A vocal wizard
The inimitable Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
announces his retirement

By Manorath Gautam

It all began because of a spoonful of ghee. The son of a school master from Gadag, a taluka town in Dharwad district of Karnataka, had learnt to divide his loyalties between music and a large dollop of ghee on his plate of rice during lunch. However, on a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1932, the lad earned a few harsh words from his mother for demanding an extra spoon of the delicacy. Hurt by the reprimand, he left home in a huff. For the next two years, the adolescent singer was hopping from one long-distance train to another in search of a guru. For Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the ticketless journey turned out to be an arduous trek to stardom.

Few know that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is an avid admirer of automobiles.
Whether a Buick or a BMW, he can fix an erratic engine with elan.

"This criss-cross tour which I then undertook, particularly my tryst with north India, gave me an opportunity to get first-hand knowledge of a variety of trends and styles that define the quintessence of Indian music," Panditji had remarked evocatively in a conversation with this writer a few years ago.

However, the wanderlust now seems to have come to a close. Last month, the internationally-acclaimed singer announced his retirement plan at a function where he belted out Raag Puriya Dhanashri in his inimitable style. A frail-as-leaf Panditji went up the flower-bedecked dais in the Dhyaneshwar Hall of Pune University somewhat gingerly, even as two of his disciples lent him ample support. However, once seated between the tanpuras, the doyen of the Kirana gharana enchanted the gathering with his soul-stirring vilampat and eclectic taans delivered with grit and gusto.

For over 50 years, Bhimsen Joshi's dazzling notes have soothed the ruffled nerves of a nation caught in post-Independence dilemmas. His bhajans and abhangs, khayals and kirtis echo India's angst and aspiration. To countless Indians, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara is not merely a Doordarshan ditty but a mantra which has stirred the country's consciousness. Cast in the mould of renowned singers of yore such as Ustad Falyaaz Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Ustaad Amir Khan, Pandit Joshi is doubtless an abiding influence on the contemporary classical music.

Nevertheless, long years of perseverance and patience have preceded the era of glory. Born in February 1922 into a family of kirtankars from Karnataka, Panditji's formative years, spend in Gadag, were marked by an unbridled passion for music. Whether a bhajan rendered by his mother while kneading the flour, or a devotional song heard in the temple or the muezzin's call from a nearby mosque, sur and its tonal quality enthralled young Bhimsen.

According to the family folklore, he would often be seen standing entranced outside a record shop on the main street of Gadag, listening to Fagwaa Brij Dekhan Ko, a Raag Basant composition rendered by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the founder-father of the Kirana gharana. Little did the boy then know that he was destined to be the brightest jewel of the gharana.

Panditji's grandfather, Bhimacharya, was a well-known kirtankar and a gifted musician. Father Gururaj was a scholar (interestingly, Gururaj, who died in 1986 at the ripe age of 82, has written a slender book in Kannada, Naad-Putra, chronicling the life-story of his illustrious son), while Panditji's uncle Govindacharya was a writer and publisher.

The ghee episode came as a twist in the plot. Between 1933 and 1935, Panditji was on the move in search of a master who could introduce him to the intricacies of khayal-gayaki. Destiny took him to Bijapur, then to Pune and later to Gwalior where the wannabe vocalist enrolled himself as a pupil in the Madhav Sangit Vidyalay, a music school which had the royal patronage of the Gwalior state.

Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, who was the most prized musician of the Scindias' durbar, took Panditji under his wings and taught him the rudiments of Raag Maarwa and Raag Puriyaa. Even today, Panditji recalls with gratitude the days he spent with Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, the well-known sarodiya and father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

Calcutta was the next destination where thespian Pahari Sanyal, impressed by the vocal skills of the young visitor, offered him the job of an errand boy. Decades later, Panditji found himself in a close encounter with Sanyal after a music concert in Calcutta. "I am the boy who used to serve you tea," he reminded the New Theatre's actor. A hugely embarrassed Sanyal, so goes the story, turned red as tomato ketchup.

Jalandhar in Punjab was the next destination. Here, Panditji came to know from vocalist Vinayakraobuwa Patwardhan the teaching abilities of well-known singer Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar, aka Sawai Gandharva, who, incidentally, lived in Kundgol, a few kilometres away from Gadag. The teenaged adventurer returned home only to goad his father into sending him to Sawai Gandharva for training in classical music.

