Mention Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and every music lover of Dharwad will tell you a story about him as a maverick boy growing up in north Karnataka towns. The young genius who followed processions of musical bands forgetting to return home, who led anomadic life in pursuit of a ‘guru’ and sang bhajans to entertain ticket collectors while travelling ticketless in trains...
The small-town boy went on to become a legendary vocalist and a Bharat Ratna. The life of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, whose birth centenary is on February 4, continues to be a source of inspiration for many youngsters who are passionate about music.
Born in 1922 at Ron in what is today Gadag district, Bhimsen Joshi was the eldest among 16 children born to Gururaj Joshi and Godavaribai. He left home at a young age in pursuit of music and a suitable guru. The first ticketless journey was to Bijapur (now Vijayapura) and then to Pune, and subsequently to many music schools and gurus in many places. He went to Khandwa, Gwalior, Jalandhar and many other places, only to return to Dharwad district where he found his guru – Pandit Sawai Gandharva at Kundagol.
There he met Gangubai Hangal, another disciple of Sawai Gandharva, whom he fondly called ‘akka’ (elder sister). Gangubai went on to become a doyenne of Hindustani classical music and settled down in Hubballi. She would fondly remember how ‘Bhimsena’ would accompany her to the railway station when she had to catch a train to Hubballiafter music lessons from her guru and how he would discuss music, sing and ask her to demonstrate what she had learnt.
Afterthe training that spanned over several years, the ‘Ganda Bandhan’ (ritual that creates a bond between guru & disciple) took place in Dharwad, where Bhimsen Joshi, married by that time, chose to settle down.
“It was here that his association with theatre began,” recalls Ramakant Joshi, proprietor of Manohar Granthamala, whose father, litterateur and publisher G.B. Joshi (Jada Bharata) took Bhimsen to Bagalkot to act in the play Nala Damayanti . The singer played the lead role and also composed the music.Bhimsen Joshi stayed in Dharwad for around five years.
“During this period, my father arranged the staging of two plays Bhagyashree and Parivartana , in which Bhimsen Joshi played the lead role and composed the music. These plays were staged in various towns and cities, including Hubballi, Pune, and Mumbai. It was during this period that he met Vatsala, an actor, whom he married later and subsequently shifted to Pune. “But, he shared a special bond with Dharwad till the end,” Mr. Ramakant Joshi said.
In fact, when All India Radio opened a station in Dharwad in 1950, the inaugural song Vande Mataram was sung by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru.
Musicians like M. Venkateshkumar find in Joshi an endless source of inspiration. “Our guru Puttaraj Gawai told us that Bhimsen was at Veereshwar Punyashrama for a few months before leaving Gadag. For us, he is a great source of inspiration. The struggle that he faced, the dedication, the commitment towards music always inspires us,” Pandit Venkateshkumar told The Hindu .
He fondly remembers how Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, a top-level artiste, would take care of budding and young musicians. “He never forgot Karnataka, and especially Dharwad. The Sawai Gandharva Music festival, which he organised in Pune, would have at least four musicians from Karnataka. When the Maharashtra Government honoured him with ‘Maharashtra Bhushan’, he asked the organisers to get me to sing at the award presentation ceremony,” he said.
For Pt. Venkateshkumar and many like him, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi ‘s musical calibre continues to be an enigma. “We still wonder how he could perform forlong hours, and with such amazing variety and novelty. We grew up listening to him and he continues to inspire many like me even today,” he said.