He created his own style'

Print edition : February 25, 2011

Vijay Kichlu: "Bhimsenji had his own style." - SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Interview with Pandit Vijay Kichlu, classical vocalist.

PANDIT VIJAY KICHLU is an eminent classical vocalist and musicologist. He and his brother, the late Pandit Ravi Kichlu, were famous as a vocalist duo. Born in 1930, Vijay Kichlu studied dhrupad (an old form of Hindustani classical vocals) from the Dagar brothers, who were among the foremost exponents of this tradition. In this exclusive interview, Vijay Kichlu, who knew Bhimsen Joshi for more than 50 years, spoke of the latter's genius, his versatility, and the kind of human being he knew him to be. Excerpts:

What in your opinion was the most singular and unique aspect of Bhimsen Joshi's singing?

The most unique aspect of any musician, for that matter not only of Bhimsen Joshi, is the personality that he brings into his music. Essentially, music is an art which one absorbs from the teachings of a guru; and you always inherit the academics, the shastra [science] that the guru imparts. But ultimately you give it your own personality. All that you have learnt, when you re-convey it, you do it in a manner that is suitable to you. So, you may not repeat exactly what you have learnt, but give the knowledge you have acquired your own character, your own touch, your own likes and dislikes all these are reflected in your own style. This is particularly so in the case of a genius, who presents his or her own creativity while artistically expressing himself or herself. Bhimsenji was a genius, and whatever he learnt from his gurus, he gave it a shape of his own.

It is said that he took the Kirana gharana, to which he belonged, to another level with his artistic vision and genius. Please elucidate.

It is what I was telling you before. The guru teaches you according to his own personality; but then there are a lot of things in that style and knowledge that may not suit you, or is not suitable to your own rendering of your personality. There may be certain aspects of singing that are your own strengths. So what you do is to concentrate on your strong points and do away with those you are not able to absorb suitably.

The Kirana gharana today can be looked at from the styles of different musicians. Let us take the case of the great Ustad Abdul Karim Khan saheb. He was the source of Bhimsenji's style. Now, in the same gharana was one of his cousins, Abdul Wahid Khan saheb, who stayed in Kirana in Uttar Pradesh. He and Abdul Karim Khan saheb, the two original stalwarts of the Kirana, became quite different from each other because Abdul Karim Khan saheb went to various other places before settling down in the West. He was also considerably influenced by Carnatic music. He developed a style that had a lot of diverse elements in it, and it became different from that of Abdul Wahid Khan saheb.

From his own family by family, I mean, students, disciples and followers came Sawai Gandharva, who was Bhimsenji's guru. He had his own style. Both Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsenji learnt from Sawai Gandharva, yet both had styles different from each other. That is how branches in gharanas are created. But only a genius can come up with a new version of what he or she has learnt. The style that Bhimsenji created did not exist earlier although the foundation or the source is the same as those of other singers of the gharana.

Bhimsenji was also a great bhajan singer. Could you tell us about his artistic versatility?

Bhimsenji was basically a khayal singer, but he was greatly influenced by the thumri singing of Abdul Karim Khan saheb. He was also greatly influenced by the Natya Sangeet of Maharashtra, which is presented on stage in theatre. So, influenced by all these, he created his own style of bhajan singing. Bhajans are also of different types. Bhimsenji adopted a format where for hours he could present different kinds of bhajans that were completely different from the khayal style of which he was a master. Thus, Bhimsenji was known in the devotional circle as a great bhajan singer, and he created his own style there too. And, as I said, he was very good at thumri singing based on the style of Abdul Karim Khan saheb.

He always seemed like an enigmatic figure on stage. Could you tell us what he was like as a person?

What was really striking about his personality was that he was a very simple person. Very humble and very lovable. He would always wear kurta pyjama. He was invariably very pleasant to everyone. The simplicity of his character was really remarkable and he was very approachable. He never kept a distance from people who liked him, and people liked him instantly. At home too, he lived a simple life. Nothing showy or flashy. He did not believe in luxuries. His diet, attire, and conversations were all simple.

