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Bhimsen Joshi is 75

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Bhimsen Joshi is 75

The Special, February

He has never cared to hog the limelight. Quite to the contrary, the limelight keeps hogging him.


Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011)

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011)

A tribute to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the doyen of Hindustani classical music, on his 75th birthday, by Mohan Nadkarni, his biographer and wellknown critic.

A jubilee year is rightly and understandably an event for rejoicing as much in the life of an individual as in that of an institution. There is much fanfare, bon homie and camaraderie to mark its observance.

It is a different story, though, with Bhimsen Joshi, who turned 75 on Tuesday, February 4, 1997. Not much ado, glamour and glitter witnessed about his birthday. This was the case with him even when he crossed 60 or 70. Indeed, the maestro, who is numero uno among the male Hindustani vocalists of our time, strikes me as an exception in the galaxy of luminaries still dominating the musical horizon. Unlike many of the confreres, he has never cared to hog the limelight. Quite to the contrary, the limelight keeps hogging him.

And why not? Even at this age, he remains a star attraction whenever and wherever he is billed to perform — both at home and abroad. Unlike, again, some of his confreres, but younger in age, he has studiously avoided being dubbed a cult figure. Like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, Bhimsenji has truly shown the triumph of his spirit with his recovery from a recent and prolonged illness. True to his name, he retains robust health with all faculties intact.

I first heard Bhimsen Joshi when I tuned in to the Bombay station of All India Radio one fine morning in February 1943. As I learnt later, it was also his first broadcast. Pure coincidence! Like me, who ever heard this broadcast must have, I am sure, felt that a brilliant star had risen on the musical horizon, that a generation of young, talented vocalists had really emerged worthy of wearing the mantle of old masters.

In retrospect, we find that few contemporary Hindustani vocalists have ever come to enjoy such tremendous popularity for so long as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. True enough, he has few equals in the field — fame wise or box-office wise. If one goes by the modest guesswork of a few ardent Bhimsen-watchers, he may well have given concerts exceeding five figures by now.

His phenomenal professional career, spanning more than five decades, convincingly shows that he has done something much more than fulfill the hopes and expectations raised by him in the early forties. It is also equally undeniable that in the course of his fantastic climb to greater and still greater heights, his approach to raga music has undergone many significant changes. These have predictably evoked diverse reactions from his audiences.

As one given to listening to Bhimsenji’s music continuously for so many decades, I am inclined to see the changes in his gayakinot only in the context of his early life and the environment in which he grew and the influences and impressions that shaped his musical personality, but also against the background of the qualitative changes which came the wider musical scene after Independence.

Former Illustrade Weekly editor the Late M V Kamath presents the first copy of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi by Mohan Nadkarni to Panditji in 1983.

Former Illustrated Weekly of India editor the Late M V Kamath presents the first copy of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s biography by Mohan Nadkarni to Panditji in 1983.

Over the years, I have met Bhimsenji off-stage so many times that it is simply beyond me to enumerate them. It was during his lunch visit to my residence, in May 1982, that he discreetly suggested that I write his biography in English to mark his 60th birthday that year. The book, which has also had its Hindi and Kannada versions in the market, has come out with its updated edition by popular demand. While on this biography, I simply cannot resists the temptation to give summation of Panditji’s early life and career.

Bhimsen Joshi, who hails from Gadag, in Dharwad district, in Karnataka, is the son of the noted educationist, Gururaj Joshi, whose Kannada-English dictionary is acknowledged as the standard work of its kind even today. Bhimsen’s grandfather, Bhimacharya, was a noted musician of his time. But it was by listening to his mother’s bhajans that he acquired a taste for music. the environment at home was predictably one of learning and scholarship, and the educationist father naturally wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.

Bhimsen’s obsession with music posed problems for his parents in many ways. There were occasions when the child would quietly slip away from home to join and follow passing bhajan mandalis, only to be restored to his parents by many a good samaritan known to the family. Later, his passion for music grew so intense that he decided to run away from home, after accidentally listening to Abdul Karim Khan’s commercial disc – the thumri Jhinjohti, Piya bin nahin awat chain.

