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In the shadows – G N Joshi

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In the shadows – G N Joshi

In these days of high-voltage publicity, it is rare that a musical celebrity is denied his due in the hall of fame. That, too, when he had played an undeniably crucial part in the development of the music industry.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles G. N. Joshi, a classicist with a difference.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, July 26, 1987


GN Joshi was a multifaceted artiste.

GN Joshi was a multifaceted artiste.

In the quiet, salubrious environs of Mahim, in central Bombay, which still retains its old-world charm, is located a green, two-storeyed bungalow. Aptly named ‘Rageshree’, it is the house that G. N. Joshi built in 1953. He has been staying there with his wife and eldest daughter in the serene, calm atmosphere of the household. Now 78, he still has all his faculties intact. Although, physically speaking, he is no longer as he was till three years ago, he spends his time fruitfully, listening to music, reading and writing.

Musician, music-maker, innovator and author rolled into one, Joshi happens to belong to that rare breed of highly educated members of the old generation who changed the course of their life mid-stream, so to speak, to devote themselves completely to music. Rarer still today, are examples of educated individuals who leave their lucrative professions to serve the cause of music in as many ways as he did. He is also one of the few in the field who always thought ahead of his times.

Ironical as it may appear, with all his enviable attainments, Joshi seems to have remained away from the limelight. Not many outside Maharashtra, know that he was the first to introduce ghazal in Marathi, way back in the early thirties, thereby pioneering a new trend in light music in the Marathi-speaking regions of the old Bombay Presidency and the Central Provinces and Berar. Fewer still will be aware of his multifaceted contribution to the wider field of Indian music during his four decades of association with the Gramophone Company of India, better known as HMV. During this period, he projected their recorded music of not only the reigning masters of our time but also young, promising stylists in classical, light classical and popular music.

That is not all. He was also the first to visualise the need for and to bring out a series of commercial discs containing bedtime stories, songs and lullabies for children and stories of great men of India – all designed to inspire and educate young children.

Born at Kalyan near Bombay, on April 6, 1909 G. N. Joshi is the son of a eminent lawyer of Khamgaon, now in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Predictably, a lawyer’s career was envisaged for him by his father. Joshi was a good student and got his bachelor’s degree from Nagpur University and law degree from Bombay University. He then practised law at the Bombay high court for four years from 1934 and even secured an acquittal for his client in a criminal case at the very start of his career!

But the call of music was too strong for the young lawyer. He had a passion for music too strong for the young lawyer. He had a passion for music from early childhood and was encouraged by his elders to pursue it simply as a joyous bobby. He also managed to seek guidance from Rambhau Sohoni and Dinkarrao Patwardhan, both senior exponents of the Gwalior gharana. They taught him the importance of clear diction and meaning in enunciation in the scheme of singing, be it classical or any other type. Much later, Joshi had also the benefit of studying under Jagannathbuva Pandit, the leading musician and composer.

While at college, Joshi presented musical recitations of Marathi poems. He would himself set the chosen lyrics to lilting sensitive tunes and sing them to the delight of his fellow students and teachers. His popularity attracted the attention of many of the leading poets of the time.

Soon after he came down to Bombay to continue his law studies in 1931, Joshi found himself getting more deeply involved in the musical activities of the metropolis. He started giving concerts at private and public gatherings. In time to come, he attracted the attention of the broadcasting company which was privately owned at the time. Today, he happens to be one of the oldest living broadcasters.

But it is his association with HMV that strikes the keynote of his glorious career in India’s recording industry/ For, even while he was engaged in giving light music concerts, he kept busy experimenting with light music in all its aspects, with special emphasis on the lyrical and emotional content. His innovative genius soon brought him an invitation from the recorded company, with an assignment to sing only two songs for a 78 rpm record. But Joshi ended up by recording as many as 14 songs, one after another, at this vey first assignment.

Not surprisingly, the company bosses were quick to realize that here was a talent, gifted but as yet untapped, with a fast sales potential. As Joshi himself recalls, the sales achieved by his records were fat beyond the expectations of the HMV bosses. But all they earned for him was a gold medal from the company as the best – selling artiste – way back in 1933. In the seven years that followed, he recorded over 75 songs, covering the best Marathi lyrical poetry and a variety of light classical themes, which all proved great hits.

The moment of decision, whether or not to forsake a promising legal career, came to Joshi when Harry Evans, HMV’s branch manager at the time, invited him to join the company – which he did on June 1, 1938. It can be truly said that this association opened up new avenues for him to show his talent and genius in a variety of ways.

Joshi is chiefly responsible for evolving and popularising the song-form known as bhavgeet in Maharashtra through his commercial records from the early thirties. This variety of music is, without doubt Maharashtra’s distinctive contribution to the enrichment of India’s popular music as a whole. If it continues to be popular with Marathi music-lovers even today, it is because of its free and subjective character.

Bhavgeet, as a musical lyric, is designed to delineate, in the language of everyday life, the perennial theme of love and romance and that goes with it. Its intense lyricism, when set to music, has truly added up to a rich tradition of Marathi popular music. Like in ghazal. The expressive aspect of the potic theme is basic to any effective delineation of bhavgeet. For this reason, its unfolding calls for a feeling heart, a fecund mind and a sensitive, musical imagination. And Joshi was the first artiste who had revealed all these virtues in ample measure in his singing – and therein lay the secret of his tremendous popularity right from start.

Joshi had also cut a number of discs of Hindi songs designed to create popular demand. There were songs like Naina lage chale, Kahana mujh se na bolo, Ja ke Mathura, Kaisi Bansiya bajai, Jagi sari raat, and Sakhi ras bol. Although, today it would be pretty ticklish to class them specifically as authentic specimens of thumri geet or dadra, they were nonetheless striking for their novel shape and design and their evocative raga-based character, besides their racy rhythm. They evoked instant popular appeal in those days.