The whole world knows that Bhimsenji was very fond of alcohol, and a lot of the humour and wit connected with him was about the way he used to dodge everybody and have his drink before or after a performance. But I don't want you to dwell too much on it because it is a different side of [his] personality.

He was a very witty person, but he did not speak much. He had a very quiet humour.

Is it true that in his single-minded pursuit of music he took up menial jobs in his early life to sustain himself?

That is a fact. He came from a simple family, and his urge for music was so strong that he could not accept the restraints his parents put on him that he become something else, not a musician. So he ran away from his family. I believe it took his parents three or five years to trace him finally. In the meantime, he did whatever was necessary to survive.

In fact, there is a famous story that he used to work for Pahari Sanyal [legendary Bengali film actor]. Pahari Sanyal was closely associated with me. I started a major music circle in Calcutta [Kolkata], known as the Calcutta Music Circle, and Pahari Sanyal was one of its vice-presidents. He was a great lover of classical music and used to sing himself. In his lighter moments, he would say, Bhimsenji worked with me at my place. Later on, when he met Bhimsenji, they had a happy reunion. In his earlier days, Bhimsenji moved from place to place, from musician to musician, just for survival. He had a very tough life, but he had incredible tenacity. There was a fire within him that he must learn music and he sacrificed his home, his family, everything for it.

Could you tell us about his long association with Kolkata?

The reason for his close association with Kolkata is very simple. In those days, the place had 10 times more activities in the field of music than any other city in India. I am talking about the 1950s to the 1980s.

Bombay [Mumbai] at that time was very much alive as far as vocal music was concerned but not very many major music conferences were taking place there. In fact, up to the early 1980s, Maharashtra used to have only three or four big conferences. Maximum eight. Delhi used to have just one or two.

Kolkata used to have 200 such platforms. There used to be at least 30 to 40 conferences in greater Kolkata itself; then again, every suburb would have a conference. It was natural that any popular musician and Bhimsenji in his time was the most popular vocalist of the country would be invited frequently to the city. Bhimsenji had more occasion to perform from big platforms in Kolkata than in any other Indian city. The highest number of musical festivals he attended in a year was in Kolkata. He was the most acclaimed vocalist in the country after Amir Khan saheb and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb.

What is Bhimsenji's legacy to Indian classical music?

The legacy of a musician is always from the people who follow him. There may be some direct disciples, but Bhimsenji was not known to be a great teacher. He was always so busy and involved in musical activities and performances that he did not have much time to teach directly. But followers developed, and they started following his style, and then owing to technological advances, recordings, radio, television, and so on, his music reached a lot of people. Bhimsenji's style is followed by many younger musicians: either they learnt from him directly or from some of his disciples, or they were influenced by his style of singing and picked it up by themselves.

You see, when a musician becomes a very powerful artiste, any other young musician or musician in the making who may not be following his style of singing, that is, Kirana gharana to be exact, may still get influenced by him and adopt a lot of his characteristics. Bhimsenji's influence spread far and wide and a lot of people started adopting not only his musical presentation but also his mannerisms on the stage. You can see that in many young musicians.

I feel it is the end of an era as far as the general standard of music making and scholarship is concerned. It remains to be seen whether anybody can really attain the heights that Bhimsenji attained. A lot of commercialism is finding its way into this field, and every musician has to travel a lot not only to make his living but because he is constantly asked to perform, after getting famous. Most of the time he is travelling. When musicians are travelling, they lose contact with their pupils, their own children and their families. So the companionship between the guru and the shishya is disturbed, and as a result, the qualitative attainment of the younger generation learning from one, directly or indirectly, is affected.

It is for this reason that we say that musicians of the calibre of Abdul Karim Khan saheb, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb and Amir Khan saheb do not exist today. We can observe that every generation that follows is a little less competent and less qualitatively inspiring than the previous generation. I put Bhimsen Joshiji in a class different from today's master musicians and different from the next generation also.

He belonged to a different era, and that era has come to an end with his passing.

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