In Bhimsen’s own words, this was a turning point in his quest of a guru. (Incidentally, speaking of his escapade, he always hastens to tell his friends, in a humorous vein, that ‘running away from home’; is also a family tradition set by none less than his father himself).

Leaving home in search of a guru, Bhimsen, then only ll, wandered from place to place. After unsuccessful sojourns at Bijapur, Pune and Bombay, he managed to reach Gwalior without any ticket. Throughout his journeys, he would regale his co-passengers and even the ticket-checking staff, with songs he had memorised from gramophone records.

At times, he moved clandestinely from compartment to compartment, breaking his travelling at intermediate stations and passing time on platforms in an attempt to give the slip to the ever-watchful railway men. It took him nearly three months to reach his destination.

But for one driven by a compulsive urge to find a master to teach him music, Bhimsen’s sojourn in Gwalior did not satisfy him, even though he could benefit from the guidance of stalwarts like the sarod maestro, Hafiz Ali Khan, and Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and Rajabhayya Poochhwale, both veterans of the Gwalior gayaki. He then moved to Kharagpur, Calcutta, Delhi and finally to Jalandhar, in Punjab.

Ironically, even at Jalandhar, he could not find a master who could teach him khayal, singing although it has long been known to be a leading centre of Hindustani music because of its annual mammoth music festival. Though dispirited, he managed to learn the intricacies of dhrupad singing from blind musicians.

Bhimsen’s homeward journey began following the sympathetic advice of Vinayakarao Patwardhan, the great scholar-musician and exponent of the Gwalior gayaki, who happened to be at Jalandhar to participate in the annual festival. He heeded the veteran’s suggestion that he should go back home and try to seek tutelage under Sawai Gandharva, the most outstanding disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, who lived at Kundgol, a village not far from his home town Gadag.

His music was powerful and dramatic, ornamental and virile, live and sprightly — all at the same time

The author with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

The author with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

It is significant that for Bhimsen, who had gone almost crazy after listening to the recorded music of Abdul Karim Khan, he should have found his mentor in the Ustad’s chief disciple. His apprenticeship under Sawai Gandharva for five years was arduous but rewarding, too. It struck the keynote of Bhimsen’s career. For the master encouraged his pupil to accompany him on his concert tours and hear the recitals of several contemporary masters of the time from all over the country.

This exposure helped Bhimsen in two ways. It helped him widen his musical understanding and aesthetic appreciation. Side by side, the impressionable youngster developed, unconsciously though, a keen insight into the psychology of the audiences — their moods, whims and preferences.

On his return home from his guru, Bhimsen continued his riyaz for one year. Overcome by wanderlust, he left Gadag for Bombay, from where he moved to Rampur and Lucknow. His sojourns at these musical citadels helped him enrich his knowledge of khayal and thumri. His travels finally ended in late 1942, when he rushed back home in the wake of the developments after the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II.

The post-freedom years ushered in a new era of change and resurgence in several fields of human endeavour. But the kind of changes in the performance and appreciation of Hindustani music would seem to be almost cataclysmic — the likes of which were never in evidence in its long chequered history.

That was the time when many a traditional artists might well have been at a loss to know the patron from whom he was supposed to perform. He might also have found himself on the horns of a dilemma: should be undergo the ordeal of keeping his tradition alive with no compromises, or realign his practices to the varied tastes of his new class of audience, with its own moods and caprices?

A traditionalist by temperament and training, Bhimsen Joshi, it would appear, gradually evolved a new approach that was designed to strike a balance between what may be termed traditional values and new mass-culture tastes. To popularise what is classical is inevitably to vulgarise it a little, and therefore, opinions will always differ on the relative merits of such an approach. Be that as it may, a gradual change in the content and character of Bhimsen’s music began to reveal itself in the late fifties.

For example, his khayal compositions in slow tempo always had an excellent start. The raga unfolding that followed also often held out the promise of a perfectly integrated form — broad in conception, with a judicious amalgam of alap and gamak, boltaanand taan. But the serene, reposeful mood, created earlier, would get steadily vitiated, if not totally lost, in the later stages, when the artiste would startle his listeners with a profusion of vigorous, cascading taans — at times even before the formal enunciation of the antara!

