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Without Parallel: Bhimsen Joshi

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Without Parallel: Bhimsen Joshi

Bhimsen Joshi is many things to his many admirers. Some see him as a rebel genius. Others, as a silent reformer.

MOHAN NADKARNI, art critic and music historian, who has recently completed a biography of the musician, profiles the man and his contribution to Indian music.

In the final analysis, what is it that makes most of us acclaim Bhimsen Joshi as the most eminent vocalist of the present day in the North Indian tradition? It is the complete identification of the man with his music. 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. And that is what makes his music intense, in all its anguish and ecstasy.

The Illustrated Weekly of India November 27, 1983

BhimsenI first heard Bhimsen Joshi when I tuned into the Bombay station of All India Radio in February 1943. And as it happened, it was also his first broadcast. Pure coincidence. The programme schedule assigned to him consisted of three brief sittings. Yet, with all their brevity, eacvh of the recitals showed cool professionalism and a musical intelligence and maturity of a degree rarely expected in the case of a youngster. The photograph published in AIR’s programme journal, then known as The Indian Listener, portrayed him as an absolute youngster, in his early twenties. As I learnt later, Bhimsen was then only 21.

I was myself an ardent votary of Abdul Karim Khan. My delight was therefore all the greater when I discerned in Bhimsen’s singing the impress of the great Ustad’s gayaki, known for its sweetness of tone and meditative, introspective touch. What also struck me was his implicit adherence to the rigorous classical norms, charmingly matched by his natural devotion to Abdul Karim Khan’s music.

Like me, whoever heard this broadcast must have, I am sure, felt that a brilliant star had risen on the musical horizon, that perhaps even a generation of young, talented vocalists had really emerged, deserving of the mantle of old masters.

The author (centre) with Bhimsen Joshi (right) during the release function of his biography. Unveiling the first copy is former Illustrated weekly of India editor, the Late M V Kamath.

The author (centre) with Bhimsen Joshi (right) during the release function of his biography. Unveiling the first copy is former Illustrated weekly of India editor, the Late M V Kamath. (From the Mohan Nadkarni archive).

In retrospect, we find that few contemporary Hindustani vocalists have ever come to enjoy such tremendous popularity for as long as Bhimsen Joshi. Even at 61, he has few equals in his field – fame or otherwise. By now, he may well have given more than 12,000 concerts, if we go by the ‘modest’ estimate of a few Bhimsen-watchers. If his phenomenal professional career, spanning well over three 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 classical music has undergone many significant changes. These have predictably evoked diverse reactions from his audiences.

As one given to listening to Bhimsen’s music continuously for so many years, I am inclined to see the changes in his gayaki not 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 over the wider musical scene after independence.

Born at Gadag, in Dharwad district, Karnataka, on February 14 1922, Bhimsen Joshi is the son of a noted educationist. Gururaj Joshi, whose Kannada-English dictionary is acclaimed as a standard text even today. Bhimsen’s grandfather, Bhimacharya, was a noted musician of his time, but it was by listening to his mother’s bhajans that Bhimsen acquired a taste for music. The environment at home, however, was 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 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 in Jhinjhoti, Piya bin nahin awat chain. In Bhimsen’s own words, this was a turning point in his quest.

(Incidentally, speaking of this escapade, he always hastens to tell his friends, in a humorous vein, that “running away from home” is also a family tradition set by his father himself!)

Leaving home in search of a guru, Bhimsen wandered from place to place. After unsuccessful visits to Bijapur, Pune and Bombay, he managed to reach Gwalior without a ticket. Throughout his journeys, he would regale his co-passengers and even the ticket-checking staff, with songs he had memorized from gramophone records. At times, he moved clandestinely from compartment to compartment, breaking his traveling 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 even in Gwalior where he could benefit from the guidance of veterans like Hafiz Ali Khan, the sarod maestro and Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and Rajabhayya Poochhwale, both veterans of the Gwalior gharana, did not satisfy him. He then moved to Kharangpur, Calcutta, Delhi and finally to Jullundur. Ironically, even at Jullunder, which has long been known as a leading centre of Hindustani music mainly because of its mammoth annual music festival, he could not find a master who could teach him khayal-singing. Though dispirited, he learnt the intricacies of dhrupad-singing from a local blind musician.

