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HOMAGE TO PANDIT BHIMSEN JOSHI: FIVE YEARS LATER

Lavanya Dinesh

By Lavanya Dinesh

‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ (let our voices join in tuneful unison) is one of my most striking childhood memories of the attractive vocalism of a true musical giant named Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Sung in the haunting raaga Bhairavi, this multi-artist musical montage of the magic that is Indian music still airing on Indian television contains several diverse performers. But the lovely anthem rings clearer and more beautiful because of a truly gifted vocalist, a household name in India – Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

The musician has touched the hearts and lives of music lovers, laymen, connoisseurs and music aficionados all over the world. None can deny the power and magnetism of this transformational Hindustani (North Indian classical music) vocalist. He is arguably one of the greatest musicians that our generation has witnessed. With Pandit Joshi’s passing on Jan. 24, 2011 just a few days short of the maestro’s 89th birthday, an esoteric era of Indian music ended.

Pandit Joshi, who was born in the Gadag district of Karnataka on Feb. 4, 1922, belongs to an esteemed pantheon of Kannada-speaking stalwarts of the Hindustani classical music tradition. A few among them are late vocalists Pandit Kumara Gandharva, Pandit Mallikarjuna Mansur, Dr. Gangubai Hanagal and Pandit Basavaraj Rajguru. Dr. Gangubai was Pandit Joshi’s guru-bandhu or fellow disciple of Pandit Sawai Gandharva (a k a Rambhau Kundgolkar), who also hailed from Karnataka.

Pandit Sawai Gandharva was an exponent of Kirana gharana (school of Hindustani classical music). Pandit Joshi strictly speaking had thus internalized the nuances and intricacies of the Kirana style of vocalism pioneered by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Nevertheless, Pandit Joshi imbibed some of the most attractive and masterful aspects and techniques of other gharanas and styles as well. The genius that Pandit Joshi was, his unique robust and masterful singing and soul stirring music are completely original and inimitable. Having the good fortune of attending many live concerts of the late maestro, I can vouch firsthand for the fact that this amazing performer was a force of nature. His vocalism was characterized by vociferous, explosive taans (note oscillations) and bold improvisations juxtaposed with an appealing tenderness and emotional elaboration of any raaga or melodic entity that Pandit Joshi expounded.

The raagas Multani, Durga, Malhar, Tilak Kamod and Shudh Kalyan are so fresh in my memory. Pandit Joshi’s masterful live renditions and recordings of these rich Indian classical melodies are considered as the gold standard by many performers. Especially the performances from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The haunting and heightened emotion of ‘Ata Jhooma Re,’ a composition in raaga Malhaar that personifies rain clouds, thunder and lightning, or the mesmerizing melody of the raaga Tilak Kamod – ‘Teeratha To Saba Kare,’ create spiritual awakenings in a musical heart. Such is the power of Pandit Joshi’s music. The quintessential raaga Durga renditions ‘Tu Ras Kan Re’ and ‘Chatura Sughara’ – medium- and fast-paced compositions respectively are immortal. The impressive and bombastic taan express of Pandit Joshi’s raaga Multani – especially the dhruta (fast-paced) bandish/composition ‘Nainan Mein Aan Baan’ demonstrates the artist’s vocal technical prowess as well as his immense ‘Saadhana’ or the depth of perseverance.

The artist’s voice has reached even the most remote corners of India and many legends and anecdotes are associated with this stalwart and star. It is said that in the 1980s when bandits confronted Pandit Joshi, they left him unharmed after learning who he was. 

With the passing of Pandit Bhimsen, the music world lost a trailblazer who carved his own unusual yet brilliant path on the time-tested hoary tradition of Indian classical music.

The guru-shishya parampara is a unique Indian tradition where the disciple is totally dedicated, devoted to and at the mercy of his/her teacher – always considered sacrosanct. The student in his rigorous learning of the art strives hard not to displease or dishonor the guru in anyway. The guru in turn gives the greatest gift of knowledge and hard earned experience selflessly to the disciple whom he regards as his own offspring. Such is the haloed position occupied by the guru in the Indian classical music tradition. For Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, finding a good guru was not at all easy. Incurably crazy about music since early childhood, a young Bhimsen ran away from home in search of the perfect guru after being bewitched by a recording of Hindustani vocalist Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb. 

Motivated by wanderlust for most of his early life, Bhimsen finally found in Sawai Gandharv (Rambhau Kundgolker) the ideal guru. It was indeed fateful that this guru himself had learnt under Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Pandit Joshi carried his love and devotion for his guru till the end as evinced by the grand Sawai Gandharv festival of music that he organized in memory of his guru every winter in Pune – Pandit Joshi’s adopted hometown. The Sawai Gandharv festival has provided a visible platform for many up and coming talents in the field of Indian classical music to display their prowess as well as receive the accolades and blessings of senior music maestros and the cognoscente.

Though this legendary and passionate vocalist was considered a pure classicist, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi also lent his voice to many Indian feature films. None can forget the immortal composition ‘Ketaki Gulab Juhi Champak Ban Phoole’ from the Hindi film “Basant Bahar” rendered as a Jugalbandi with playback singer Manna Dey. Even in little snippets, flashes of the late vocalist’s unmatched musical brilliance shine through. Panditji’s poignant playback singing for the old Kannada language movie “Sandhya Raaga” starring matinee idol Dr. Rajkumar is yet another example of how this astute musician made Indian classical music more accessible to the masses.

Pandit Joshi’s popularity is owed in large part to his unparalleled appeal in the field of devotional music or Bhakti Sangeet. He was a master at rendering devotional compositions such as Kannada Devaranamas, Hindi bhajans and Marathi abhangs. The evergreen Kannada bhajan ‘Bhaagyadaa Lakshmi Baaramma’ rendered in raaga Bhibas is a favorite of the masses and one of the highest-selling records to this day. The other renowned Kannada compositions rendered by Pandit Joshi in his own forceful and mellifluous style are ‘Yenna Paaliso,’ ‘Sadaa Yenna Hridayadalli’ and ‘Yaadava Nee Baa’ to name a few. Some of Panditji’s hugely popular Marathi abhangs include ‘Teertha Vithala,’ ‘Sagunachi Sej Nirgunachi Saaj,’ etc. 

Hindi bhajan recordings of Pandit Joshi are extremely beloved as well, including the Bhaktimala series by Music Today and especially a duet album from the 1980s with the inimitable Lata Mangeshkar. The album was called ‘Raam Shyaam Gun Gaan.’ Never known to back away from a challenge, Pandit Joshi participated in some rare live Jugalbandi (duet) performances with the Karnatic (South Indian) classical music maestro Dr. Balamurali Krishna as well as younger Hindustani vocalists like Ustad Rashid Khan. 

The Indian government bestowed its highest civilian honor – ‘Bharat Ratna’ – upon the maestro in 2008. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi has influenced and inspired many generations of Indian musicians all over the world with his musicianship, mastery of the art that comes from pure 'saadhana' or rigorous disciplined practice, powerful vocalism and a sincere passion for his art. The doyen’s numerous musical recordings are a gift to posterity. The true legacy of music and devotion will live on unto posterity.

Lavanya Dinesh is a performer and teacher of North Indian classical/Hindustani vocal music. The singer’s performances in India and the U.S. have garnered much praise as have the three solo album releases to her credit. Reach the artist/writer at Lavanya@LavanyaDinesh.com

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