The emperor in his flight

For all those who have soared on the paths of light with Panditji, the music has not ended yet. A tribute to the simplicity and creativity of a genius who had characterised the cultural landscape of the country for almost 60 years.

January 29, 2011 04:51 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 10:51 am IST

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

When the music starts, dreams begin. In that transcendental state where all reality ceases to exist, the mind's eye conjures up a lone swan in flight. As it flaps its delicate wings in smooth, rhythmic motion, it traverses a path made up almost entirely of light. In that golden space where shimmering sunlight sets the swan's silhouette aflame, a benign calm seeps over our being. In that beautiful space, there is depth for those looking to plunge; there is clear, open sky for those who just long to fly unfettered. Music is all that exists, the rest being itinerant noise that falls unnoticed. The swan flies over interesting country, hills and dales interspersed by crystal clear lakes and rivers reflecting the beauty without. Whatever other deceptions life may have in store for us, this is the one hope, the talisman of all things eternal. For those who hold music more sacred than any other truth, the swan is a reality. For many of these people, it is a being that was coaxed alive by the music of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. For almost all these people, the music has not ended yet.

In Western Classical music, there is a delightful collection of pieces for piano entitled “Scenes from Childhood” by Robert Schumann. In these pieces, one finds the poetic possibilities of the piano explored to their hilt. Three qualities distinguish these pieces from all other compositions for the piano. One, they are all inspired by the simple marvel nature holds for a child. Two, they are simple in their format and delineation. Three, to play them well is not easy. In viewing these characteristics for the more profound truth they encompass leads us to the musicality of Panditji. A child-like creativity of the imagination, simplicity in his outlook and approach to life and music, and yet a grasp over fundamentals and a musical intelligence that is not easy to achieve.

Capacity for wonder

A child-like curiosity and the ability to wonder at the marvels of creation often characterises the truly extraordinary. Often, these very qualities catalyse such individuals into creating some of the world's most precious intellectual output. The child within must have been particularly strong in Panditji. At the age of nine, he was known to have stood transfixed outside a record store, listening to the music of Abdul Karim Khan, on his way to school. The swan must have been born then, for, it led him on a journey across the country in search of a guru, before his father tracked him down. His being directed to Sawai Gandharva of the Kirana Gharana and thence going on to greater glory is well chronicled. In the interim, his training in “khayal” singing at Gwalior and the intervention of Ustad Hafiz Khan in helping him hone his fundamentals is said to have been at the foundation of his singing throughout his life. But this obsession with music seems to have been pervasive. All childhood accounts mention his being seduced by the calls of the nearby mosque or the chants from the local temple. In a particularly moving article about Panditji, I read that he would climb the spire of the Veeranarayana temple to sit and watch the sunset. “The music and the magic are all around us”, he would say in later life.

Towering influence

Panditji's music has characterised the cultural landscape of our country for nearly 60 years. To most of us, he was the quintessential Indian classical musician, iconic and supreme. “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara”, more than any other campaign, literally brought Pt Joshi into our lives and homes. More than being an anthem, it indelibly linked the music of Panditji to an idea that all of us held sacred, that of a unified nation. Indeed, his has been a voice that reaches out across time and space and brings the divine supernal into a space more easily accessible. For instance, listening to Panditji's “Theertha Vittala”, an abhanga, can be deeply transformative. His voice is powerful, and yet there is a simplicity with which his music speaks to you. This is direct communication at its best, arrows straight from his voice into our hearts, all the while exhorting us to look into ourselves. To achieve such simplicity in his ability to communicate requires sadhana of the highest order, a legacy Panditji leaves behind.

As a bridge between the world of the eternal sublime and the mundane, he has perhaps been among the most prolific musicians of our times. Indeed, he is said to have among the highest number of recordings of Hindustani vocal music. And yet, the number of ragas that he favours is a finite set encompassing the likes of Multani, Purya Dhanashree, Ramkali, Miyan Ki Todi and Darbari Kanada among a few others. Within this lexicon, Panditji creates a universe of possibilities. In doing so, we once again find an outlook that is simple and yet engendering a commitment to eternal exploration. The power of his imagination comes to the fore, brilliant phrases and sudden bursts of inventive genius punctuated by his mastery over rhythm.

In all of this, Panditji's quest to reach his music to the masses was a motif that remains paramount. Be it his renditions of bhajans, abhangs and even early film songs, or his having pioneered the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune, the effort that has gone into the making of an extraordinary life is tremendous. The boy from Gadag, Karnataka is now known the world over.

