India Instruments EN » Network » Texts » Bhimsen Joshi - The Quintessential Voice

Bhimsen Joshi - The Quintessential Voice

Obituary by Vibhaker Baxi
(February 2011)

Today the quintessential voice of Hindustani, nay, Indian, Classical Music has been lost to this world. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi-ji passed away this morning at Pune in India at the age of 88. To define Bhimsenji in terms of his Kirana Gharana would be a futile attempt at marking the man and his magic. His art transcended the fineries of Gharana definitions - his became a style of his own. To a majority of lovers of Khyal music his voice, his singing style became the benchmark by which they informed their musical sensibilities.

My own awakening to classical music came through his singing. I remember from a very early age being struck by his song "Ketaki Ghulab JuhiĆ¢" performed with Manna Dey in the film Basant Bahar. My re-introduction to the UK classical music scene on my return there in 1985 was through a series of his concerts in London, which led to my long association with Jay Visva Deva of Sama Arts Network which in turn led to the eventual creation of the Navras Records label in 1992. My own late father's utter devotion to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb's music (Bhimsenji's Guru's Guruji) also must have had some subconscious influences on me. Whichever way I look at it, my absorption in Hindustani music had the aura of Bhimsen Joshi bestowing its magic on my sensibilities.

So today I deeply mourn the loss of this legendary maestro, a lion among vocalists, and yet a rare Maestro who had no ego, no tantrums, just a lot of quiet dignity, a man of simple needs and no demands! He was at peace with his achievements and his craft in that he did not seek any approvals, any awards. Even during his performances, at the end of each item, he would not wait for the applause to die down before he would move on into the start of his next rendering - so un-preoccupied he was with his own ego. Once when barely 100 people turned up at a busy week day concert of his in London, responding to an apologetic promoter he simply said it did not matter to him if there were 10, 100 or a 1,000 people in his audience. He would be still giving them his utmost! He would not be affected or offended by the size of his audience.

I had the privilege of attending the Sawai Gandharva Festival at Pune some years back when he just resumed performing there after a break of a year or two due to his brain tumour and subsequent surgery. He was rather shaky in his performance - his voice was weak and trembling a bit - but the audience was just happy to see him sing and with tears in their eyes and as if saying to him, "don't worry Panditji - we know what you are trying to sing and that's all we are hearing the way it always was.." When I went to bid him farewell at the end of the festival he just said to me "Baxi Saheb, maine theek to gaya na?" - (Baxi Saheb, was my singing okay?) - a legend asking a simple listener like me and that was the measure of this hugely modest man! And from that state of his health he recovered his usual gusto and virtuosity with some more gems of performances, including the "Tapasya" concert (October 2001 at Mumbai's Shanmukhananda Hall) released by Navras on CD and DVD.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was born in Gadag (now in the state of Karnataka) on 4th February 1922, well away from the main centres of activity of Hindustani music, and with no family tradition of professional music-making to build on. Legend tells of how, determining on a musical quest, he left home in his teens and travelled over much of the subcontinent, learning his art from several masters in musical centres such as Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur. Best known as a disciple of the renowned singer Sawai Gandharva Rambhau Kundgolkar, Bhimsen Joshi has been consequently regarded as a representative of the Kirana gharana made famous by Sawai Gandharva's guru, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.

Bhimsen Joshi has been performing in public since the age of 19, both in India and abroad, till around 2007. It is a measure of his stature in the Indian music world that he has received such high national honours as the Sangeet Natak Academy Award, the Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna (The Gem of India). This last and the rarest of honours ever given by the Indian Government was bestowed upon him so late in his life as to almost make it a travesty. I hope the powers that be will remember this and do not make such omissions in the future to such deserving individuals.

He has earned the respect of all for his musicianship, and for the immense power and majesty of his performances. For many he epitomised this aspect of musical expression, the grandeur of the serious Hindustani ragas, although he is also appreciated as a singer of the devotional bhajans and other light classical genres such as the Thumri. His voice, style and sheer presence are instantly recognisable, his performances amongst the essential experiences of Indian music. The Navras Catalogue contains 13 CD titles (20 discs) and one DVD title of Panditji, including some rather rarely performed ragas from his repertoire. We have been greatly privileged to have been blessed with his presence on our Catalogue and in our musical lives. No doubt a very major presence in the annals of Indian Classical Music, his music and presence will remain forever in the minds and hearts of all music lovers.

* Vibhaker Baxi is the founder and director of UK-based record label Navras.