If one were to make a documentary on Hindustani music maestro Bhimsen Joshi, where would one begin? In his 1992 Films Division documentary on Joshi, Gulzar begins by asking Joshi’s wife if he is fussy about food and whether they fight at the dining table.
“We’ve heard your husband is very stubborn?” Gulzar asks Vatsala Joshi from behind the camera. The rest of the family that is seated at the dining table watches. “Me?” retorts Joshi, immediately talking over her.
Gulzar: “We’ve heard that you ran away from your house as a child over a spoon of ghee.”
Joshi: “I did run away from home but ghee was just an excuse. I had made up my mind to leave. I just needed an excuse.”
Gulzar: “Why did you want to leave?”
Joshi: “Because there was nothing there – in Gadag where I used to live, there was no music teacher.”
Music meant everything for the illustrious maestro of the Kirana gharana. It was the reason he left home and became his raison d’etre until his death.
In Gulzar’s documentary, Joshi traces all the places where he hunted for a music teacher: Gwalior, Lucknow, Kolkata, Rampur and Jalandhar. When Gulzar asks him how he reached Gwalior from Gadag with no money in hand, Joshi plainly says, “Bas aise hi.” Joshi took advantage of the musical acumen of Maharashtra’s ticket collectors – he would imitate classical musicians and songs he had heard and get away without having to buy a ticket.
Full of rivetting anecdotes from the life of one of India’s greatest classical singers, Gulzar’s documentary attempts to uncover the man behind the music. He chats with Joshi about a range of subjects – the attractiveness of the thumri of Lucknow, his musical face-off with Manna Dey, and how he chooses compositions before a concert.
Gulzar also devotes ample time to the music itself. Alongside interviews with Joshi and his family and a peek at old photographs, Gulzar films Joshi’s concerts. He lets the audience witness the magic of Joshi’s stentorian voice, his exhaustive and intricate exploration of a raag, and the meditative quality of his music.
Joshi seems far more at ease when he is with his music than in front of the camera. As his eldest son puts it, “He’s a different kind of person. He’ll give you the impression that he is here listening to you, but he is actually in his own world.”