On November 5, 2008, the country's music fraternity rejoiced when Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s name was announced for the Bharat Ratna. After all, he was the second vocalist to be named for the honour (after MS Subbulakshmi who received the same honour in 1998). Pt Joshi had already been honoured with the other Padma awards - Padma Shri in 1972; Padma Bhushan in 1985 and Padma Vibhushan in 1999. “I am very happy to receive this award on behalf of all the great musicians and masters who have represented the khayal tradition of Hindustani Classical music in this country,” Pt Joshi had said upon learning the announcement for the Bharat Ratna award.
Nearly a decade later, Tabassum Hasan's words echoed a similar sentiment. “My success is the victory of people of the state who have shown that they have stood up against the four-year-old misrule of the BJP,” the 48-year-old said last week after a stunning victory in the Kairana Parliamentary by-poll; the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate, supported by the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, won by a margin of 44,600 votes in the sensitive constituency of western Uttar Pradesh.
While politics and music may seem a world apart, both Joshi and Hasan are bound by their roots in Kairana, in Shamli district. Joshi’s musical journey was long, dramatic and had its fair share of ups and downs. Biographers have detailed how Joshi, born on February 4, 1922 to a conservative school master in Gadag, then an idyllic village in Karnataka’s Dharwad district, left home in search of a mentor when he was just 11; how he travelled ticketless on many trains, and when caught, impressed ticket collectors and co-passengers by his soulful singing. After years of roaming across many cities, he was to find his guru near Gadag itself. The master craftsman of the Kirana gharana and a tough taskmaster, Savai Gandharva (1886-1952) was to shape the careers of many brilliant vocalists. The gharana traces its birth to Kairana. One of its notable proponents, Abdul Karim Khan, was deeply influenced by the Carnatic classical style, and it was he who mentored Savai Gandharva.
Under Gandharva, Joshi diligently molded his craft to present the magic of musical notes and ragas. It didn't take Joshi long to become a celebrity and a flagbearer of the Kirana gharana. Just five years after he had given his first public concert, his name had travelled far and wide. When he was at the peak of his career, he became such a frequent flyer to different cities in the country and outside to deliver concerts, that Joshi earned the nickname ‘Hawai Gandharva’.
He (Pahadi Sanyal) later recalled to one of his associates how (Bhimsen) Joshi had come to him all the way from Poona to learn music. “He had a voice like a buffalo calf with a cold. I told him he had no future as a singer but I might be able to find him a petty job...”
“In retrospect, we find that few contemporary Hindustani vocalists have enjoyed such tremendous popularity and for so long as Bhimsenji,” wrote Joshi's biographer Mohan Nadkarni. “One can even say that few could equal his box-office appeal. His phenomenal professional career at home as well as abroad has more than fulfilled the hopes and expectations raised by him in the early 1940s. Bhimsenji's musical moments are truly great. Indeed, at such moments he reveals a rare genius - when the spirit seizes him in his creative ecstasy. Behind the powerful voice, amazing breath control, fine musical sensibility and an unwavering grasp of the fundamentals lies something that can only be termed sui generis.”
Thief and tippler
Music critics and connoisseurs have always marvelled at the way Joshi was able to interpret Hindustani music by integrating several forms and realms of classical rendering. A good singer, he reportedly once said, was a bit like a thief, incorporating what he liked best about others' styles into his own.
There are too many incidents and episodes of Joshi’s life which have been told and retold. Leaving aside for the music critics and commentators to dissect the nuances of his gayaki and delineations of ragas, it might be appropriate to recall a few memorable stories, particularly for the benefit of young music lovers.
It was sometime in the 1950s when Joshi performed at a private residence in Kolkata. One of the listeners was Pahadi Sanyal (1906-1974), then an elderly Bengali filmstar and musician. After the recital, Sanyal desired to know the name of the last raga sung by him. Touching the feet of the elder, Joshi not only identified the raga as Raag Chhaya, but also told Sanyal: “I don't think you have spotted me, Sahab. I am the same Bhimsen who came to you for training when you lived on Raja Basant Roy Road.”
Sanyal was reportedly was taken aback. “Good lord! I can't believe it is the same boy.” He later recalled to one of his associates how Joshi had come to him all the way from Poona to learn music. “He had a voice like a buffalo calf with a cold. I told him he had no future as a singer but I might be able to find him a petty job in the New Theatres Studio. He lived in my house for a while. I would pay him a tenner or two for running errands and then he suddenly disappeared one day. Good heavens! How can this man be the same Bhimsen?”
