Music

Pt. Bhimsen Joshi: The making of a maestro

Pt. Bhimsen Joshi

The birth centenary year of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi is a reminder of a life lived with and for music. Woven into the story of an ordinary young boy, who emerged as an extraordinary musician of the 20th century, is the chronicle of Hindustani classical music itself, through an era of gradual cultural transformation. The first Hindustani vocalist to receive the Bharat Ratna (2008), he emerged as the face of khayal gayaki with a prolific musicianship that resonated with connoisseurs and laypersons alike. Perhaps this was one of his biggest feats, where he upheld gharana music without giving in to gimmicks, while riding the crest of popularity with dignified ease and charisma. Traversing two worlds was a constant in his life, as he travelled from Karnataka in South India to embrace the aesthetics of Kirana gharana vocalism of the north.

His is a story that has been told multiple times, but it still provides a gripping matrix to unearth new perspectives on his music and life. Penned as a tribute to the maestro, Kasturi Paigude Rane’s biography of the legend (published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 2021) probes deeper into his musical contribution while closely studying his multi-faceted life as a performer, guru, festival organiser and visionary. A vocalist and scholar, Rane culls out the contexts in which his musical genius was nurtured. She writes, “The world knows that he was an extraordinary musician but what made him an outstanding vocalist is an interesting revelation to musicians as well as non-musicians.”

The voyage begins

Time travelling to the 1920s is important to cue into the early stirrings in the sleepy town of Gadag in Dharwad, Karnataka, where the maestro was born and brought up. His father Gururaj Joshi was a teacher and Sanskrit scholar who was stationed in Gaya, Bihar, for some time, and his own travels may have influenced young Bhimsen’s curiosities for the world beyond home. Bhimsen was the eldest of 16 siblings, his grandfather was an established kirtankar. Mother Godavaribai was a spiritual person, and the early years were accompanied by a constant flow of devotional music.

Rane sets the scene with the importance of the prevalent gharana system and the strategic emergence of Karnataka as a melting pot for the Carnatic and Hindustani streams of music, tracing links with the city of Miraj, Mysore’s Wodeyar royal court, the migration of noted khayal vocalists, and the musical exchanges that ensued. She also cites earlier biographies of the maestro and musicology notes, including those authored by Mohan Nadkarni and Vamanrao Deshpande.

Bangalore: 02/02/2011. Hindustani singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi during one of his performances. ( Curtesy Family Album of Madava Gudi )

Bangalore: 02/02/2011. Hindustani singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi during one of his performances. ( Curtesy Family Album of Madava Gudi )

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s rise to fame is also detailed, providing a prelude to Bhimsen Joshi’s musical lineage. What made Dharwad a fertile ground for the creative confluence of music styles? How did the emphasis on voice culture and swara become the distinguishing features of the Kirana gharana? The author connects the dots, putting together a larger picture that foregrounds the story of three legends — Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and his disciple Pt. Sawai Gandharva, and the latter’s disciple, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi.

Several recordings of the Bhairavi bandish ‘Jamuna ke teer’ by Bhimsen Joshi over the years have made it a must-have on the playlist of most Hindustani music lovers. Listening to the song at a concert of Sawai Gandharva in Kundgol convinced him that he should run away from home to go to Gwalior and be trained in khayal gayaki.

Musical excellence

“Wearing a creased shirt and half pant, he went to Gadag railway station. With no money, he boarded a train to Bijapur, 150 km away. He borrowed money from co-passengers and also indulged the ticket-checking staff by singing bhajans, abhangs and classical songs he had memorised from gramophone records.”

From Bijapur to Pune, then to Khandwa and finally to Gwalior, the nomadic years were filled with hope, peril and persistence for the enterprising youngster, who met and trained with several maestros at various sangeet vidyalayas for brief periods of time. After two years, at a jalsa in Jalandhar, he met Pt. Vinayakrao Patwardhan, who advised him to get advanced training in khayal from Pt. Sawai Gandharva. For the young seeker, this was serendipity, a full circle back to the music he had been intuitively drawn to.

While his parents were relieved that he was back home, just as Bhimsen was about to approach the guru, his voice started to crack. He was unaware that Pt. Sawai Gandharva had faced the same challenge earlier, and that his guru had helped him with the intricate and secret voice culture techniques of the Kirana gharana. “To his surprise, Pt. Gandharva consented to train him on a monthly honorarium of Rs. 25.” Thus in 1936 began Bhimsen Joshi’s arduous and rewarding taleem . Exactly a decade later, he sang on his guru’s 60th birthday and a critic wrote, “Who is this man as a miracle in disguise?”

Rigorous training in raags Todi, Multani and Puriya, from dawn to midnight, interspersed with chores at the guru’s house laid the foundation of the guru-shishya association. Practising these three raags in a certain way was not only one of the key voice culture methods of the gharana, they also became Bhimsen’s forte. “Bhimsen always strived to show that his voice was so flexible and wide-ranged that he was capable of singing anything that he wished. There were many instances when he would sing a section of loud, forceful swaras and would follow them up with a delicate one.” The author points out that his creative genius lay in his flair for evoking “a fine blend of anguish and euphoria”. Apart from his guru, Bhimsen Joshi had three important influences in his life — Kesarbai Kerkar, Ustad Amir Khan, and Bal Gandharva.

Years later, the disciple launched the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune, an annual event in his guru’s memory that continues to be one of the biggest music festivals in the country. In later parts of the book, the author dwells on his role as a festival organiser.

The ability to blend elements of various gharanas and adapt to diverse performing spaces made him a successful performer in the 1950s. The cultural shift from baithaks to big sangeet sammelans along with the rise of radio and recordings became prime factors in his rising popularity.

While his choice of raags was limited and he was often criticised for it, he preferred popular raags with proven melodic possibilities, choosing to lend fresh insights to the traditional repertoire. The author delves into this debate too, weighing both sides of the argument, while also throwing light on his innovations. For instance, he adapted Teentaal into the vilambit khayal, which was earlier usually set to Ektaal, and this change offered a wider canvas for raga exploration.

Despite his unprecedented popularity, the maestro avoided playing to the gallery. In fact, his honest approach and style began to influence audience perception about khayal gayaki itself.

“Pt. Bhimsen Joshi believed that a true artiste is the one who does not look at the audience for appreciation but enjoys his performance first and then thinks of the audience’s response. If an artiste is happy with his creative endeavour, he can be assured that the audience will also appreciate his music.” His music lives on, also because of his charisma and connect with the audience. He was one of the few classical maestros who belonged to the masses.

The author is a Delhi based

arts researcher and writer.


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Printable version | Apr 21, 2022 6:25:23 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/pt-bhimsen-joshi-the-making-of-a-maestro/article37446411.ece