July 27, 2021
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Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi

Is it a case of better late than never? The ailing 86-year old is the first Hindustani classical vocalist to be so honoured with India's highest civilian award

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Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi
Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi
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  • Satyajit Ray
  • M S Subbulakshmi
  • Pandit Ravi Shankar
  • Lata Mangeshkar
  • Ustad Bismillah Khan

And now, finally, the list of distinguished luminaries from the field of art and culture who have been conferred with the award of Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, has a sixth name: unquestionably, the greatest living Hindustani classical vocalist--Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

He becomes the first Hindustani classical vocalist to be so awarded -- Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi in 1998 and Lata Mangeshkar in 2001 are the other singers who have received the honour. He will be the the 41st recipient overall since the award was instituted in 1954 (he would have been the 42nd, but the posthumous award to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1992 had to be withdrawn as the Award Committee could not, well, provide "conclusive evidence of Netaji's death"). He has already been a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shree awards. He is the second Kannadiga, after Sir M Vishweshwaraiah, to have won this award.

Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi was born in a Kannadiga Brahmin family on February 4, 1922 in Gadag, an idyllic village in Dharwad district of Karnataka. At a young age, or so the legend has it, he was deeply moved by a recording of Basant by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a great master of the Kirana gharana. All he wanted to do since then was to learn to sing. But his father, Gururaj, a Sanskrit scholar and a noted educationist, wanted his young son to study to become a doctor or an engineer instead. Things came to a head in 1933 when the 11-year-old Bhimsen picked up a quarrel (the story goes that he had asked for an extra spoonful of ghee with his meal, and was refused) and the young boy ran away from home -- in pursuit of a guru to learn music from. He headed first to Gwalior, as he had heard that apart from Lucknow and Rampur in north India, it was the best place to learn Hindustani classical music. He spent the next three years in these parts of north India, roaming the length and breadth of the country, paying for his ticket by singing bhajans and abhangs on trains, doing odd jobs and domestic chores in the houses of noted artistes in his endless quest for a proper guru and some music lessons.

Somehow, his father succeeded in tracking him down and brought him back home. By then he was reconciled to his son's ways and, convinced of his passion for music, arranged for young Bhimsen's formal rigorous training. It was chosen to be under Pandit Rambhan Kundgolkar, also known as Sawai Gandharva, at Kundgol, who had been a direct disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Bhimsen stayed with and trained under Sawai Gandharva from 1936 to 1940. Here is Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen's gurubandhu, talking about the times with Deepa Ganesh:

...she would wake up early and practise for three or four hours before starting the household chores, and then dedicate the entire evening to music. "Bhima used to work hard too… in fact, more than I did," she says. In dry Kundagol, it was Bhimsen Joshi's duty to fetch unending pitchers of water for his guru's house from a distant water tank. "Poor fellow, in the scorching heat, he would carry water on his shoulders… but as he walked he would constantly sing. How many times I've heard him practising the taans of Multani, Shankara…!" recalls Gangubai.

After class as Gangubai would get ready to return to her home in Hubli, Bhimsen Joshi would accompany her to the railway station."It would have got dark and I being a young lady, my guru would never say no to Bhima. We would have barely got to the street, and Bhima would ask: 'Akka, what did you learn today?' I had to give him all the details. And then he would say, 'Andu torsala ('sing it for me…')." And in this way they would exchange notes till they reached the station, till the train chugged away.

"I heard the sweetest news and am overjoyed," she is reported to have told the wire agencies now. Some months back, she had sounded wistful, referring to the annual music festival held in memory of their guru, while talking to Deepa Ganesh: "Bhima is eight years younger than me, but he has stopped coming to the Kundagol music festival." Their other gurubandhus had been equally legendary: the likes of Hirabai Badodekar and Phiroz Dastur. But, Bhimsen, who is the youngest of them all, and settled in Pune, could well take some credit for the other annual classical musical festival he established to mark the death anniversary of his guru. The annual Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune has come to be known as the most important event on the classical music circuit, attracting the most discerning audience as well as the country's top-most classical artists. Till his health permitted him, Bhimsen would often be noticed working like an ordinary volunteer at the festival. In recent years, despite failing and extremely frail health, he has still somehow kept that tradition alive, making it a point to at least make an appearance and sing.

