Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

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The Times of India TNN | Feb 1, 2011

Early life

Kirana gharana maestro Pandit Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi was born on February 4, 1922 in Gadag, Karnataka.

His father was a teacher whose contributions include a Kannada-English dictionary which is a standard reference work. He also authored Naadaputra' a short biography of Bhimsen a rare example of a father writing about his son.

Panditji was a good student, but he loved music.

Initiation into music

It ultimately prompted him to run away from home when he was 11 and his quest for a good teacher took him to Bijapur, Gwalior, Kolkata, Delhi and Jalandhar before he came back home to become a disciple of Sawai Gandharva, the disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan whom Panditji admired.

Bhimsen began to live at his guru's house and was taught nothing for the first 18 months, primarily because his student's voice was breaking and to test his sincerity. Bhimsen stayed with his teacher till 1940 and learnt raga Todi, Multani and Pooriya.

Rise to fame

His meeting with vocalist Begum Akhtar fetched him a job as a staff artiste at Lucknow radio station where he became friends with shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan. In 1943, he moved to Mumbai, but his real break came in 1946 at a concert to mark the 60th birthday of Sawai Gandharva. His guru and the audience appreciated the performance.

Bhimsen started as a recording artiste in 1944 with HMV when the company released two Hindi and two devotional songs in Kannada. He recorded prolifically for the company and in 1984 became the first Hindustani vocalist to win a platinum disc.

The rise and rise of the maestro

Suanshu Khurana, April 15, 2022: The Indian Express

Sometime in the early ’60s, at a musical baithak in Calcutta’s Dixon Lane, in Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh’s living room, a bright and upcoming musician, Bhimsen Joshi, then in his early 40s, took his audience by surprise with his breath control during taans, immaculate hold over ragas, and near-breathless iterations of phrases. All this while his grip remained strong on the distinct imprint of the Kirana gharana, known for its impassioned renditions in the higher octaves. And yet, his was a different style, with shades from other gharanas infused as well. It was brilliant and yet unheard of until then.

Sitting among his audience, engrossed in Joshi’s music and giving his daad (appreciation) in chaste Urdu at regular intervals, was the ageing Bengali actor-singer Pahari Sanyal. Sanyal was taken aback when, at the end of the performance, Joshi touched his feet, and, with a toothy smile, said: “I don’t think you’ve recognised me, saheb. I’m Joshi. I used to work in your house.”

A stunned Sanyal was immediately transported 30 years ago, to his house on Raja Basant Roy Road, when he was at the peak of his career. A 12/13-year-old boy from Gadag in Karnataka’s Dharwad, whom he called “Joshi”, had been employed as a domestic worker at his home. Eager to learn music, he would sit in at Sanyal’s song rehearsals in the evenings.

Later that day, after the baithak, once Joshi left, Sanyal turned to his friend Kumar Prasad Mukherji, commercial director of Coal India Limited and son of the well-known sociologist and economist DP Mukerji, and said, “‘Good lord!’ I can’t believe it is the same boy… He had a voice like a buffalo calf with a cold. I told him he had no future as a singer but I might be able to find him a petty job in the New Theatres Studio… he suddenly disappeared one day. Good heavens! How can this man be the same Bhimsen?” wrote Mukherji in his book The Lost World of Hindustani Music (Penguin, 2006).”

“Since I had no earning, I’d ask around for food to eat or work as domestic help. Pahari Sanyal needed a servant… when he came to hear me at a music conference, I reminded him that I am the same ‘Joshi’ who worked in his house,” Joshi recalls in filmmaker-lyricist Gulzar’s documentary Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1992), produced by Films Division.

It’s often said in Indian classical music circles that “if God ever decided to sing, he’d choose Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s voice”. Joshi, who would have turned 100 in February this year, remains, perhaps, the only musician to have the cultural high ground in his heyday as well as his later years. While there was the ability to hypnotise his listeners apart from mining an indefinable sense of spiritual profundity from the seven notes, there was also the high voltage, large and resonant voice, tied in with that formidable technique.