Particularly disturbing was the degree of force and animation that went with their execution. While they were ingenious and complex in design, they also sounded erratic in effect. It was, as though, he was hell-bent to prove that he had a voice that he could mould to do anything he wished. To me, as to those who were used to hear him sing much better in the past, the new elements were totally incompatible with the caressive character of the Kirana gayaki. If anything, they only seemed to have been designed to please his mixed audiences.

After I took to writing for The Times of India as its columnist and then as its music critic in the mid-fifties, I became a regular Bhimsen listener. I have attended and reviewed his Bombay concerts so many times that it is difficult for me to recount them. Till late 1979, my reaction to my performances was either one of agony of ecstasy, depending on their quality or, rather, the condition or mood in which he came to perform on the stage.

During this period, covering almost two decades, Bhimsenji had also taken to drinking which varied from moderate to excessive. His performances on such occasions were lacklustre. His monumental voice, with its amazing volume, depth and range, which would otherwise grip his listeners with the very opening shadja, was devoid of clarity and sharpness.

If his raga depiction showed massive form, it lacked a sense of design. Yet there was no diminution in his popularity. He had built up a permanent audience of his own. To such an audience, nothing else mattered once the maestro came on the platform!

Fortuitously, even amid the plethora of concerts of uneven quality, there were occasions, though few, when Bhimsenji showed himself in the best of his moods. Those were probably the occasions when he was either completely sober or moderately inebriated. He would sing passionately and expansively and take his listeners to ecstatic heights to share his pure, sensuous joy with them.

In late 1979, Bhimsenji appeared to have decided to abstain completely from drinking and to generally tidy up his daily routine in the interest of his health and professional career. Only from then on were we able to see, once again, the magnificent dimensions of his singing. Strands from the styles of great masters, whom he met and heard, and also those from whom he tried to learn in the course of his relentless rambling, were now found woven imperceptibly into his gayaki.

As a result, his music came to embody a rare fusion of talent, intelligence and passion — and something more. It was powerful and dramatic, ornamental and virile, live and sprightly — all at the same time.

Paradoxical but true, Bhimsenji’s repertoire of ragas looks not only limited, but he is also found singing certain ragas all too often. While he readily concedes that his repertoire is limited, he avers that the ragas he presents at concerts are all his forte, and that they suit his temperament and the character of his music. True enough, those who are au fait with his music would know how each of his favourite ragas sounds so differently every time he presents it.

Besides, he says he has no use for intricate and queer-sounding ragas for his concert fare. One cannot fail to notice, though, that his melodies like Chhaya-Malhar, Lalit-Bhatiyar and Marwa-Shree are available in their commercial recordings. It is a different matter, too, that in recent years, the maestro has chosen to include them in his concert performances — presumably in response to popular demand.

By the way, the sustained popularity of his commercially recorded music and, more especially, the frequency with which new releases kept coming into the market till about five years ago, provide unimpeachable proof of the tremendous vogue he continues to enjoy outside the concert hall as well. He is the only Hindustani vocalist to have won the coveted Platinum Disc from His Master’s Voice in the eighties, making history of sorts in the music market. Generally speaking, his recorded classical repertoire has come to maintain an all-time high.

He has loved and lived his life in all its romance and intensity, and sought to reflect it so eloquently through his music

Bhimsenji once told me that it was his first long-play disc that made known him abroad, for the first time, in 1964. Not surprisingly, his concert visit outside India have been quite frequent. He is also the first ever Indian musician to have publicised his concerts through a poster campaign in cities like New York, performing before a mixed audience of 2,000 listeners. What is more, no other Hindustani vocalist, by common consent, has gone abroad with an entourage of his own, comprising accompanists and members of his family.

Bhimsenji’s appearance on Doordarshan’s Mile sur mera tumhara devised to promote national integration, rightly earned him unstinted acclaim. But his teaming up with the eminent Carnatic vocalist, Balamurali Krishna, and the celebrated painter, M F Husain, in two separate extravaganzas, brought him more brickbats than bouquets.

His jugalbandi with Krishna was a state-sponsored show, and it formed part of a series of similar duets partnered by noted exponents of the two sister sangeet paramparas. Here, too, as in the Doordarshan’s show, the object of staging such presentation was to promote the much-vaunted theme of national integration. In the eyes of the serious and ardent fan, however, thejugalbandi was a purely commercial gimmick.

