February 4 will mark the birth centenary of Bhimsen Joshi, renowned vocalist and recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. In our series on public spaces named after Hindustani musicians, we visit a garden in Pune named after Joshi to discuss aspects of his life and work.
Most Hindustani music practitioners and aficionados believe that renowned musicians possess god-gifted talents and that it is their divinity that enables them to transport their listeners to an other-worldly realm. Despite being a practitioner and a diehard admirer of these musicians, I do not subscribe to such a belief. It does not comply with my sense of logic and reason.
I also feel that it robs musicians of the acknowledgement that they should rightfully receive for their success in facing the immense challenges that they have encountered during their long years of learning and performing. Ascribing godliness to such musicians also does not give them due credit for their ability to work on inherent musical aptitude to achieve new heights in creativity.
In the case of Bhimsen Joshi, the Kirana gharana maestro, thousands of listeners would subscribe to the belief that I have mentioned. Fortunately for us, his journey of music has been well-documented by those who have written about him so we are able to understand and appreciate the intense struggle and hardship that he underwent.
This was obviously possible because he had shared his experiences about his musical training and about the musicians who he regarded as his sources of inspiration, without indulging in any self-glorification.
These qualities of plain-speaking, forthrightness and abstinence from any unnecessary decorative elements, mark the vocal style that he evolved based not just on his training in the Kirana gharana under his guru Rambhau Kundgolkar, more popularly known as Sawai Gandharva, but equally on the material he imbibed from various celebrated musicians, who he met or heard during his travels across the country.
In an interview conducted by eminent scholar-musician Ashok Da Ranade, Joshi speaks about his training and musical perspective.
Bhimsen Joshi’s renditions of raags like Mia ki Todi, Multani, Shuddha Kalyan, Marubihag, Abhogi, Puriya Kalyan, Puriya, among others, progress in an unhurried manner gradually building up a virtual storm of taans spanning three octaves. A strident voice like his would seem inflexible and incapable of delivering the taans that he was always identified with, but he had trained his voice to move effortlessly from a deep and robust vocal projection to a falsetto, thus seamlessly producing the entire spectrum required to navigate such taans.
The volleys of taans that can be heard on a video recording of his Mia ki Malhar rendition lay bare this fact. Such is the forcefulness and speed in these taans sung in long breaths that it recreates the natural splendour that one associates with thundershowers.
To my mind, instead of transporting the listener to an abstract space, this rendition seems to bring a sense of immediacy with the material world and makes a connection for the listener between the music and the monsoon season for which this raag is prescribed.
He is accompanied on this recording by tabla player Chandrakant Kamat and harmonium player Eknath Thakurdas.
Like many other vocalists, the words of khayal and thumri compositions sung by Joshi may not be easily discernible to most listeners. This could partially be because of his predilection to give less importance to the songtexts. But equally, there was never a battle with the words of the composition in the hope of demonstrating his prowess over rhythm.
It could be argued that he chose this strategy only because he was unable to negotiate rhythm in an intricate manner do so, but it could well be said that this was a conscious aesthetic choice that he made. He probably recognised his natural aptitude and what his heart and mind suggested to him as a possible musical trajectory that would help him establish a unique identity for himself.
Consequently, while he never overawed the listener with a display of intricate and complex mathematical virtuosity, he would momentarily shift to a rhythmic playfulness that would provide a respite to the intensity that he brought to his taans.
It is true that Joshi’s concert repertoire did not demonstrate great variety, and he was criticised for this in some quarters. But it would be churlish to ignore the strengths that his choice of repertoire brought to his concerts. Further, could these critics have unequivocally promised listeners they would experience superlative performances by those who presented great diversity in their concert repertoire? Clearly, the answer would be in the negative.
Besides, one has only to study the raags and compositions presented by Joshi’s contemporaries or even his seniors to realise that there were many others who worked with select repertoire and made slight departures only on some occasions. Joshi held his own in the face of such criticism and reached out to diverse audiences in India and overseas, due to the practised ease with which he masterfully handled his chosen repertoire so much so that his admirers looked forward to the same repertoire.
His critics feel that the public recognition that Joshi received, a phenomenon that had not been witnessed earlier in the context of any Hindustani vocalist and has not been experienced since, was due to his incredibly popular santavani recordings and concerts that focused on the poetry of saint-poets from Maharashtra.
But his forays into areas outside the strict confines of Hindustani music without changing the treatment that he gave to the latter speaks volumes of his versatility as a performer.
The next track has an abhang penned by the saint-poet Namdeo. He is accompanied by Keshav Badge on the tabla and harmonium accompaniment is provided by Appa Jalgaonkar.
Regarding his involvement with music other than Hindustani raagdaari sangeet, who can deny the fact that the music video popularly known as Mile sur mera tumhara espousing national integration through the late 1980s and the 1990s had an unforgettable identity because of Joshi’s rendition of the opening segment? Arguably, this music video made him even more popular and identifiable even among those who were not familiar with Hindustani music. But this did not change his manner of approaching conventional Hindustani concerts.
For uninitiated music lovers, Joshi’s overt gesticulation with his singing was a visual delight. But even the uninformed realized that his style symbolised a strong sense of determination and perseverance that was rarely found elsewhere.
Would Bhimsen Joshi be considered a pathbreaking artist? The question would be answered by an analysis of the affect that his artistry had on the world of Hindustani music. Did it significantly change the way khayal and thumri were performed? Perhaps not.
Yet, many vocalists from succeeding generations have been influenced by him. Some have sought to adopt his vocal projection, others have tried to emulate the speed and clarity of his taans, and some have even been happy imitating his enunciation. Sadly, though, most of these attempts have come across only as caricatures.
Perhaps, we would have had a better idea of what could have progressed as a Bhimsen Joshi style within the larger framework of the Kirana gharana, had he mentored several disciples. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have happened. As a result, devoted followers among vocalists draw inspiration from him but miss out on the crucial fact that he developed his unique style despite having imbibed influences from various sources.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.