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Seeking the stars


The legendary vocalist Bhimsen Joshi emerged from those remarkable days when creative processes were marked by diversity of thought and emotion.

Nothing could ever veer Bhimsen Joshi away from his purpose

INTUITiVE Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s music was uneven and irregular, brilliant and mesmerising, wayward and repetitive

Evaluation of an artiste who has attained an iconic status usually tends to lapse into unbridled glorifications, ignoring weaknesess in the artiste’s repertoire. Or, in the hands of those critics who wish to draw attention to themselves by deliberately pulling down icons, it becomes petty denigration. Neither of these extreme positions does justice either to the artiste or to serious art criticism.

Evaluation of an artiste is also by implication an estimate of the multiple traditions the artiste has drawn from while shaping her/his creativity. In addition, one must be deeply aware of the creative processes of other contemporary artistes who too were icons in their own right and happened to be significant influences.

If one has to comprehend the enormity of the achievements of Bhimsen Joshi, chosen for the Bharat Ratna award, it needs to be done against this background. The easy thing to do is locate Bhimsen Joshi as the living superstar of the Kirana Gharana. But that does not explain anything about his musical genius.

Bhimsen Joshi was nurtured and shaped by a musical culture that had multiple resonances – of grammatical structures, conceptual patterns and modes of imagination and expression. All these came from individual artistes and the rich traditions they belonged to, and swore by. The times engendered diversity – of thought and emotion – and the entire musical culture was marked by the elements of heterogeneity and difference.

The Kirana Gharana of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Sawai Gandharva drew its energies and identity drawing and differing from the other gharanas – of Agra, Patiala, Jaipur-Atrauli, Gwalior, to name only a few. The genius of Bhimsen Joshi also had, apart from the rigorous training imparted by his mentors, the “living” voices of the past and the present. Even “non-living” voices came through oral transmission, a major aspect of our musical tradition.

Today, while attempting to describe the music of Bhimsen Joshi, one must acknowledge the “presence” of stalwarts like Mogubai Kurdikar, Hirabai Badodekar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Faiyyaz Khan, Alladiya Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and many others. They all, in different ways created the idioms, in which all the experiential, imagined, and the actual methods of training and learning fused, and differed. One can only meditate on the nature of the ambience of the musical cosmos which in spite of the specificities of a particular gharana flourished through an organic sharing of concepts and experiences. An acknowledgement of this kind is actually a tribute that one must pay to those that expanded the notions of music through ideas and concrete experiences and not through sterile intellectual frames.

Musical cosmos

It is essential to now find out what one beholds in the music of Bhimsen Joshi that spans a period of over five decades. It is also time one arrived at a fair estimate of the quality of his music without simplifying either his strengths or weaknesses. This cannot be done without a bit of a comparative study. Two other great figures of his times, Ustad Amir Khan and Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur, could make for the study in contrast, while describing the music of Bhimsen Joshi.

Ustad Amir Khan was serene, tranquil and avoided flourish and rhetoric in his music. Never did Amir Khan exhibit dazzling virtuosity. Even at the peak of his career he did not hesitate to hide the difficulties of dealing with complex ragas like Hem Kalyan. “It is such a complex raga. To produce even four taans out of it is so difficult,” he had remarked. Not once did Amir Khan produce a musical phrase by accident or by unconscious design.

Pt. Mansur was rigorous, austere and cerebral – true to the essential intellectual temper of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana. It is against this background and these two figures that one could approach Bhimsen Joshi’s music which has throughout been characterised by a spontaneous lyrical quality and not always by rigour and austerity. Bhimsen Joshi was ever the wanderer, engendering brilliant phrases and tans more intuitively than through deliberation. This often makes his music uneven and irregular, brilliant and mesmerising, wayward and repetitive, all at the same time. The repertoire too was fairly limited with Yaman, Pooriya, Marwa, Miyan Ki Todi, Mian Ki Malhar figuring more prominently than others. But Joshi could also be so contemplative and mellow when he chose to be as in his rendering of Lalit Bhatiyar, Durga, Abhogi, Shudh Kedar or Jai Jaiwanti. Never the one to be controlled by the rigours of theory, he sailed high, floundering often, nevertheleff reaching out to the stars.That was his immense greatness and, occasionally his frailty.

Once, after producing a long, breathtaking taan he turned to Madhav Gudi sitting behind him and asked: “ How was it?” without a trace of ego or pride. At another concert while singing an involved Miyan Ki Malhar, he chided the audience for interrupting him: “Clap after it’s all over.” An incident at the Durbar Hall, Mysore reveals what the man, who never covered his frailties, was. Unable to continue after half hour into the concert, he announced he was ending the concert, but when forced to continue, he exclaimed: “Can you stick a plucked flower to the plant and expect it to blossom?! No, I can’t continue any more…”. Bhimsen Joshi represents the openness, transparency of our musical tradition that was always seeking, enquiring without closing its vision and terminating its range of experience.

Uncharted course

Early Days Pt. Bhimsen Joshi (middle) with Krishna Hangal (right) rendering invocation song “Udayavagali Namma CheluvaKannada Nadu” at the inauguration of the Dharwad Station of All India Radio in 1950

What would Bhimsen Joshi have been if he hadn’t been one the greatest vocalist of our times; a musician who captivated audiences for decades on end? He probably would have succumbed to his father’s wish of becoming an engineer or would have been an automobile freak. The latter seems the more likely one.

If the 12-year-old unbending, resolute Bhimasena ran away from home in pursuit of music – to sing like Abdul Karim Khan saab – chances that he would listen to his father to become an engineer seem remote. Bhimasena returned home only to runaway again.

The reason was absolutely frivolous: his mother refused to give him an extra dollop of ghee!

On both these occasions, Bhimasena’s course was uncharted; he only knew of his destination, music. And this was the pattern of the rest of his life and his music as well; he lived on an impulse, the call of the moment.

Nothing, not even the fear of the hardships had ever deterred him; he slept on Mumbai’s railway platforms, ate leftovers that people gave him, he worked as domestic servant in the house of the then film actor Pahadi Sanyal, came to Bijapur, passed out in hunger next to a mosque, roamed around in Dharwad, Pune, drew endless pitchers of water from the well… but he had to find his teacher and had to learn music.

Bhimsen Joshi’s music is also marked by the search for the not-so-easily attainable.

Just as he recklessly drove in difficult terrains, he never hesitated to explore the limits and range of his three and a half octave voice.

Once, after he had become one of the leading musicians’ of this country, he fumbled for hours to get anywhere close to the Gaud Sarang during a recording. Without giving up, he took a break, had coffee and went back to the studio, well past midnight. What emerged after that was a scintillating presentation that ended well after daylight.

The lyrical phrases turned into thunderous taans; the mandra soared into taar shadj; Bhimsen’s music comes alive in the belief of the seeker that he is.

Music challenged him and he pushed its boundaries.

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