Prabha Atre, 89, the seniormost torchbearer of the Kirana gharana, who knew Joshi closely for years, believes that a singer’s ingenuity relies heavily on his voice. “It does not suffice to have music in the head,” she says. “It must be projected successfully through the voice… Bhimsen ji had been fortunate in this regard. His voice, even at an advanced age, engulfed the listener like a flood of bright light pervading the whole environment… Kirana (gharana) artistes have voices that are thin, sharp and high-pitched. But Bhimsen ji’s voice was quite the opposite — broad, dense, wide-ranging, capable of prolonged spans. And yet it could lay claim to sweetness and melodiousness,” she adds.

In his book, Bharata Ratna Pt Bhimsen Joshi: The Voice of the People (2016), Bengaluru-based vocalist Nagaraj Rao Havaldar, who learnt music from Joshi’s seniormost disciple Pandit Madhav Gudi, writes that Joshi became the gold standard in the world of classical music, “Pandit ji’s music reached the common man, music lovers, scholars and musicians. It was a voice that belonged to everybody,” Havaldar writes. Gudi spent 28 years living with Joshi. Then there was the morning of August 15, 1988, when India watched the first visuals of an amber sun, sea and the splatter of a waterfall segueing into a sombre Joshi singing Mile sur mera tumhara. The raga was the majestic Bhairavi, whose infectious melody swirled out of television sets and into our hearts.

Born in a Brahmin family, to a Sanskrit-teacher father and a homemaker mother in Dharwad, Joshi was one of 16 children. He was 11 when an HMV LP featuring a bandish by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founding father of the Kirana gharana, would change his life. The record was being advertised and would constantly be played on the streets. As Khan sang a three-minute Piya bin naahi aaot chain in raag Basant, he’d plumb the depths of the spring raga; and in turn a young Joshi’s soul. He wondered, “what does one have to do to sing like this?,” he says, in the Films Division documentary.

The answer was going to Gwalior, the only place that he’d heard was synonymous with classical music. So, empty-handed, with only the clothes on his back, armed with music he’d learned by listening to his mother’s abhangs and a few stray records, Joshi got on a train from Gadag, without any ticket, and began his quest. His family, for a long time, thought that he left because his mother refused him a spoonful of ghee. It took the young boy more than two months to reach Gwalior, where he landed at the doorstep of sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s father. There, the state provided a free meal to those who learned music. A young Joshi would eat lunch in the day and learn from Hafiz Ali in the evening. He gave him two ragas — the contemplative Marwa and the complicated raga of dusk, Puriya Dhanashree. However, being a well-known musician, Hafiz Ali’s travels kept him away from his students. A restive Joshi then left for Kolkata, which he thought was the city of many accomplished singers.

After his stint at Sanyal’s place as a domestic worker, Joshi visited Delhi briefly before he left for Jalandhar for the famed Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan, the oldest music conference in the country. In Jalandhar, he learned for a while from Bhakt Mangatram, a blind dhrupad musician. A wealthy mill owner, who was also a musician, bought him meals at a local eatery for some months. There, he met Gwalior gharana vocalist Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan, who told him to head back to Maharashtra where Sawai Gandharva, the disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, lived.

Once again, life came full circle. It was Karim’s music that had prompted Joshi to make the journey in the first place. For the next four years, Joshi lived in Kundgol after Gandharva accepted him as a student. He learned only for three, as Gandharva, whose actual name was Ramachandra Kundgolkar Saunshi, didn’t teach him in the first year. Gandharva was not only famous as a classical musician but found popularity in Marathi theatre by playing female roles. His title came from Bal Gandharva, the doyen of Marathi natyasangeet. Once in his guru’s house, Joshi did sewa, washed his clothes, filled water from the well, and cleaned the house. It was only after a year of testing his resolve to learn that Gandharva began to teach Joshi. He performed live for the first time at the age of 19. An album of his abhangs and bhajans was released by HMV the next year in 1942. A year later, Joshi moved to Mumbai. Shrinivas Joshi, his youngest son, says, “As a musician, his life is a miracle. He was born in an area with Kannada as his mother tongue. There, no one knew of classical music. He heard that one record and gambled his entire life for this pursuit. The miracle is that he came up victorious and sits among the giants. He was born for this.”

