend has it that he sang his way in trains, ticketless, until he landed in the court of the Maharaja of Gwalior, who, pleased with his singing, gave him Rs.10 and a coconut. The boy's wanderlust took him to many places, including Jalandhar, where he learnt under a blind dhrupad singer for some time. One can surmise that his kharaj, or genuine bass notes, may have come from the brief but valuable lessons he may have got from this unsung artiste.

BHIMSEN JOSHI WITH vocalist Gangubai Hangal, both disciples of Sawai Gandharva.-COURTESY: GANGUBAI HANGAL MUSIC FOUNDATION

Much has been written about Bhimsen Joshi's debt to Sawai Gandharva (Rambhau Kundgolkar), a celebrated performer of Marathi Natya Sangeet and an intensely lyrical performer of khayal. Sawai Gandharva was a pupil of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the illustrious founder of the Kirana gharana, named after a village 64 kilometres from Delhi. It is indeed a charming paradox that musicians from today's Haryana in North India could make a mark in far-off Maharashtra a hundred years ago, and that Bhimsen Joshi, a Kannada-speaking boy, should travel far north in the 1930s in search of a music guru.

It was at the Harballabh Music Conference that he first heard the great khayal singer Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan. Deeply moved by his singing, Bhimsen Joshi decided that he had to learn from him. Always forthright, he approached the Ustad and made his request. He followed him to Rampur, where Mushtaq Hussain Khan was a court singer. In an interview he gave the national television channel Doordarshan, Bhimsen Joshi said that he had learned for a year from Mushtaq Hussain Khan Saheb. He added: Woh bade gawaiyye theye (He was a great singer).

If one were to pause and reflect on Bhimsen Joshi's style and its evolution, it would become apparent that the way in which he projected his voice was mastered from Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Jis tarah woh apni awaaz ko phenk te theye uss sey pata chalta heye ke unhon ney Mushtaq Hussain Khan Saheb se he yeh tariqa seekha thaa'' (It is quite apparent that he learnt to throw his voice in a particular way from Mushtaq Hussain Khan), notes Kailash Pande, a dedicated pupil of the very gifted Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain Khan, eldest son of Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan.

In his approach to a bandish, or composition, Bhimsenji was closer to the methods of the Gwalior-Rampur gharana singers than those of the Kirana. Kirana wallon ki tarah woh sirf surron par wa aakaar ke zor par badhath nahin kartey theye balki bandish ki zaroorat keye anusaar chalte theye(Unlike the exponents of the Kirana gharana who used the progression of notes in a composition in a given raaga, Bhimsenji respected the mood of the composition), Pande adds. Of course, the sudden bursts of tender poetry amidst rugged and stable vocal technique were as much learned from Sawai Gandharva with whom he stayed as a favourite pupil for three years, after passing the dedication test' by doing household chores happily as it was the expression of a part of his mercurial personality.

Personal life

He married twice; the first marriage was to his cousin Sunanda Hungund in 1947, a union that produced two sons and two daughters, and the second, in 1951, was to his disciple Vatsala Dhondopant Mudholkar, who bore him two sons and a daughter. He managed to escape bigamy charges since marriage laws became stringent only in 1955, and lived with both his wives and their children by him under one roof.

It is difficult to tell where his fondness for alcohol came from, but it may have resulted from his having to cope with constant domestic tensions. He was the most sought-after vocalist in Hindustani music from 1950 until a few years before his death. He was probably the most highly paid singer of his generation. Constant travel within the country and to other continents, especially after the Festivals of India overseas, took their toll on him, but ironically brought him respite from his domestic troubles. He also sought release from his worldly problems by driving fast cars. One of his first acquisitions, on becoming a celebrity, was an American Dodge Kingsway car. He drove it at high speeds on the winding roads of the Western Ghats!

Repertoire of raagas

He was at heart a traditionalist, though enthusiastic fans claimed he was an experimentalist. It is true that his repertoire of raagas expanded considerably after he turned 60 but before that, it was small. He may have imposed this limitation on himself deliberately. One has heard him sing Sakhi ae li aali piya bin, a hoary composition in raaga Yaman, taught to students of vocal music today. He had told music critic Chetan Karnani that he sang nearly 35 raagas in the mid-1970s. The raagas that he sang with customary gusto then were Durbari Kannada, Miya ki Todi, Mian ki Malhar, Yaman Kalyan, Shudha Kalyan, Brindabani Sarang, Marwa, Shudh Kedar, Puriya Dhanashree, Multani, Maru-Bihag, Puriya-Kalyan, Bhairavi, and Gaud Sarang.

WITH SHEHNAI MAESTRO Ustad Bismillah Khan, once his roommate.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bhimsenji, like almost all khayal singers of his time barring the maverick genius Ustad Ameer Khan, did not do an elaborate alaap in a given raaga. Rather, he acquainted the listener with the raaga's contours by doing a deft sketch of its melodic progression. This done, he launched into the main body of the raaga, first through a composition in medium tempo in a given taala, or beat cycle, accompanied on the tabla. After this, he moved a drut or a quick-tempo bandish . He was in his element in these exercises. A variety of taans emanating from the navel, chest or throat burst forth like fireworks to overwhelm the listener; however, all this was done in the service of the raaga being sung. His chest tones were formidable and the timbre of his voice most pleasing. In his time, Bhimsen Joshi's was the most attractive male voice in Hindustani music.

Bhimsen Joshi's breath control was truly amazing. In his late middle age or even slightly later, he could take long and complicated fast taans quite effortlessly. He was matched in the area of breath control by a small-built, tobacco-addicted old virtuoso from Karnataka by the name of Mallikarjun Mansur. How the latter managed this is a medical mystery because he did not possess the bull-like physical attributes of Bhimsen Joshi, though he could match him for grit.

