Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011), the “high commissioner of music”, as the legendary Kirana vocalist would call himself in jest, is no more. The maestro from Gadag in Karnataka, who ruled as the sun in the Indian musical constellation for several decades now, was unsurpassed in his brilliant interpretations and renditions of the Kirana repertoire. However, the body of music that he leaves behind transcends the boundaries of his gharana, and unfolds the rich and expansive universe of the Hindustani tradition as a whole.
Bhimsen Joshi was born in Gadag in 1922. His father Gururaj Joshi was a school teacher, and his paternal grandfather Bhimacharya Joshi, a noted musician. As a child, Bhimsen was deeply influenced by his mother, whose bhajans the young boy loved to hear. A wanderer both in life and in music, Bhimsen would often go missing from home, to his parents’ great worry. From the age of three he was wont to wander off – following the muezzin’s prayer of Allahu-Akbar as he tried to grasp its notes, or listening to the musicians in a nearby temple. As if in a trance, the little child would follow bhajan mandalis and wedding processions, completely tuned to musical notes and switched off to all else. His father would often lodge complaints with the police, only to find that a good samaritan had brought the boy back home. However, at 11, the boy left home for good after quarrelling with his mother, because she could not afford to serve him ghee with his rice. He stomped out, leaving his food untouched.
Quest for his Guru
This turned out to be the turning point in his musical journey too. Listening to the gramophone recording of Raga Jhinjoti sung by the maestro of the Kirana gharana, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan in a nearby tea shop, his heart was set on learning from him. He stood at the Gadag station and took a train that was heading north. The penniless lad gave the slip to ticket collectors by moving between compartments, singing songs for fellow passengers and begging for food. He stopped at Pune, Bombay and finally, after three months, reached Gwalior. He met and learnt from various maestros, but was not satisfied.
He then went from Kharagpur to Calcutta, and on to Delhi, finally reaching Jalandhar where the Gwalior maestro Vinayak Rao Patwardhan advised him to learn from Sawai Gandharv in Kundagol, Karnataka. Sawai Gandharv was an outstanding disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.
Bhimsen shared an exceptional relationship with his teacher Sawai Gandharv, but continued to work hard even after that to earn enough to study music. It is said that sometime in 1960, when Bhimsen Joshi sang for the Calcutta Music Circle, the famous actor Pahadi Sanyal was present in the audience.
Once the concert was over, Bhimsen Joshi went up to the actor and, much to the actor’s embarrassment, reminded him that he had worked as a domestic help for him in the years that he was looking for a suitable guru.
The musical maverick
Bhimsen Joshi’s intense passion for music was accompanied by a marked non-conformism. While he was a brilliant exponent of the traditional, limited repertoire of the Kirana gharana, his music was fertilized by ideas from other gharanas as well. Unlike his ‘guru-bandhu’ Gangubai Hangal who never crossed the boundaries of the gharana, Bhimsen Joshi was bold and seeking in his quest. To use his expression, his music was “processed in the Kirana factory.”
Though a firm believer and product of the guru-shishya tradition, Bhimsen Joshi felt that this form of learning should not fetter the student. He once remarked in an interview, “What one learns from one’s guru has to be supplemented by individual genius, or else one will not have anything worthwhile to say. In fact, a good disciple should not be a second rate imitator, but a first rate improvement of his teacher.” Thus did Bhimsen Joshi sing ragas like Chaya Malhar, sung by the Gwalior practitioners. He even attempted ragas like Lalit Bhatiyar and Marwa Shree, also alien to the Kirana tradition.
He never hid his deep admiration for the Jaipur maestros — Mallikarjun Mansur and Kesarbai Kerkar. In fact, once Kesarbai Kerkar, who had high regard for Bhimsen Joshi’s music, attended his concert and later jocularly remarked, “I came to see what all you have stolen from me!” The sonorous tonal quality of Bhimsen Joshi’s opening note, the shadja, was strikingly similar to that of Kesarbai. He never disputed it.
There are many shades to Bhimsen Joshi’s music – contemplative, mellow, intuitive, even erratic. He took the traditional Kirana ragas to the highest level of complexity. His brilliant virtuosity was always coupled with romantic intensity. But Bhimsen Joshi was obsessively restless, constantly stretching the boundaries, daring to challenge his own music. There were moments in his music when he knew he would fail, but yet surrendered to the test he set for himself. The fear of the unknown hardly deterred him from exploring higher realms. That’s probably why he is the only Kirana maestro to have even attempted a raga like Ramkali.
Bhimsen Joshi’s maverick genius may be hard to replace, but listen to musicians from the many gharanas across the country, and you invariably hear Bhimsen Joshi in them. No different perhaps from how Ustad Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharv, Roshan Ara Begum and many others came alive in Bhimsen’s own music. And in that sense, he continues to live.