And yet, when his music begins, the mind automatically closes out the cares of our everyday lives and follows that beautiful and majestic swan as it slowly takes us on a path towards supreme surrender. The mischievous child sitting atop that swan beckons us to join him in his adventures, filling us once again with wonder, delight and belief. In that flight, the only sounds that matter are the taans and the tihaais of Panditji's music. In the end, it is only this music that matters. And it never fails to fill us with its warm, embracing light.

On Panditji and his music

“It is the end of an era of a timeless legacy. He was truly a monumental icon of music and the Kohinoor of our musical world. On hearing Panditji’s ill-health a few months ago, I had called up Panditji’s residence in Pune and conveyed my greetings to him. I could feel the ecstasy of joy and happiness in his voice. I really felt very happy talking to him after such a long time.”

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan,Sarod Maestro, Delhi

“Genuises are immortal, but sadly bodies are not. With the demise of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, it feels like one is walking without the shadow.”

Ashwini Bhide,Vocalist, Mumbai.

“Connoisseur to the layman — everyone felt that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was singing just for them. Very few classical musicians have an over-packed audience and for Panditji’s concert people stayed on till the last minute. As far as the Kirana Gharana is concerned, he explored a completely new path, even as he never transgressed the framework.”

Dr. Prabha Atre,Vocalist, Mumbai.

“It is an unbearable loss for Indian music. We hope that his gayaki and style will remain alive through his students. He was a very simple person with a huge heart. He is a role model for many [who are] not born in a family of musicians , that they too can reach such great heights. His voice will always remain in our hearts.”

Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar,Hindustani vocalist, Delhi.

“I was very fond of his singing. I have been listening to his songs for the last 50 years. One fond memory I have of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi is hearing him sing without a microphone at Rang Bhavan in Mumbai. One by one, the country is losing its great masters and sadly there are not many from the new generation who can be termed ‘masters’ of their realm. ”

Jatin Das,Painter and sculptor, Delhi.

“It was a challenge to accompany him. One had to take on the intensity of his creative process, else it was impossible to play for him. He’s gone, I feel very lonely.”

Pandit Vasanth Kanakapur,89-year-old senior harmonium player, Dharwad.

“In my 10 years of close association with him as a disciple, I was always fascinated by the way he would tirelessly explore one note in another. As an individual and as a musician Panditji is unmatched. As Gandhiji believed, he was the epitome of simple living and high thinking.”

Pandit Vinayak Torvi,Vocalist, Bengaluru.

“Pt. Joshi was a doyen of Indian classical music. For me, his work will always remain special because of the way he linked music and spirituality. He had a charismatic voice and a commanding vocabulary of music. Just around the time I was coming into dance, I had the opportunity to perform while he sang, many years ago in Patna. That has always been a landmark moment for me, sharing a platform with such a great personality. It hurts me when people trivialise his music today by identifying him as the one who sang `Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’. I lit a lamp in my pooja space and remembered the great guru when I heard of his demise.”

Geeta Chandran,Danseuse.

“Pt. Bhimsen Joshi was a luminary of the music scene. There will not be another Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar and Gangubai Hangal. That is why we call them “one of a kind”. No one can sing the Maru Bihag raag like Panditji could. He was a nice, kind person and had a very warm smile. I had wonderful conversations on music, dance and art with him. We had high regard and respect for each other. I performed at the Sawai Gandharwa Music Festival in Pune a few times at Panditji’s invitation. His style and contribution to Hindustani classical music will be unmatched.”

Sonal Mansingh,Danseuse.

A life in music…

Bhimsen Joshi (b. Ron, Karnataka, 4 Feb. 1922)—Eminent vocalist. Brought up in Gadag, Karnataka, in an atmosphere of music and scholarship. He received the Padma Shri in 1972, Padma Bhushan in 1985, Padma Vibhushan in 1999, and Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, in 2009.

After basic music lessons from some local teachers…Joshi left home in search of a proper guru and travelled to Rampur, Delhi, and even far-off Kolkata. Bhimsen’s is a story of the travails of a seeker. He wandered, ticketless at times, with an obsessive mind but no guru took him seriously.

Somewhere on his way back from Delhi he met the well-known Vinayakrao Patwardhan, who directed him to go to Sawai Gandharva. It is ironic that Joshi had to go to a village in the same region as his own village to meet Sawai Gandharva after all the extensive tours he made.

The guru accepted him, even accommodated him occasionally. The disciple learnt a few ragas, including Todi, Multani, and Pooriya, and accompanied the guru on concert tours. This was roughly during 1935–42, after which he began to stand on his own…


Edited excerpts from the entry on Bhimsen Joshi in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India (3 Volumes) , OUP, 2010, p. 1472, price not stated.

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