Bhimsenji's immensely strong body and spirit did take a lot of punishment between the age of 40 and 60. There were dark periods when his innate musicality would intermittently desert him and he would go out of tune while giving a live concert. He conquered this folly through sheer force of character. He always retained his unusually long breath and never had to struggle for breath even during the worst period of his life, musically.

It is here that he differed from a gifted musician from Bengal, Chinmoy Lahiri, who began drinking recklessly following a failed domestic life. Lahiri, before he embarked on certain reckless musical experiments in the interpretation of raagas within khayal singing, was an artist of rare finesse. But lack of character cast him into oblivion. Lahiri was more in love with himself than his music. In contrast, Bhimsenji put his music above the troubles in his personal life. He fought his way out of a dark corner into the sunlight and stayed there.

He was always his own man. During the Emergency (1975-1977), when many artists and intellectuals were bending over backwards to please the government, he did not think it necessary to toe the line. It was at that time that he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and came to Delhi to receive it. I remember Bhimsenji asking me for a cigarette and responding thus to my felicitation for the concert that was about to begin: Khaak gayenge gaana iss Emergency mein (What kind of music do you expect during this Emergency)? He was accompanied that evening on the harmonium by Pu La Deshpande, another fine and versatile artiste from Maharashtra. Bhimsenji, in spite of his contentious mood, got by that evening through sheer professionalism.

His sense of egalitarianism was for real. He sang the Abhangs a form of religio-moral folk poetry that cut across barriers of caste of Tukaram and Vitthal, two great social rebels who were considered saints by the so-called lower castes. Bhimsenji sang their poetry with a conviction that often surpassed his khayal singing. He brought a similar intensity of feeling when he sang the poetry of Tulsidas and Kabir, saint-poets of northern India. This understanding of a poet's intention came as much from a well-honed intuition he had very little formal education, which, in this case, proved to be a blessing as from a traditional upbringing where bhajan singing was a part and parcel of family life. He acquired a kind of inner equipoise that happily contradicted his outgoing, worldly personality.


Shyamal Sarkar, a great devotee of Hindustani music and a pupil of the great sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan of Gwalior and Rampur, was employed in a senior position at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in 1987 when the Festival of India in Sweden happened. Bhimsen Joshi was the star attraction and was to sing for about 25 minutes immediately after the inauguration. Some suggested to Sarkar that he convince the temperamental master to present songs in a lighter genre, say, thumri, for the Swedish audience. When Sarkar finally made bold to put the suggestion before Bhimsenji, he replied gently, Aap chinta mat kijiye Sarkar Saheb, mein sambhaloonga.'' (Don't worry Sarkar, I'll take care of everything.)

Sarkar remembers: He sang Poorvi' putting his heart and soul into the raaga. The audience was mesmerised. They applauded for a full 10 minutes after he had finished.'' No singer in Hindustani music had his charisma despite an endless variety of grimaces while singing.

In his later years, he widened his repertoire to include bandishes in a range of raagas. He made recordings, among others, in Bageshwari-Bahar, Bhimpalas, Bibhas, Deskar, Gaud Malhar, Megh, Maluha Kedar, Nayaki Kanada, Shudh Sarang, Suha Sugrai, Jaijawanti-Nat, Jaunpuri, Lalita-Gauri, Madhuwanti, Patdeep, Hindol-Bahar and Shankara. This was a welcome change that added a new dimension to his singing that had, in the opinion of some, depended for far too long on virtuosity. He had begun, inasmuch as was then possible, to look inwards.

Every year he organised in Pune, where he lived for the past 50 years or more, a music festival in honour of Sawai Gandharva. He saw to it that promising youngsters were also invited along with the veterans so that their talent could be appreciated by rasikas, thus giving them the confidence to sing in public with ease. Bhimsen Joshi took a personal interest in the nitty-gritty of organising the event. It was his way of thanking the public for standing by him over the years.

Fate had decreed that he be the audience's most loved child. No other artist in Hindustani music in the post-Independence era was so indulged by listeners. Even in the trying years, when he frequently turned up drunk, or on occasion sang out of tune, they still loved him. He would often be drinking in the green room when his turn came, and he would refuse to go on stage. People would wait patiently for hours for him to appear on stage to sing to them. In their eyes he was the quintessential artist, and therefore needed to be protected. Once in Kolkata, he refused to stop drinking and to sing despite the organisers' pleas. He finally appeared at dawn (in those days music festivals lasted all night) and burst into Babul Mora, Wajid Ali Shah's immortal thumri set in the raaga Bhairavi. After he finished, there was scarcely a dry eye in the audience.

When he put health and music above self-indulgence, he became a brilliant musician once again. Erratic concert performances were behind him. He became a patriarch of Hindustani vocal music, and many youngsters sought his blessings and wanted to emulate his music. A video recording of him at 80, singing with two of his pupils, showed how much vitality was still left in him. Since it was difficult for him to sit cross-legged, he was sitting on the edge of the platform with his legs touching the floor that was his only concession to the march of time. He sang Shyam bajayi aaj muraliya', a bandish in Yaman Kalyan, set in Teen Taal, Madhya Laya.

His was a vivid, colourful life; full of ups and downs, but in retrospect there were definitely more ups than downs. His flamboyance was as much a part of his music as it was of his personality. There was a core of pristine simplicity behind the mask of the public artist' that he wore for years. He had served his gods and his ever loyal listeners through music, and to music he belonged. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi put all of himself into a bhajan that he often sang to round off concerts, Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada So Hi Param Pad Paegaa' (He who worships Hari, or Vishnu, shall find the ultimate reward, salvation).

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