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The man and his music

Bhimsen Joshi has remained one of the stalwarts of Hindustani music, weathering many a storm. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN on the legendary singer who turned 80 recently.


Strong and undeterred... Maestro Bhimsen Joshi.

PANDIT Bhimsen Joshi has one of the most robust and durable voices known to this generation. At the 80th birthday celebrations of the maestro by the Department of Performing Arts, University of Pune, and Arya Sangit Prasarak Mandal (Feb 2002), "devotees'' from his hometown refused to leave the hall even when all the seats were taken. They squatted and stood wherever they found space, paying homage to the man who had not only seen a thousand moons (sahasrachandra darsan), but also refracted their lustre in his music.

Joshi hobbled to the stage, but the eye was piercing, the speech sparkled with quips. As cameras flashed and tributes flowed, you remembered the singer's early struggles, which could have disheartened anyone less doughty.

With a grandfather and mother who sang kirtans and devarnamas, and a linguist father, little Bhimsen grows up in Gadag, inspired by the melodic recitations of Kumaravyasa's Mahabharata (Kannada) in the local temple. Early lessons in music come from Agasara Chennappa and Panchakshari Gavai.

Soon the boy becomes restless, longing for the magnetism in the records of Abdul Karim Khan. The quest for the right guru lands the runaway in many adventures across north India. The first has him bursting into bhajans when asked to show his ticket on the train. Once in Pune, Bhaskarbua Bhakle's demand of tuition fees has the boy resuming ticketless travel. In Gwalior he drops out of the music college regimen to become a tanpura artiste. "I am here to learn music, not to act in films,'' he says as he quits his master in Calcutta who wants him to do a screen stint. (Later he is to pick up a national award for playback singing!) At last, in Jalandhar, Vinayakrao Patwardhan suggests that young Bhimsen seek help from Sawai Gandharv nearer home. Hubli station is where the boy meets the master and is asked to "sing something.''

Then Gandharv says, "I will teach you only if you forget everything you have learnt so far.'' The boy moves to the guru's home in Kundgol for five years of intensive training, and household service as sishya. After the guru's death the wanderings resume, this time to listen to the great masters, or staying in Rampur to learn Nat Malhar from stalwart Mushtaq Husain Khan, and service in the AIR at Lucknow. Eventually making his home in Pune, he marries twice, fathers three children. He launches the annual Sawai Gandharv Sammelan to honour his guru, now one of the best-known music festivals of India.

Meanwhile he builds up a formidable reputation for his dedication to both music and liquor. He manages to overcome the downslide to peak in his art again, attracts awards, honours, admirers. For he has achieved that rare goal: without forsaking the tradition imbibed from guru and gharana, he has crafted a new, eclectic style, drawing from other schools and masters (Amir Khan is a revered role model). The assimilation process is smooth, unhurried and judicious, therefore enriching. The introduction of Kannada verses from Purandaradasa into Hindustani music springs from his cultural background in temple music. He also develops his own mode for rendering bhajans, flamboyant natyasangit, and reverberant bhavgeet.

Bhimsen Joshi has no one to take up his mantle as he did for his guru. His children are not musicians, nor has he trained many disciples. "To me he was a loving teacher, but I am his guru's grandson,'' smiles Shrikant Deshpande. Others will tell you that Joshi has little patience for instruction. Hardly any women students, "This is a masculine style after all.''

Vocalist Firoz Dastur, a participant in the Pune festival, interpolates, "But Bhimsen exerts a tremendous influence on young minds. Even those who don't belong to the Kirana gharana try to sing like him!'' Ask him why and he will say, "Who else can grab the entire audience from the very first Sa? I remember hearing him in 1952 for the first time. Moved me to the core." Dastur attributes Joshi's success to two factors: a golden voice and total involvement. "He gets lost in whatever he sings, the greatest requirement in any artiste, but not always met as fully as in Bhimsen. He told me that once he sits down for practice with the tanpura, he does not get up for four to five hours!''

Adds Deshpande, "Look at his body language. Dramatic! He electrifies you, the taans are like lightning, they come and go before you know it.''

