Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
I did not have the priviledge of knowing Pandit Bhimsen Joshi the way some of my colleagues, Dileep Padgaonkar in particular, knew him. This is because they were rooted in Pune where the great musician lived. Between Pune and Lucknow there is some distance. And yet look how his music traversed the distance. “Babul mora naihar choota jai” is a “Babul” or a “Bidai” song composed by the last king of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah, on his way to Matia Burj, near Kolkata, where he had been exiled.
There is yet another reason why my recollections are hazy: I had given him a place in those recesses of the mind where memories reside five years ago, when he fell fatally ill. I had borne the tragedy of his departure then, placed him on the pedestal I keep in my imagination alongside Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, by whose bedside in Dharwar I was when he died. It was an extraordinary death. He had lung cancer. Doctors had given up. So, his daughter was instructed not to keep him away from things he loved most. The last thing he asked for was a bidi to smoke. He was humming raag jogia, almost inaudibly. His daughter placed between his lips a lit bidi. And, his bead rolled over. He was gone. I told this story to Bhimsen Joshi. He heard the story with a distant look, smiled and a tear rolled down his cheek.
Bhimsen Joshi, by contrast, was a much more robust man. I can never forget how he ate up every single puran puri his wife had prepared for me, their guest for lunch.
A singular tragedy he was nursing in those days was a very private one, the sort of tragedy he could not share. But those close to him knew: his daughter had not got married. In a traditional Brahmin home, if a daughter, in her 30s, had not got married, parents were quite as worried as Bhimsen Joshi was. Such traditionalism in a man so unconventional? This tension between the traditional and unconventional, the creative was also the hallmark of his music.
His weakness for alcohol was known, but I suspect his relapse into dark spells of alcoholism were triggered by things he grieved deeply about.
And yet his drunkenness also worked as a sort of purgatory – a cleansing process, which imparted to his melody that intense pain, colour, rhythm, and that range in his tans or passages when he communicated with the Gods:
Hakim Momin Khan Momin said:
“Us ghairat-e-Naheed ki har taan hai Deepak
shola sa lapak jaaye hai, aawaz to dekho.”
(His taan or passage would embarrass the singing bird;
Like the light of a lamp, it leaps)
The only musician in my experience who was also a chiseled intellectual was the great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin – he could articulate an idea with professorial clarity. Pandit Ravi Shankar has something of that talent. Bhimsen Joshi did not.
One evening, the conversation drifted to the next generation of singers. I said: “Panditji, you have done most of your singing. What distinguishes you from others is that ‘extra something’.” Then I asked: “Can you name the next generation of singers with that ‘extra something’.”
Pat came the reply, without a moment’s hesitation. “Rashid Khan”.
This was years also. I wonder if Bhimsen Joshi would be satisfied with Rashid Khan’s progress. Where would he place Ulhas Kushelkar, for instance.
While globalization has scattered the seed of Indian classical dance and music to all parts of globe, I suspect Indian vocalists have greater difficulty breaking through cultural barriers. The wordlessness of instrumental music gives it easier passage, makes it more accessible to untrained ears in alien lands.
The singing of the Koel, a very Indian happening, is contained in the words that convey the pastoral mood of say, raga Bageshwari. The instrumentalist throws up passages of Bageshwri without any reference to the Koel. But downloading of this music is a subjective experience of an audience in a country where there is no Koel, indeed there is no monsoon season to induce the Koel to sing.
As an Indian musician, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi ranks with the greatest, but he would have to yield to a Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan or even the very homespun Bismillah Khan in the ambassadorial role. The instrumentalist, in other words, is better suited to man the musical embassy.
This is what makes Bhimsen Joshi’s heritage that much more precious. The globalized avenues of fusion are not quite as easily open to him. Yes, he can sing a duet with Bulamurli Krishna, transcending the very thin Hindustani/Carnatic divide. But there would be cultural confusion if you placed him and, say, Pavrotti on the same stage.
His universalism is rooted in the devotional and pastoral mystique of India. Within India, Bhimsen Joshi links several linguistic and cultural zones.
A man from Dharwar, he could not have been totally oblivious of Karnataka’s very own Purandardasa, who predates the great Carnatic trio of Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswamy Dixitar.
And yet he traverses all the regions and ends up with Amir Khusro, Adarang and Sadarang singing “Piya milan ki aas” or “Ambua ki dari” which are charged with Hindavi, Braj Bhasa and Avadhi.
This is partly explained by his guru and founder of Kirana gharana, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s cultural mores – not far from Saharanpur.
Bhimsen Joshi heard Abdul Karim Khan sing Jogia (Piya milan ki aas) on All India Radio and set out on a quest for music.
To escape from his penury in Mumbai and to pursue his search for music, he set out for Gwalior. Why? Because he had heard that the Maharaja patronized music and there was an open kitchen for music lovers.
How he reached Gwalior is a metaphor for life’s struggles. At numerous railway stations he was thrown out for ticketless travel. He sang at platforms.
Singing at platforms links up nicely with a story from Abdul Karim Khan’s life or rather his death. On his way to Pondicherry at the invitation of Sri Aurobindo, Khan Sahib had a premonition that his end was nearing. He left the train at an unknown railway station. Spread out his prayer mat and sang his last song. He died on the railway platform. The news was carried to Sri Aurobindo by the disciples accompanying him.
I have no doubt that many of these stories are apocryphal. They will remain so unless painstaking research brings out in bold relief a larger than life artist like Bhimsen Joshi.
His music was silenced when he fell ill. But we have hundreds or recordings which will keep his music alive for all time to come. He is unforgettable in many senses.
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