The voice of the infinite

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By Saeed Naqvi

Photo: Raghu Rai

I DID NOT HAVE  the privilege of knowing Pandit Bhimsen Joshi the way some of my colleagues, Dileep Padgaonkar in particular, knew him. This is because they were rooted in Pune where the great musician lived. Between Pune and Lucknow there is some distance. And yet look how his music traversed that distance. Babul mora naihar chhooto jaaye is a ‘Babul’ or a ‘Bidai’ song composed by the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, on his way to Matia Burj, near Kolkata, where he had been exiled.

There is yet another reason why my recollections are hazy: I had given him a place in those recesses of the mind where memories reside five years ago, when he fell fatally ill. I had borne the tragedy of his departure then, placed him on the pedestal I keep in my imagination, alongside Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, by whose bedside in Dharwad I was when he died. It was an extraordinary death. He had lung cancer. The doctors had given up. So his daughter was instructed not to keep him away from things he loved most. The last thing he asked for was a bidi to smoke. He was humming Raaga Jogia, almost inaudibly. His daughter placed between his lips a lit bidi. And his head rolled over. He was gone. I told this story to Bhimsen Joshi. He heard the story with a distant look, smiled and a tear rolled down his cheek.

Bhimsen Joshi, by contrast, was a far more robust man. I can never forget how he ate up every single puran puri his wife had prepared for me, their guest for lunch.

He was nursing a singular tragedy in those days, a very private one, the sort he could not share. But those close to him knew: his daughter had not got married. In a traditional Brahmin home, if a daughter in her 30s was unmarried, her parents were quite as worried as Bhimsen Joshi was. Such traditionalism in a man so unconventional? This tension between the traditional and the unconventional, the creative was also the hallmark of his music.

His weakness for alcohol was known, but I suspect his relapses into dark spells of alcoholism were triggered by things he grieved deeply about. And yet his drunkenness also worked as a sort of purgatory — a cleansing process, which imparted to his melody that intense pain, colour, rhythm, and that range in his taans or passages when he communicated with the Gods.

As Hakim Momin Khan Momin said: “
Us ghairat-e-Naheed ki har taan hai Deepak
Shola sa lapak jaaye hai, aawaz to dekho.”

(His taan or passage would embarrass the singing bird;
Like the light of a lamp, it leaps).

The only musician in my experience who was also a chiselled intellectual was the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin — he could articulate an idea with professorial clarity. Pandit Ravi Shankar has something of that talent. Bhimsen Joshi did not.

One evening, the conversation drifted to the next generation of singers. I said: “Panditji, you have done most of your singing. What distinguishes you from others is that ‘extra something’. Can you name the next generation of singers with that ‘extra something’?” Pat came the reply, without a moment’s hesitation. “Rashid Khan.”

This was years ago. I wonder if Bhimsen Joshi would be satisfied with Rashid Khan’s progress. Where would he place Ulhas Kashalkar, for instance? While globalisation has scattered the seeds of Indian classical dance and music to all parts of the world, I suspect Indian vocalists have greater difficulty breaking through cultural barriers. The wordlessness of instrumental music gives it easier passage, makes it more accessible to untrained ears in alien lands.

The singing of the koel, a very Indian happening, is contained in the words that convey the pastoral mood of say, Raaga Bageshwari. The instrumentalist throws up passages of Bageshwari without any reference to the koel. But the comprehension of this music is a subjective experience for an audience in a country where there is no koel, or indeed a monsoon season to induce the koel to sing.

As an Indian musician, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi ranks with the greatest, but he would have to yield to a Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan or even the very homespun Bismillah Khan in the ambassadorial role. The instrumentalist, in other words, is better suited to man the musical embassy.

This is what makes Bhimsen Joshi’s heritage that much more precious. The globalised avenues of fusion are not quite as easily open to him. Yes, he can sing a duet with Balamurali Krishna, transcending the very thin Hindustani/Carnatic divide. But there would be cultural confusion if you placed him and, say, Pavarotti on the same stage.

His universalism is rooted in the devotional and pastoral mystique of India. Within India, he links several linguistic and cultural zones. A man from Dharwad, he could not have been totally oblivious to Karnataka’s Purandaradasa, who predates the great Carnatic trio of Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dixitar. And yet he traverses all the regions and ends up with Amir Khusrau, Adarang and Sadarang, singing Piya milan ki aas or Ambua ki dari, which are charged with Hindavi, Braj Bhasha and Awadhi.

His weakness for alcohol was known. Perhaps his relapses were triggered by things he grieved deeply about

This is partly explained by his guru (and founder of the Kirana Gharana) Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s cultural mores — not far from Saharanpur. Bhimsen Joshi heard Abdul Karim Khan sing Raaga Jogia (Piya milan ki aas) on All India Radio and set out on a quest for music.

To escape from his penury in Mumbai and pursue his search for music, he set out for Gwalior. Why? Because he had heard that the Maharaja patronised music and there was an open kitchen for music lovers. How he reached Gwalior is a metaphor for life’s struggles. At numerous railway stations he was thrown out for ticketless travel. He sang at platforms.

Singing at platforms links up nicely with a story from Abdul Karim Khan’s life or rather his death. On his way to Puducherry at the invitation of Sri Aurobindo, Khan sahib had a premonition that his end was nearing. He left the train at an unknown railway station, spread out his prayer mat and sang his last song. He died on the railway platform.

The news was carried to Sri Aurobindo by the disciples accompanying him. I have no doubt that many of these stories are apocryphal. They will remain so unless painstaking research brings out in bold relief a larger than life artist like Bhimsen Joshi.

His music was silenced when he fell ill. But we have hundreds of recordings that will keep his music alive for all time to come. He is unforgettable in many senses.


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