Dastur agrees that the layakari (rhythm techniques) is a marvel. But Bhimsen Joshi did not go in for intellectualism, he developed an emotional approach to classical music, appealing to the common man. "I've seen people sitting spellbound for hours.'' When things did not go right, Joshi would make a mid-concert announcement: "I will come again and sing free for you''! Music director Bhaskar Chandavarkar believes that Joshi's charisma rose from the artistic truth in his presentation.

Joshi's craze for fast cars and football (slower cricket came second) is well known. He loved to drive himself across the country on concert tours. "Engine troubles were welcome,'' laughs Dastur. "Gave him a chance to get under the car and tinker with it.'' Deshpande recollects furies on the road. "He'd say, look, that truck is getting ahead, and race to overtake the offender.'' Breakdown on lonely nights? The man just slept in the vehicle until dawn brought help.

"I've seen him as a young music teacher, cycling to my aunt's house in Dharwar to give lessons,'' Chandavarkar recalls, as also the early concerts in Pune. "Did you hear'' Maundarbaje, we'd snicker, because in those days Joshi sang that piece in Suddh Kalyan in almost every recital. He sang only seven to eight raags Purya, Marwa, Malkauns, Miya ki Malhar..." Hindsight tells Chandavarkar that Joshi was building solid foundations for his treasury, establishing the architecture of the raag.'' "The facade looked the same, but each time he took you into different rooms.'' He was witnessing the evolution of a master's style. Later this command of the familiar was to make the singer an expert in rare and mishra raags, many of which are part of vintage record collections today.

Dastur acknowledges Joshi's stardom as the result of "making changes in his style to captivate people, mind you, without deviating from tradition.'' But no dazzling novelties, no new raag inventions. "He didn't have to don the cloak of modernity to impress people. He did it by diving deeper and recovering profounder aspects of tradition,'' explains Chandavarkar. "His inheritance is of the Sufi and Bhakti cults, of going directly to the people. His "grand guru'' Abdul Karim Khan sought no courts, he went to Miraj with its dargah.'' Joshi follows the Maharashtrian socio-political-spiritual leaders in reaching out to the masses. Besides, he has the theatrical flair dear to the Maratha psyche.

The populist approach and the santvani (songs of saints) programmes brought both accolades and brickbats. And for long Joshi was the target of comparisons with the innovative genius of fellow vocalist Kumar Gandharv. "However, Joshi has a combative, athletic, do-or-die spirit which welcomes competition. He never wanted to lose...''

The stamina was amazing. The man could give a full-fledged concert with a collar round the neck when he had cervical spondulosis. An oldtimer says, "Everyone thought the singing would end after the recent operation for brain tumour. But he sings on. The quality doesn't matter anymore. That Bhimsen sings is a sight to watch. Many burn when his name is mentioned. They would like to occupy his place and become another Bhimsen Joshi. But he doesn't budge, no, not an inch!''

Many say that Joshi is a gharana in himself. But there is disenchantment too. "The voice remains impressive, but the art didn't develop. For many years now he has been static, repetitive and mechanical.'' Critics find his bhajan singing lacking the quietness, which takes you inward.

Two anecdotes reflect the maestro's engaging guilelessness. Once when he was congratulated for having spoken well in a panel featuring colleagues Mallikarjun Mansur and Ravi Shankar, he took the admirer aside and whispered, "I know just how to please these old fogies!''

Once as Joshi sang for a friend, he was amazed by the friend's dog putting its paw into his out flung hand each time he hit the sam (point of return after each melodic improvisation). Convinced that the dog had been a vocalist in its previous birth, thereafter Joshi began to give it special singing sessions! He was to shed tears when the dog died. "Young people have lots of technique, little emotion. They learn khyal in the morning, ghazal in the afternoon, natyasangit in the evening, want to perform at night,'' Joshi observed. The statement reflects the lifetime experience of a sincere artiste. It also explains why Pandit Bhimsen Joshi has survived many of his seniors and juniors in life and in music, weathered criticism and nightmares, to remain one of India's most admired artistes.

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