Once Joshi began to make a little money, his mother arranged a match for him with Sunanda Katti, the daughter of her brother. They married in 1944 and had four children — Raghavendra, Usha, Sumangala and Anand. In 1951, he married Vatsala Mudholkar, his co-actor in a Kannada play. The marriage happened before the Hindu Marriage Act was codified. But bigamous marriages were prohibited in Bombay Presidency, so Joshi moved to Nagpur where this was permitted. He never divorced his first wife, who passed away in 1992. He had three children with Mudholkar — Jayant, Shubhada and Shrinivas.

In the beginning, both the families lived together, but a few years later his first wife moved out with her children and began to live separately. Joshi continued to provide for them and visit them. Katti and Joshi’s son Anand was born in 1962, 11 years after Joshi married Mudholkar. According to Anand, the money was limited and the family lived modestly, away from Joshi’s glamorous world. “I would go every month to take money to the other house and sometimes hear him do his riyaaz. I would think that here is this great artiste, a musical genius, who is also my father. My mother (Sunanda) would always ask us to learn from his great art,” says Anand, who is also a vocalist.

While Jayant is a photographer and painter, Shrinivas, a classical vocalist, is currently president, Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal, Pune, which organises the annual Sawai Gandharva Festival. Did his relationship with the first family divide the two families? Shrinivas says, “We are the first family. We did not have any relationship with them… Whatever problems my father faced, he didn’t expose me to it.” The matter of Joshi’s will remains in the Bombay High Court, where the two families continue to contend over his property.

Joshi also had a long tryst with alcohol, which he overcame in his later years. According to his son Raghavendra’s book, Bhimsen Joshi, My Father (Oxford University Press, 2016), he would sometimes be inebriated on the stage, too.

Nana Mule, 84, who accompanied Joshi on the tabla during the ’70s and ’80s, says “He was an orthodox Brahmin who had never seen alcohol. Some jealous people at the time got him into it. One time, we met actor Dharmendra at Hyderabad airport. He was a great fan of Pandit ji. Since the flight was delayed the two decided to go for a drink. And I saw Pandit ji finish a full bottle of rum. It was a problem but he overcame it some years later.”

While Joshi’s personal life was going through a turmoil, his professional career was buzzing with high praise and honour. His approach to music was intuitive, reflective and exploratory. It was the presentation of his favourite raga, the poignant Todi, at the first Sawai Gandharva music festival after his guru’s death in 1952, that turned him into a legend. It was Gandharva’s training in the performance but the soul was all his own. The festival that began at a small scale in Kundgol is now one of the most coveted classical festivals in the country, with people spending their nights outside the venue for tickets in the morning.

Gandharva was an exacting guru and extremely strict, imparting different bandishes to different students and not allowing them to discuss among themselves. He didn’t want them to be replicas of each other. Legendary vocalist Gangubai Hangal was also learning from Gandharva then. Since Hangal took the 9 pm train back to Hubli every day, Joshi would offer to drop her at the railway station out of curiosity to know her lessons for the day. “On the way, he’d ask her about the bandish she had learnt and share with her what Sawai Gandharva had taught him,” says Havaldar.

