With the death of legendary vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the world has lost not only a path-breaking Hindustani musician but the very embodiment of the guru-sishya tradition, around which the Indian arts blossomed. Contrary to common perception, this tradition is not one of inflexible continuity but of continuous evolution and constant search. Joshi, a stalwart of the Kirana gharana, exemplified this urge for musical exploration, a journey that led him in many directions, both classical and popular. His voice had a rare appeal for both lay listeners and connoisseurs, and he was as highly regarded among votaries of Hindustani music as of Carnatic. His penchant for experimentation and assimilation resulted in a broadening of tradition. He once said in an interview that he enjoyed all kinds of music. That he went to Varanasi to learn thumri singing from the tawaifs and brought this genre into the classical mainstream is proof that he was free from musical prejudice. It was thanks largely to his pioneering ways that bhajan singing and abhang rendition are now widely accepted on the concert platform.
Pandit Joshi firmly believed that to serve his art form meant not just to practise what he had learnt and received, but to enrich it. It was this eclectic vision that led him to integrate what he regarded as the best influences from other schools, including Gwalior and Jaipur. While his genius did not allow itself to be straight-jacketed within the strict confines of a gharana, he remained a medium of continuity, an agent for change within tradition. Recognised as a completely intuitive musician, he never played to the gallery. It was his ability to become immersed in his music, often to the point of forgetting himself, that explains his widespread and compelling appeal. His was a greatness marked by a reflexive spontaneity, one that did not lend itself to easy analysis but spoke wordlessly to the hearts of the audience. Well before people began to talk of music outreach, Pandit Joshi launched the annual Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune and was personally involved in its organisation from 1953 to 2002. His songs for a select few Hindi films and appearances on Doordarshan’s advertisements for national integration made his voice and face familiar to the nation. At a time when awards and honours are feverishly sought and canvassed for, this doyen never looked for official recognition. Yet the nation’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, came to him in 2008. It was a most deserving honour for this unique and modest man, who while engaged with charting the evolution of music was both a follower and a creator of tradition.