24 January 2011: Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Hindustani classical vocalist, died

One of India’s greatest musicians, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was born on 4 February 1922 in Dharwad, the district in present-day Karnataka that has given birth to many musical legends. He died on 24 January 2011 in Pune.

His father, Gururaj Joshi, was a teacher. His paternal grandfather, Bhimacharya, was a musician. As a child, Bhimsen loved hearing his mother’s bhajans. He had a reputation of being a wanderer and the morning call for prayer from the neighbourhood mosque and singing in the local temple would entice him. He would follow any passing musical procession and often lose his way.

He ran away from home at the age of 11, determined to become a musician. According to some versions he travelled ticketless in trains and sang songs to passengers for food. In any case, he managed to reach Gwalior and heard some excellent classical music there at a music school that had recently come up. He also went to Lucknow and Rampur, both famous centres of Indian classical music.

Eventually in 1936, Bhimsen Joshi became the pupil of the legendary Sawai Gandharva, who taught the finer aspects of Indian classical music to the youngster for four years.

Around the same time, another famous pupil of the master was Gangubai Hangal. Every day after class Bhimsen Joshi would accompany Gangubai to the railway station as she had to catch a train home. She later recalled: “It would have got dark and I being a young lady, my guru would never say ‘no’ to Bhima [Bhimsen]. We would have barely got to the street, and Bhima would ask: ‘Akka, what did you learn today?’ I had to give him all the details. And then he would say, ‘Andu torsala’ (sing it for me).”  

Bhimsen Joshi gave his first public performance in 1941.

His musical style had influences from the various gharanas but the genius was his own. As The Economist magazine wrote after his death: “True, he had the Kirana school’s tunefulness. But those intricate taans owed something to the Jaipur school, even to the style of Faiyaz Khan of Agra. For Bhimsen Joshi was really interpreting Hindustani music in his own way. A good singer, he said, was a bit like a thief, incorporating what he liked best about others’ styles into his own.”

Early in his career he sang wherever he found the opportunity, including for All India Radio and film songs. He sang bhajans in Hindi, Kannada and Marathi. Many of the devotional compositions that he followed were by Marathi saints who had been from the lower castes. Thus in his own way, Bhimsen Joshi, a Brahmin vocalist, reached out across the caste divide.

By 1950 he was already recognised as a great musical talent.

Describing Bhimsen Joshi’s music and style of singing, the poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi once wrote: “He comes looking more like a well-built wrestler than a musician. His voice, forceful, masculine and overpowering, takes over and soon he is swinging slightly to his own music. A rhythm is created both by the voice and the swaying body. If ever there is a visible embodiment of music, it is here in the person of Bhimsen Joshi. His whole body, in a manner of speaking, sings when Bhimsen Joshi sings.”

Though he believed in the guru-shishya tradition and himself was a product of the age-old system, Bhimsen Joshi stressed the need for a student to reinterpret the guru’s teachings for himself or herself. He once remarked: “What one learns from one’s guru has to be supplemented by individual genius, or else one will not have anything worthwhile to say. In fact, a good disciple should not be a second-rate imitator, but a first-rate improvement of his teacher.”

Bhimsen Joshi co-founded the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune as a tribute to his guru. Over the years the festival, which Bhimsen Joshi himself conducted till 2002, grew into one of the most important events in the Hindustani music calendar.

Bhimsen Joshi, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 2008, died on 24 January 2011.

In a tribute to the master, Deepa Ganesh wrote in The Hindu after his death: “There are many shades to Bhimsen Joshi’s music — contemplative, mellow, intuitive, even erratic. He took the traditional Kirana ragas to the highest level of complexity. His brilliant virtuosity was always coupled with romantic intensity. But Bhimsen Joshi was obsessively restless, constantly stretching the boundaries, daring to challenge his own music. There were moments in his music when he knew he would fail, but yet surrendered to the test he set for himself. The fear of the unknown hardly deterred him from exploring higher realms. That’s probably why he is the only Kirana maestro to have even attempted a raga like Ramkali.”

Perhaps summing up what many who knew the man and his music felt after his death, the vocalist Ashwini Bhide said: “Geniuses are immortal, but sadly bodies are not. With the demise of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, it feels like one is walking without the shadow.”

Also on this day:

1826 — Gyanendramohan Tagore, the first Asian to be called to the bar in England, was born

1945 — Subhash Ghai, Hindi film director and producer, was born  

1966 — Homi Bhabha, Indian nuclear physicist, died

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