While he is an undisputed exponent of khayal singing, he is also adept in natya sangeet, bhajans and thumris. The popularity of his lilting thumris (Jamuna ke terr, Piya ke milan ki aas or Babul mora) and his innumerable popular abhangs composed by the saints of Maharashtra have ensured that his fame is not confined to only those among the classically inclined. In fact, many believe, that after his participation in the combined rendition of 'Mile Sur Mera Tumhara' -- the song that virtually became an unofficial national anthem and used to be shown on Doordarshan in the 1980s -- he had truly become a household name, revered and loved by all.

It could be an index of his popularity, or the respect he commands, aided perhaps by the fact of his frail health, that this time around at least, there has been a rare unanimity among the musical fraternity about the award being truly deserved. And perhaps over-due. And this despite the stories that abound, for example about his prodigious drinking.

Of the many such stories that have passed into folklore is the one about how he once stumbled on to the stage -- where Ustad Rais Khan sat tuning his sitar -- bowed and folded his hands to the startled audience that expected him to perform only after the great sitar player. The audience clapped uncomprehendingly but enthusiastically, thinking this was perhaps going to be a rare jugalbandi. But panditji walked across the stage, exiting from the opposite end to the one he had appeared from, briefly, only to reappear after tracing a half-circle from the other end, once again, to take his bows to an even louder applause. He stepped off the stage, and by then it was clear that he was inebriated and pleasantly high. Raconteurs take great delight in the fact that all this while Ustad Rais Khan saheb continued to tune his sitar, oblivious to what was happening behind his back, clearly taking the audience's applause to be par for the course, perhaps as anticipatory appreciation for his performance. Details about whether or not Panditji reached extra high notes that day are not well-known.

Such is the stuff legend is made of, and appropriately, his audience has always taken as great delight in anecdotes about him -- his love for speed, for driving -- as in his mesmerising singing.

Hear it from Satish Vyas: "The Bharat Ratna honour on Panditji -- the 'Bhishmapitmah' of Hindustani classical music -- is an honour for the entire music world. He should have got it long ago. Many artists become famous but there are few who remain in the hearts of their listeners for such a long time. He is the real heart throb of music lovers. Panditji's contribution to Hindustani classical music is unparalleled."

Contrast this with the acrimony in the past. When Pandit Ravi Shankar was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1999. Charges of lobbying had flown around thick and fast. Pandit Jasraj, for example, in the words of Girish Karnad, had "made an ass of himself" by objecting thus: "Lobbying for the Bharat Ratna is not anything new, it happens. But the recipient should at least be someone who has not abused the country on record." Kishori Amonkar, who in stature is perhaps next only to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and is definitely slated to be a recipient herself, had been characteristically scathing: "Why should I be surprised? This Jasraj is now singing in a television programme, and he goes on and on about how good Lata Mangeshkar is. Who is Lata Mangeshkar? What has she done for Indian music? If that's Jasraj's taste, then I am not surprised that he thinks Ravi Shankar doesn't deserve the award. Jasraj should keep singing and not talk." Listen to what she had to say now: "It is a a matter of great pride to the music fraternity".

As Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma put it, "The Bharat Ratna honour for Panditji has come at an opportune time. Actually, he should have been given this highest award long time back." Most of the fans of the ailing 86-year old maestro would agree. But the great man himself was humility personified. "I accept this honour on behalf of all Hindustani vocalists who have dedicated their life, and contributed to, 'khayal gayaki' of Indian classical music", he is reported to have said on being told about the his selection as the recipient of the award this year. What memories did it evoke when he heard the news? "My wife Vatsla. Her face flashed before the inward eye. She made things possible for an artiste like me," he said.


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