Joshi’s early days with HMV saw him trying out new ideas in fields other than recording of vocal and instrumental music. He successfully put through his programme of recording some of the most popular musical dramas of the time. This he did by persuading eminent playwrights like Acharya Atre to abridge their ntire work to fit into six sides of 78 rpm records. This set of three records easily found a very large market. The play was the tremendously popular Ghara Baher. Encouraged by this success, he went on to record abridged versions of another play by Atre and S. A. Shukla. These also elicited unprecedented response from theatre lovers.

Yet, with all his flair for innovation and experiment. Joshi’s base was music and it always remained basically Indian. He never forsook his classical moorings. His recorded innovations in classical music are truly legion. But a few of these call for special mention – like A Night At The Taj, Call Of The Valley, Sitar Quintet and Raga – Jazz Style. All these and many others served to demonstrate that even while engaging himself in a relentless search for newer patterns of expression in classical music, he never abjured the indigenous idiom.

A little-known fact of Joshi’s career is his all-too-brief stint in the film world as a singing-actor and also music director. He played the tile role as the celebrated saint-poet Tulsidas, in a feature film produced by Digveer Cinetone. The film crashed at the box office and the company, too, folded up. But the songs set to music and sung by Joshi in that film were enthralling. These were all based on ragas like Rageshree, Durga, Tilak-Kamod and Deskar.

Joshi’s catholicity of outlook is borne out by the numerous foreign tours he had undertaken, from time to time, all through his career. He readily acknowledges the impact made on his mind by the classical and folk traditions of western music and their changing trends in conception and presentation. His concern for the future of classical music as a popular art form is also reflected in his efforts to bring out a series of recorded music lessons in the early forties. Ironically, he could not bring his company bosses round to backing his projected plan.

I have known Joshi quite intimately for the last 30 years, and I have always found him affable and gay, unassuming, every-smiling and courteous to a fault. A fine conversationalist, he always has something new to say on music.

To my question on the western interest in Indian music – he made is last visit to America barely five years ago – he told me, with typical forthrightness, that our visiting artistes to western countries mostly cater to audiences of Indian origin. If foreigners attend these concerts, they do so partly out of curiosity and partly to please their Indian friends. For lack of proper exposure to the finer points of our music, they go back after the concert apparently pleased with having heard something ‘new’.

Who, then, is to blame? According to Joshi, the blame must lie squarely on the visiting artistes themselves. He says that in a majority of cases, our artistes perform on foreign soil and return home without creating any genuine interest among foreigners. He asserts that audiences abroad have an open mind and are keen to understand and appreciate our music in its subtle and finer aspects. They should be told what to look for and how to cultivate a real appreciation and enjoyment of Indian music.

From his own experience, Joshi says that the purpose can be achieved through illustrated talks which should precede an actual performance by our visiting artistes. But these talks, he cautions, should not be too technical, but just informative. The object, after all, is to explain to the foreign listeners the highlights of the performance to follow.

What has he to say about the growing volume of export of recorded music to the West? Joshi asserts that it is predominantly non-classical. Much of it is filmy. The export of recorded classical music is just marginal, and it mostly caters to Indian settlers who are fond of it.

What does he have to say about the current musical scene in India? Without batting an eye-lid, the classicist in Joshi comes out with the terse statement that in his considered view, classical music in India has a bleak future. Elaborating his point, he says that the changes that have emerged on the musical scene have been both radical and pervasive, and their interaction has let to a slow, steady but sure decline of traditional music.

In his view, the gradual disappearance of the gharana system in the wake of departing stalwarts, without leaving comparable shishya paramparas capable of perpetuating the tradition, the introduction of mass education in music with its commercial character, the deleterious effect of film music and the new trends in popular music on the susceptibilities of music lovers – all these have only served to vulgarise popular taste.

The products of music schools, according to Joshi, are pure technicians, not artistes, who are merely content to display their grammar. The need of the day is to create and provide opportunities for specialized professional training for talented youngsters under the guidance of competent masters.

And what about the quality of our present-day audience, I once asked him. “We live in an age of mass culture, in which everything is judged in term of mass appeal. What is worse, there is a dearth of good knowledgeable listeners today. True enough, classical music, like any other few, and not intended for mass enjoyment. But the time has now come to create ‘classicists’ from out of the ‘masses’. “If only our performing artistes acquaint their listeners briefly with the basics of our classical music before they proceed to perform, they will surely find that the response from the listeners would be both encouraging and rewarding.”

As a pioneer who has set new trends in Marathi popular music, how does he view the present-day practices in the field? Joshi bemoans what he calls “all-round deterioration” in his favourite field. And he attributes it to the unhealthy influence of film music. He abhors the growing penchant for what is catchy, spectacular and novel, and the craze for creating something sensational and unconventional. He avers that it is not only the composer but also the songwriter and the singer who often seem to lose sight of the basic requirements of light music – its design, entity, dignity and balance. He finds that there is distortion in enunciation, while the tonal variations are so queer and intricate, that they tend to blur, if not totally mutilate, the lyrical core of a song.

Joshi took to writing as a fruitful pursuit after his retirement from HMV. Besides contributing articles to leading newspapers and magazines, he has published two books, one of which is in English, Understanding Indian Classical Music and the other in Marathi, Swara-Gangechya Teeri an English version of which has been recently published. It is a book of reminiscences of his association with a galaxy of all-time great musicians whom he had the privilege to record for his company. Of absorbing interest is the way he has described their individual moods and temperaments and how he persuaded them to have their music recorded for posterity. It is an irony of our times that his contribution has remained unrecognised.


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