Bhimsenji’s joining hands with Husain was also widely publicised. The show, designed by its sponsors to emphasise the ‘fundamental unity of the arts’ attracted a phenomenal turnout of affluent, status-conscious connoisseurs. Although it was orchestrated as a charitable cause, debates continued to be raised for weeks on end on the question whether the stalwarts of the caliber of Panditji and Husain really needed to succumb to what were unmistakably mercenary considerations.

What is more, Bhimsenji’s comment, soon after his participation in the March 1988 show was quite revealing. He said: “What do I understand of modern art? I sang for an hour, and M F Husain got up to put white paint on the huge canvas, and then, bright red.” With disarming candour, he added: “But then, the work of a modern artist is difficult to appreciate unless explained by him.”

Bhimsenji’s oratorical abilities were evident, for the first time, at the trend-setting symposium organised by the Sangeet Research Academy, Calcutta, in December 1988. The event, attended by prominent musicians, dancers, research scholars and critics, was to review that classical performing art scene and discuss its problems in an attempt to reach concrete decisions and initiate follow-up action.

Panditji surprised his distinguished gathering by his gift of the gab. Speaking extempore in Hindi, he commended AIR’s work in popularising classical music. But he also called upon artists to “strive to achieve eminence to a degree where AIR itself should be impelled to enlist them for its broadcasts.”

When the five-day proceedings clinched one vital issue — the role of the performing artists in perpetuating the paramparaideology by rearing a generation of worthy and comparable shishyas — there was ominous silence on the part of Bhimsenji and his distinguished confreres. Small wonder, that!

For, most of today’s leading lights seem to abhor the very idea of sacrificing their individual interests to fulfill the demands of traditional excellence through vidya daan (teaching). Indeed, this is precisely the reason why one finds that the more celebrated the performing musician, the less is the number of comparable disciples to his credit.

And Bhimsenji is no exception. Amid his unending concert tours, practically round the year, he evidently finds it impossible for him to groom worthy disciples. But, instead of giving them coaching at home in the parampara way, he takes them with him, by rotation, on his concert tours. The object is to give them enough scope to show their talent and skill even while they provide him vocal support on the concert platform.

How does Panditji view the contemporary musical scene? He frankly says that he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic at the prospect. He believes that a tradition that traces its origin to Vedic times and has evolved in the perspective of the country’s social, cultural and political history, can never become decadent, much less die out.

Adds he: “Possibly, it is getting ready to take off into realms of melody and rhythm as yet unknown.” Khayal-singing, in his view, may undergo changes in form, design and content. But what is crucial to its depiction is the right fusion of swara, laya and gayaki. It should be basically entertaining, he asserts.

Panditji is alive to the prevailing uncertain conditions and concedes that it is an equally risky proposition for any one to take to music as a full-time profession. Those who are determined to forge ahead should have the courage and strength to brave the odds, and relentlessly strive to reach the goal. “If they establish their individuality and also uphold the ideology of parampara, all will be well with them,” as he once observed.

A man of many parts, he has been a yoga enthusiast, singing stage-actor, swimmer, football fan and connoisseur of the arts. He is also a self-trained automobile engineer. He is the moving spirit behind the mammoth annual soiree held at Pune in observance of the death anniversary of his guru, Swami Gandharva.

Year after year, the event continues to draw what is probably the largest audience in the country. It is a unique assemblage of musical luminaries on a common festival platform for nearly four decades. The event comes as a resounding vindication of the esteem and goodwill in which the maestro is held by his fraternity in a field which is otherwise so hopelessly riven with rivalry.

Being twice-married, Bhimsenji has had to undergo the travails and tribulations involved in managing two families. But he has been none the worse for the situation around him. The plenitude of honours, accolades and distinctions, which include the Padma Bhushan, do not make any difference to him. Nor does the acknowledged greatness attributed to him as India’s Number One male Hindustani vocalist today.

Indeed, it is the complete identification of the man with his music that is what made him what he is today. Here is a man who has loved and lived his life in all its romance and intensity, and sought to reflect it so eloquently through his music. Be it the lay listener or the cognoscenti, it has the power to command and obtain the spontaneous surrender of his audiences.



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