Joshi seemed comfortable to hold jugalbandhis with other singers and musicians, both young and old. The making of the film song Ketaki gulab juhi with Manna Dey for the film Basant bahar is well-known; in that song he allowed Manna Dey to surpass him as per the requirements of the film. What is little known is this incident when a journalist, approaching Joshi for an interview, was stunned to hear the song Kuch toh log kahenge from Amar Prem floating from the building in which Joshi resided. How could a renowned Hindustani classical singer such as Bhimsen Joshi be listening to a film song, he wondered. Laughing at the question, Joshi supposedly told the reporter that anyone who did not listen to the compositions of R D Burman, could never understand music. “Look how beautifully Kishore has rendered this difficult composition. Are you aware, my dear friend, that this song is purely based on Raag Khammaj in the beginning but beautifully dissolves into Raag Kalavati in between? Brilliantly sung and what voice! We are thankful that Kishore never learned music and hence never ventured into our domain or else we classical singers would have found it extremely difficult to earn our bread and butter!”
At one point, Joshi’s reputation took a nosedive thanks to his addiction to alcohol. This is a story of that time, one which comes from Abhik Majumdar, author of Bhimsen Joshi: A Passion for Music, in which he recounts: “It occurred in the 1950s when the erstwhile state of Bombay was under prohibition. A slightly inebriated Panditji boarded a flight and sat on a seat reserved for Morarji Desai, the then Chief Minister. When the airline staff asked him to vacate the seat, he politely replied that he did not believe in VIPs. To avoid a fuss, Desai took the next seat. Worse, some time later, a shocked Desai noted that the contents of the glass in Joshi's hand were distinctly spirituous. When he finally pointed this out, Panditji blithely replied, 'Prohibition is for the ground, not the skies.'”
We are thankful that Kishore (Kumar) never learned music and hence never ventured into our domain or else we classical singers would have found it extremely difficult to earn our bread and butter!Pt Bhimsen Joshi (to a journalist)
This writer was at one of Joshi's concerts in New Delhi in 2000, when the artist was nearly 80 years old. It was an early-morning, open-air concert at Nehru Park. Joshi, sitting on a chair, was singing most spiritedly. Suddenly, the skies opened up and there was a downpour. Not a soul in the audience was perturbed by the unexpected deluge. Some, of course, opened their duppattas and handkerchiefs to cover their heads. But no one left the venue. In fact, many youngsters sitting on the grass seemed to be enjoying the morning ragas more under the torrent. Joshi finished the concert, with an assistant holding an umbrella over his head, his arms thoroughly soaked with rainwater, but was not allowed to leave the stage. He very sportingly sang a couple of short compositions before calling it a day.
An enriched life
When the Bharat Ratna announcement was made, the ageing singer, whose booming voice had for decades regaled large audiences in India and abroad, preferred the award ceremony to be a low-key affair. Given his frail health, the 87-year old maestro chose to receive the country’s highest honour at his own residence in Pune – doing so on February 10, 2009 - instead of traveling to New Delhi, where the President of India would have done the honours.
Joshi enjoyed a long and illustrious musical career and became a household name thanks to his sonorous voice, the nuanced improvisations he brought to many compositions, and more importantly, an extraordinary ability to connect with listeners. As a young boy of 19, he had presented his first public concert in 1941. Seven decades later, when he breathed his last on 24 January 2011, obituaries poured from around the world.
“It is not often that one can describe somebody as the greatest in their field,” said The Independent in Britain. “In the case of the Indian classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi that accolade really did apply. Renowned for his music's unsurpassed expressiveness and virtuosity, especially his tayyari or fast-passage extemporisations, he was one of those musicians of whom it can be said that to see them perform is a blessing.”
The Economist reminisced: “Nobody could match the extraordinary ability of Bhimsen to capture the essential character of a raga, whether playful or grave, and send audiences out into the night humming, with the music under their skin, almost stunned with the force of something they could not quite comprehend. That was what made generations of homesick Indian students turn to him on freezing winter nights in south London or Cambridge, Massachusetts, when home seemed unbearably far away and the darkness demanded nothing less than the master singing a somber raga of the late night.”
For singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan, Panditji was a national treasure. “His music and his voice will be one of the greatest contributions to the country… When Mile Sur Mera Tumhara was aired more than two decades ago, the common man instantly connected with Panditji. Such was his voice which delivered a strong message of national integration... If we recall Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, of the 50 artists in the video, the only person we all remember is Panditji. This was the kind of aura he had.”