Bhimsen’s homeward journey began following the loving advice of Vinayakbuva Patwardhan, the great scholar-musician and exponent of the Gwalior gharana, who had come to Jullundur to participate in the annual festival. He heeded the veteran’s suggestion that he should go back home and try to be a student of Sawai Gandharva, the most outstanding disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, who was staying at Kundgol, a village not far from his hometown.

It is significant that for one who went almost crazy after hearing the recorded music of Abdul Karim Khan, he should have found his guru in the chief disciple of the Ustad. The shagirdi under Sawai Gandharva, lasting five years, was arduous but rewarding, too; it struck the keynote of Bhimsen’s future career. For the master encouraged his disciple 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 audiences – their moods, whims and preferences.

On his return home from Kundgol, Bhimsen continued his rigorous riaz for one year. Overcome by wander-lust again, 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 home in the wake of the situation after the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II.

Although Bhimsen’s radio concerts grew popular with listeners and he also began receiving public concert assignments, it was his concert in Pune, on the occasion of the 60th birthday of Sawai Gandharva, that marked his meteoric rise to fame. This was in January 1946.

The post-freedom years ushered in a new era of change and resurgence in many fields of human endeavour. But the kind of changes in the practice of North Indian music would seem to be almost cataclysmic – the like of which were never in evidence in its history. No doubt, the changes were part of the quickening tempo of life in general which, among other things, witnessed the emergence of the gramophone, radio, film and television as the most potent media of mass entertainment. What is more, the missionary movement, started in the earlier decades of this century by the pioneering visionaries like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande for the popularization of Hndustani music through the medium of public concerts and scholastic education, received new impetus after independence.

That was the time when many a creative traditional artiste might well have been at a loss to know the patron for 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?

Bhimsen Joshi with the author in 1983.

Bhimsen Joshi with the author in 1983. (From the Mohan Nadkarni archive).

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 popularize what is classical is inevitably to vulgarise it a little and 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 from the early ‘fifties. His khayal expositions in slow tempo always had an excellent start. The melodic 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, bol taan and 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 antara!

Particularly disturbing was the element of force and animation that marked 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 could be moulded to do anything he wished. To me, as to others who were used to hearing him sing much better in the past, the new elements were totally incompatible with the caressive character of the Kirana style. If anything, they only seemed to have been designed to please his mixed audiences.

I have been a regular Bhimsen listener ever since I took to writing for The Times of India as its Hindustani music critic some 25 years age. I have attended and reviewed his Bombay concerts so many times that it is difficult to recount them. Strangely also, till late 1979, my reaction to his performances was either one of agony or ecstasy depending on their quality or rather the condition or mood in which he came to perform.

During this period, covering almost two decades, he had also taken to drinking, which varied from moderate to excessive, His performance on such occasions was lackluster. His monumental voice, which with its amazing volume, depth and range, 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 reduction in his popularity. He had built up a permanent audience of his own. To such an audience, nothing else mattered once Bhimsen came on the platform.

Fortuitously, even amid a plethora of concerts of uneven quality, there were occasions, though few, when Bhimsen showed himself in the best of 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, Bhimsen finally decided to abstain from drinking and generally tidy up his day-to-day routine in the interest of his health and professional career. From then on we have been able to see, once again, the magnificent dimensions of singing. Strands from the styles of great masters, whom he met and also those from whom he tried to learn in the course of his relentless ramblings, are now found woven imperceptibly into his gayaki. As a result, Bhimsen’s music today has come to embody a rare fusion of intelligence and passion – and something more. It is powerful and dramatic, ornamental and virile, live and sprightly.

What has Bhimsen himself got to say about his approach? He asserts that he has tried to evolve a style that is in keeping with the changing times and tastes of his audiences. Even while doing so, he continues to derive inspiration mainly from Abdul Karim Khan and Sawai andharva. Like his guru, he does not subscribe to any fanatical adherence to the guru-shishya parampara, feeling that such an approach is apt to degenerate into a blind reproduction of the master’s style.

