An unequal music
Did the richness of his voice overshadow the essence of his musicality, wonders JYOTIRMAYA SHARMA after visiting Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
PANDIT BHIMSEN JOSHI'S voice on the phone sounds very different from his singing voice. It is soft and has an attractive sandpaper-on-glass quality. He tells me that he does not give interviews. I assure him that I wasn't seeking one, and my only purpose to meet him was to reconnect to a past, or more specifically to my youthful past, where he figured prominently.
Tied to a memory
I can remember vividly Panditji striding across the Durbar Hall in Baroda, and sitting on the dais while he along with his accompanists were being introduced. I also remember his impatience with the hyperbolic speeches introducing him. This was the first time I had heard him sing his signature Puryadhanashri. There would be countless times I would hear him sing in Baroda, and each such occasion would be tied to a memory or an anecdote Bhimsen Joshi sitting in the audience and listening to Gangubai Hangal and Malini Rajurkar.
As I enter "Kalashree", Panditji's home in Pune, there is a late evening bustle in the house. Silhouettes of women busying themselves in the kitchen are visible in the dimming light. As soon as I enter the hall, Panditji walks in slowly with the help of a member of the family. The face hasn't changed much, the upright, wrestler's body is the same as before, and the eyes have the same twinkling quality. Here was a living legend with a golden voice.
Over the years, I have often wondered whether the richness of his voice overshadowed the essence of his musicality. Perhaps, the voice and its magic made him forget the need for bhaava in his performance. Many recordings of his today sound mechanical, a bit too perfect, and extremely predictable. Perhaps the voice ensnared both the artist as well as the listener. But I put my scepticism aside artists in India must be worshipped not critically evaluated. I pay my respects and introduce myself. I recount a few of the anecdotes of the Baroda days and he remembers them all.
Since this was not to be an interview, there are long periods of silence. I finally break the silence and ask him his opinion about the most cherished value for him as an artist. "Honesty, only that is important, nothing else," he says. Do you still practise every day? "No. I am 83... I no longer practice," says Panditji, and then points towards his son Shrinivas Joshi, who has just entered the room, and adds, "except when I am explaining something to him." Shrinivas Joshi graduated from IIT, Delhi, but now has left everything to pursue music as his destiny.
In contemplation ... Bhimsen Joshi.
Then suddenly, Panditji speaks to elaborate on my earlier question. "Health," he says, "health is very important. Musicians don't look after their health. There is a burnout in middle age itself because of that. They don't exercise." Just then, Shrinivas's son, a toddler, walks in, and Panditji affectionately asks him what he wanted.
There is one question that I always wanted to ask Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Here was my opportunity, and yet I did not want it to sound like an interview. There was, however, no other way than to ask the question directly. Among all the musicians you have heard, I ask, including your seniors and contemporaries, whom did you like listening to? The answer comes without any hesitation. "My Guru, first of all (the legendary Sawai Gandharva). I also liked listening to Ustad Amir Khan very much. Unki gaayki mein depth tha (his singing style had depth). I also used to listen to Kesarbai Kerker, though she had a very different style (she sang in the Jaipur gharaana style)."
Singing of rain
It is pouring outside and Panditji's comment reminds me of Ustad Amir Khan's dionysiac rendering of "Karim Naam Tero" in the Raga Miyan Ki Malhaar.
In contrast, Panditji's exposition of the same composition in the same raga is, at best, apollonian. It must have been a difficult choice to record or perform live a composition immortalised by a great master. In Panditji's rendition, there is virtuosity, technical brilliance, a voice that is rich with suggestion of rain, but lacks the evocation of clouds, thunder, lightning and torrents of rain that marks Khansaheb's rendition and makes it arguably the best till date.
Even Gangubai Hangal's interpretation of the same has a raw intensity that is comparable to the Amir Khan version. I want to ask him about the two Miyan Malhaars but desist from doing so.
Sensing that my time with the maestro was over, I ask one last question. Was there anyone among the next generation of musicians capable of furthering the frontiers of Hindustani classical music?
"Only one, what is his name, woh kalkatta wala (the one from Kolkatta)," Panditji says with absolute certainty, "Rashid, Rashid Khan. Only him."
I mention a few other names but they don't measure up to Panditji's standards. Ustad Rashid Khan does not belong to Bhimsen Joshi's gharaana or style of singing. Why, then, was he crowned as the heir apparent? Was it just because he recently recorded a tribute to Panditji, a rendition of Raga Shuddh Kalyan? I cannot ask and will not ask.
Shrinivas Joshi escorts me out and admits that the great masters had "something" that his generation of musicians lack. I nod in agreement and look back through the passage out. Panditji sits alone in deep contemplation. There is no air of valedictoriness about him. Perhaps, only a sense of his own immortality. And a profound sense of estrangement from his craft and his audiences.
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