Between 1936 and 1940, Bhimsen stayed with Sawai Gandharva at Kundgol. The teacher taught him the basics of khayal-gayaki, a daunting task in view of the post-puberty changes in the pupil's tender vocal chords. Rigorous riyaaz was followed by hours of household chores, done dutifully as a mark of service to the hard-to-please guru.

In this era of rap and reggae, he steadfastly adhered to the khayal-gayaki, even while striving to strike a balance between the plebeians and the puritans.

While fetching pails of water from a faraway well, Bhimsen perfected the patterns of Raag Multaani or Raag Todi. After his training under Sawai Gandharva came to a sudden end because of some misunderstanding, Bhimsen went once again on a tour of north India.

Having drunk deeply at the fountainhead of Uttar Hindustani music, Panditji's gayaki refused to be straitjacketed in the confines of his own gharana. His genius was nourished on the sound bytes of stalwarts he heard down the years, either by choice or by chance. Whether Kesarbai Kerkar or Begum Akhtar, Ustad Mushtaq Hussain of Rampur or Ustad Amir Khansaheb, Panditji soaked in all to add substance to his style.

Again, Panditji learnt to adapt to the changing times. In this era of rap and reggae, he steadfastly adhered to the khayal-gayaki, even while striving to strike a balance between the plebeians and the puritans.

"In the good old days, connoisseurs loved to sit through the entire night listening to singers. Ab to teen ghante tak he gaana hazam hota hai," he once remarked in a contemplative mood.

Well-known singer Pandit Pheroze Dastur, Panditji's 'guru bhai', feels that his style of presentation, dedication and capacity to draw the complete attention of the audience have been the major factors behind Panditji's "tremendous accomplishments".

Joshi is more down-to-earth. He believes that a stern teacher and rigorous riyaaz with a bit of luck thrown in can make a good singer. Fortunately, the doyen's success story has all the three ingredients. His first public concert, to mark the shashtyabdipoorti (60th birthday) of his guru Sawai Gandharva, was held in Pune in January 1946. He has never looked back since.

Connoisseurs argue that he came into his own in the early 1970s with 'Sant-Vaani', a four-hour concert of devotional music which blended Purandardasa with Kabir. 'Sant-Vaani' has been both a commercial success as well as an artistic accomplishment for Panditji. For nearly three decades, he has been the star attraction at every major concert and sangeet sammelan, whether in India or abroad. Yet, fame sits lightly on Panditji's shoulders.

"He is a man of few words. His is a spartan lifestyle," says Tulsidas Borkar, veteran harmonium player who has been his accompanist at numerous concerts. "Even in America Panditji happily stuck to his staple 'Jhunka-bhakar' meal," Borkar remembers.

Few know that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is an avid admirer of automobiles. Whether a Buick or a BMW, he can fix an erratic engine with elan. "Had I not been a classical singer, I would have loved to spend my entire life in a garage fine-tuning a Fiat or a Maruti," is Panditji's oft-repeated line to friends. On a Mumbai-Pune journey, in a taxi some years ago, Panditji, so goes the story,regaled the taxi-driver with his cascading taans. The highly amused taxi-driver obviously unaware of his passenger's eminence, wondered if Panditji knew to fix the engine if the car broke down in the ghats. What the taxi-driver feared happened; the engine went bust while the ramshackle Ambassador negotiated a hairpin bend.

However, to the driver's surprise and relief, Panditji sprung to his feet, took charge of the vehicle and fixed the engine in no time, even as he continued humming his favourite thumri.

Old-timers recall with regret, how alcoholism wracked Panditji's most creative years in the sixties. Music buffs would get aghast to see an inebriated Joshi delineating the finer points of Raag Durbari Kanada or Raag Piloo.

Once speaking at a function to felicitate Panditji, well-known litterateur and humourist P.G. Deshpande jokingly remarked that the peripatetic vocalist who is a disciple of Gandharva should be known as 'Hawai' (air-borne) Gandharva.

It was his wife Vatsalabai who was credited with having effectively intervened to wean her illustrious husband away from the bada peg. Vatsalabai, Panditji's second wife, was also his disciple. Panditji was barely out of his teens when he married his uncle's daughter. The second marriage may have brought some tension in the family in the initial years, but Panditji tackled the question of dual loyalty with finesse.

To sum up the credo of his life in his own words, "I am still a shaagird (student). I have a long way to go." Wanderlust, we say.

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