Bhimsen repertoire of ragas is a topic of much animated discussion among his admirers and detractors alike. There is some force in the criticism that his repertoire is not only limited but that he is also heard singing certain ragas all too often.

Bhimsen’s contention is that ragas like Darbari, Abhogi or Malkauns, one of which he often chooses in his two-hour sammelan appearances, are his forte, as they suit the temperament and character of his music. He asserts that he sings them with fresh inspiration every time and that he can create plenty of variety through their rendition. This sounds quite convincing to me, as to several others.

What is not, however, as convincing is his argument that his choice always falls on those ragas which are familiar to his audience. Here I have a bone to pick with him, because I still have nostalgic memories of several other melodies which are also easily recognizable by his listeners and no less popular with them. Indeed, I would like to ask him where his Puriya, Puriya-Dhanashri, Durga, Shudh-Kalyan and Miyan Malhar (to name a few) have gone.

Another criticism frequently leveled against Bhimsen is that he is indifferent to the word-content of the composition – whether it is khayal or thumri. According to him, the essence of khayal-singing is in raga exploration, which in other words, is in the best tradition of the Kirana gharana, a swara pradhan gayaki. He is far less convincing when he speaks of thumri, which has evolved as an essentially arthapradhan. Here also he follows the Kirana manner, where thumri has been conceived and projected as swara pradhan, like khayal. The lyrical import enshrined in a given thumri composition is thus sought to be vivified only by means of sensitive, touching tonal devices. In effect and achievement, the poetic aspect of thumri loses much of its appeal.

This is also true of his Sant Vani recitals which have added immeasurably to Bhimsen’s popularity even since he began presenting them exclusively from 1972. These form a rich variety of Marathi and Kannada (at times Hindi) devotionals. Set to familiar classical tunes, they make for popular appreciation because of their precise timing and clever variation in rhythm and tempo.

To me, his Sant Vani concerts seem to fulfill the requirements of devotional music only partly. While the tunes to which the songs are set show judicious choice, it is only in a few cases he shows genuine feeling for the words. In the first place, his diction sounds defective and his delivery foggy. This may perhaps be condoned on the ground that Kannada, not Marathi or Hindi, is his mother tongue. But the fact remains that such shortcomings tend, at least to a degree, to dilute the communicative element of devotional music.

It is also noticed that Bhimsen stresses the formalistic aspect more than the virtues of deeper significance in many of his songs. The poetic content then gets submerged in the melodic current and the obvious lack of enunciatory clarity deprives his presentations of their euphony. Where then is one to draw a line between chaste sacred music and pure Hindustani gharanedhar gayaki, of which he is a reigning master?

Bhimsen’s standpoint is that Sant Vani is not a type of light music but that it is expressed through the medium of classical music. Whether one agrees or not with this view, it has to be conceded that his Sant Vani programmes continue to enjoy tremendous acclaim on the concert platform as also through their recorded versions. He also reportedly charges much higher fees for these concerts than those of classical music.

With respect to his recorded music, Bhimsen has till now, recorded as may as 13 long-play discs of classical music, reputedly the highest number to the credit of a Hindustani vocalist so far. The frequency with which the new releases come to the market and are sold like hot cakes is proof of his popularity outside concert halls. It is also through his recorded music that he has become known in several foreing countries.

As a result, Bhimsen has undertaken tours to several countries in the continent and America. As he himself has told me, he was agreeably surrised to see that recordselling shops in big foreign, cities were well-stocked with his discs. He also claims with legitimate pride, that he is the most popular vocalist in Western countries as also in the Middle East. According to Bhimsen, foreigners, in general, have the rare quality of appreciating our musical traditions without necessarily knowing their finer points. Westerners he says, appear more intent on discovering similarities or points of affinity between their music and that of India.

