An intuition of time is at the core of Indian art music. Not ‘ordinary’ time: of the bus coming late, the pressure cooker's second whistle, or rain interruption at a cricket match. Snatches of a raag floating in from a distant radio, along with slanting afternoon light from the balcony, can move us across a perceptual threshold—from hustle and transitoriness to languor, out of digital and into analog time, into flow, the sort we experience from a train window. It's an altogether different aesthesis of passage, which even a garden variety ustad summons up. With a fully realised sage, an Amir Khan, a Kesarbai or a Bhimsen, the effect is more radical. What is finally only a piece of structured sound, living and moving 'in time', somehow slips out of its grid, almost into an alternate state of atemporality. The music seems to mutate and extinguish time—holding the fleeting moment perfectly still, elongating it, cracking it open, showing it to be nothing but empty duration.
(It’s not necessarily a pleasant sensation—we prefer our time ‘filled’. That's why the basal response to classical music—from all of us who find a 45-second wait at a traffic light intolerable and immediately flip on 98.3 FM—contains an element of something that approaches fright.)
Occasionally, events in the real world approximate this capacity to dislodge us from the present. The passing of Pt Bhimsen Joshi, one year shy of 90, is one that brings forth such a telescopic sense, of history as a long-playing record. The exit from the stage of one like him is more than the death of an individual. Sometimes they say the nineteenth century only ended with the First World War. Human experience creates its own chronology: there is always a lag, or an anticipation. Taken with his peers who went before him, and the handful still with us, this event announces the final ebbing of the twentieth century—at least in khayal.
It's an epoch when this art—already in accelerated evolution, being cast into greater mobility and exchange—collided head-on with the means of mechanical reproduction. As a factor, it had no precedence. Did the technology merely record the music? Or did it, by producing something clinically dead and permanently alive at once, do something more profound? What we do see is a century bookmarked at one end by the earliest recordings of the half-Armenian waif Gauhar Jaan, circa 1902, and at the other, for better or worse, by the excursions of Amit Chaudhuri's Found Music. Bhimsen Joshi belongs to this transitional age, an exemplar in many ways, in whose biographical specifics* we find pointers to its ironical truths.
He was born in Gadag, north Karnataka, a region that, with Maharashtra and Goa, formed a sort of golden triangle. The footprints of Sharangadev come in from one end and those of Purandaradasa go out…a prehistory of ideas in movement. This loam spawned a good portion of our modern classical pantheon—fruits of a long diffusion of knowledge from the Muslim gharana progenitors of the north who gravitated to sundry Maratha courts and other sources of royal patronage in the south. It's also not a random fact that the young Bhimsen's musical imagination was first piqued by a chance hearing of an Abdul Karim Khan thumri in Jhinjhoti on a 78 rpm record—a decidedly modern event. But the 11-year-old boy responded in the fashion of old fables, running away from home and spending three years hoboing across north India in search of a guru.
He was to finally find one back home, in Abdul Karim's frontline disciple Sawai Gandharva. In time, the boy with a "voice like a buffalo calf with a cold" became the arch exponent of his Kirana gharana. Driving his own Mercedes to countless concerts across the dusty Indian landscape, handsome to his last years, admired (even if sometimes from afar) by a nation. The full range of what happened in a remarkable century in music is, by definition, not expressed in its entirety by Bhimsen Joshi, but despite the man’s grace (or maybe partly because of it) his aura fashioned for itself a centrality—it was the sort of stuff that could help form a people’s self-image.
Any talk of our classical music gene elicits loose invocations to a sandal-scented ‘ancient India’, neatly assuming a changeless tradition. Truth is, we have no precise idea of what cognitive leap, what expert ministrations first coaxed the djinn called the raag out of a concatenation of notes. What we do know is: that sublime syntax endured, but the form was always morphing, especially in recent centuries, and we must appreciate harmonised change and its agents. Draw two circles—one for pre-modern masters, one for the rest—and key generations will be seen to occupy the shaded portion where the circles overlap, a doubly marked terrain possessing characteristics of both. Cusp figures like Abdul Karim Khan seem to belong simultaneously to two worlds—one of catalytic rail travel and gramophone records, and another that gestures back to a world of magic, of the saint at Shirdi and walks in the enchanted forest with the mystic Baba Tajuddin. Jaipur paterfamilias Alladiya Khan paused at the edge; he mistrusted the ghost in the machine too much to ever commit his voice to vinyl. Faiyaz Khan did, at the fag-end. Kesarbai did too, patchily and disdainfully.
From there, draw a dotted line separating the greats born into the age of recording—Bade Ghulam Ali (b. 1902), Mallikarjun Mansur (1910), Amir Khan (1912), Gangubai (1913), Bhimsen (1922), Kumar Gandharva (1924), or whoever you fancy. By all reckoning, an explosion of brilliant talent, bred on the rigours of gharana but also children of its newly democratising ways. The departure of Bhimsen leaves us the mercurial genius of Kishori Amonkar, who still performs. What we see here is the slow demise of a system. Gharanas did observe purdah—they were filial guilds, and music was patrimony. But this allegedly closed system was always rife with potential for change. Near the homestead, there was always the railway station.
Look only at Bhimsen: experts affirm he was true to the Kirana idiom but also expanded it, a subtle ecumenism. The only thing you can’t contextualise about him is the voice. And what a voice! More granite-and-redstone than the ductile silver of Abdul Karim, and yet supremely tender. None of the fleeting nimbleness of his gharana mate Basavaraj Rajguru, but like a great elemental force. It was a voice that demanded open spaces around it. It was made for full-throated taar saptaks delivered to trees, birds and a live audience, for the raw, profound compact between performer, listener and the rest of creation. Now we must subsist on the mediation of technology, try and apprehend greatness vicariously through 'trapped reality'. The pseudo-intimate, miniaturising medium of YouTube. The illegally cloned life of Torrent files. Cold meat from the digital refrigerator. It’s of course a bit rich, and yet apposite, that in a hyperlinked text like this, one romanticises so recklessly!—it’s the irony of our situation and we must live it. Future practitioners, free citizens of a wired world, have to convince us we are not staring at a new kind of obsolescence.
A slightly shorter, edited version of this appeared in print.
*For first-person descriptions, from totally different periods and vantage-points, see excerpts from Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music, the blog entry of American disciple Warren Senders, or Ruchir Joshi's The Song Inside Us...