“Ek achhe kalakar ko ek achha chor hona chahiye (a good artiste should also be a good thief),” Joshi would say often to his students. Tabla player Bharat Kamat, who accompanied Joshi on the tabla from 1989 till the musician’s last days, says, “Once he messed up a piece in front of Kesarbai Kerkar to prompt her to sing it and give him her knowledge of the subject.” A volatile Kerkar was a tough nut to crack. She didn’t allow people to record her and was especially wary of the “music thieves”. “But Pandit ji’s curiosity would just not rest,” says Kamat, with a laugh.

In a documentary on Joshi, made by Jamia Millia Islamia Center and James Beveridge Associates Ltd Canada in 1971, is a presentation of the rain raga, Miyan Malhar. He was accompanied by tabla player and Kamat’s father Pt Chandrakant Kamat in it. It garnered much attention with its near-perfect rendition of the raga. Even today, the recording is considered a masterpiece. Kamat says that this music is now the stuff of lore. In his trance, Joshi would forget that he’d opened the buttons to his kurta and was singing looking a tad dishevelled. It’s Joshi’s love letter to Miyan Malhar. “There does not exist another rendition of Miyan Malhar like that. It’s gentle but it also has some rage and a kind of subliminality one hasn’t seen in many artistes. He had what we call swar siddhi — the embodied spirit of the raga — in his being,” he says.

This was a time when musicians such as Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan were at the height of their careers. While Mallikarjun Mansur, 10 years Joshi’s senior, was also another name to reckon with among the rasikas, Joshi acquired popularity in every part of the country. “Because he spoke Kannada, the Carnatic element in his Hindustani music helped,” says Atre.

He sang in Hindi films too, including Ketaki gulab juhi in Basant Bahar (1956) and the famed bhajans, Raghuvar tumko meri laaj and Thumak thumak pag in Amol Palekar’s Ankahee (1985). He received a National Award for the latter. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1999 and Bharat Ratna in 2008. “So many musicians are worldly minded, stay in touch with the right people to get certain honours. Not only did he not care, but the beauty is also that he got it all still. He would have been the same person, had he not received anything,” says Shrinivas.

No conversation about Joshi is complete without discussing his humility. His children, colleagues, students and contemporaries speak of the simple man, who needed only music and food to survive and helped everyone around him. While Mule says that he was a “sant aadmi” and helped him often, Bharat recalls an incident when he got married and had a home loan to pay. “Nana Muley ji would accompany him then. Pandit told him that let Bharat accompany from now on since he needs the money. I haven’t met artistes who care at all about what’s going on in their accompanying artiste’s life,” says Bharat. The only luxury that Joshi genuinely enjoyed was his affection for cars, the adoration only outranked by his music.

Over the years, his music mellowed and became less robust as age and illness — brain tumour and tail-bone issues caught up — in the ’80s and ’90s, but his voice never lost its sheen. Joshi passed away on January 24, 2011, leaving behind a legacy that would have felt like a fable if one didn’t hear him live or see the recordings.

Three documentaries

There are three documentaries on him. The first was in 1965 by M Louis, a Dutch film producer who was deeply intrigued by Panditji after hearing him. He came to India and made a film that was shown all over in the West. The second documentary, called Raga Miyan Malhar', was made by Canadian businessman James Beveridge. It portrays the maestro singing just raga Miyan Malhar.

The third is a conventional 45-minute documentary shot in 1993 by noted poet Gulzar which bagged the national award.

Panditji has sung on occasions of national importance. He, along with Lata Mangeshkar, performed at Parliament house on the 50th anniversary of India's independence.


There have been many awards the nation's highest civilian award Bharat Ratna was conferred on him in 2008, Padma Shri in 1972, Padma Bhushan in 1985 and Padma Vibhushan in 1999. The Maharashtra government honoured him with the Maharashtra Bhushan in 2002. In between, he also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1975 and was made a fellow in 1998. The Madhya Pradesh government awarded him the Tansen Sanman award in 1992. The Karnataka Rathna presented to him in September 2005. His voice opened the short film on national integration Mile Sur Mera Tumhara' and the second film on Des raga also became equally popular.

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