How does Bhimsen view the contemporary musical scene? While he is keenly aware of the fast-changing trends, he says, with a disarming candour, that he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic at the prospect. According to him, a tradition which traces its origin to the 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. 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 – the exploration may well become much shorter and faster in presentation (incidentally, how own depiction reflects this trend in his latter-day singing. But what is crucial to its depiction is the right fusion of swara, laya and gayaki. It shuld be basically entertaining.

How does Bhimsen react to attempts made by certain musicians to ‘internationalise’ our music? Even knowledgeable listeners and experts in the West, he avers, take a dim view of attempts at blending Indian and Western music. They find our music so rich and the scope to develop it so tremendous that it would be suicidal to tamper with its originally and character.

Bhimsen feels that slow melodic delineation, which sets the right mood for the raga to unfold itself, is the very soul of Hindustani music. Sargam-singing, which has sent many of our young vocalists crazy cannot create and foster the mood of any raga. Any excess of it will gravely disturb the continuity of the musical flow.

Bhimsen is alive to the present uncertain conditions and concedes that it is an equally risky proposition to take to music as a full time profession. In the first place, the stress and strain of urbanised living leave little time for an aspiring performer to put in the much-needed riyaz in a spirit of dedication. 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 their parampara, all will be well with them.”

He feels that there is no dearth of talent in the field and confidently predicts that many among them will mature into top-notchers of tomorrow. To these promising youngsters, his advice is to do riyaz relentlessly, take care of their health and abstain from vices. (Apposite in this context are his observations in the course of an interview, which he recently gave to an English monthly. In a candid summing up of his own performances during the days of his addiction to alcohol, he says; “Sometimes even my programmes were disrupted due to drinks… after all my voice seemed perfect to me, but the audience knew what was wrong. Singing is such a delicate thing – it can’t be done after drinks. You can’t retain the necessary control on your art.”)

It has been well said that the more celebrated the performing musician the less is the number of his disciples. This is much more so in the present times. And Bhimsen is no exception. IN the midst of unending concert tours practically around the year, it has not been possible for him to groom many disciples. 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.

Bhimsen has been a man of many parts – a yoga enthusiast, a singing stage-actor swimmer, a football enthusiast and a connoisseur of art. He holds all his fellow-professionals past and present, in esteem, although he has special admiration for Amir Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar. He is the moving spirit behind the mammoth annual soiree held in Pune in observance of the death anniversary of his guru, which continues to draw to draw what is probably the biggest audience in the country. The unique assemblage of our musical luminaries on the common festival platform, year after year, is a resounding vindication of the esteem in which he is held by his fraternity in a field so hopelessly riven with rivalry.

Being twice-married Bhimsen has had to undergo the travails and tensions involved in managing two families. Today, he has forsaken all his hobbies and concentrated only on music. He is now a teetotaller and takes the utmost care of his health. Which is why he is still performing with that familiar youthful verve and vigour. The power he still has behind his voice – both physical and emotional – makes his listeners feel that he is getting musically younger with each passing year!

In the final analysis, what is it that makes most of us acclaim Bhimsen Joshi as the most eminent vocalist of the present day in the North Indian tradition! It is the complete identification of the man with his music. 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. And that is what makes his music intense, in all its anguish and ecstasy. Be it the lay listener or the cognoscenti, it has the power to command and obtain the spontaneous surrender of his audiences.




  1. He was one of thegreatest singer in
    Shastria sangeet and there is nobody
    comparable to his stature in our country at present.

    My salutations to this great legend.

  2. As someone who has listened to Bhimsen Joshi from around 1970 onwards, this write-up describes a beautiful journey of perhaps the greatest Hindustani Classical Vocalist of all time.

    Most of the other male vocalists were good craftsmen and instilled a sense of beauty into their singing but sorely lacked masculinity in their voices.

    Bhimsen Joshi’s voice was anything but NOT masculine. It was in your face, bullying as it were to get your attention and then there was the body language of the vocalist – which not only for him but for us in the audience – a full body experience.

    He was always involved completely in his music as he performed and this involvement was communicated to his audience in no small measure.

    His passing away 5 years ago was to me personally a big sadness.


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