Bhimsen Joshi: Legend, music maestro and lover of fast cars too (Obituary)

Monday, January 24, 2011

NEW DELHI - India’s legendary Hindustani vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, who died in a Pune hospital Monday, had left his home in Dharwad, Karnataka, more than seven decades ago when he was only 11 to search for a guru. But, apart from music, he had another passion — fast cars.

Pandit Joshi, whose “Mile sur mera tumhara” along with other artists endeared him to the entire nation, was a protagonist of the Kirana gharana and was known for his mellifluous ‘khayals’ as well as for his popular renditions of devotional ‘abhangs and bhajans’. His death at 88 truly marks an end of an era in Indian classical music.

He was conferred the country’s highest civilian award Bharat Ratna in 2008.

Born to a Kannada Brahmin family in Gadag town in northern Karnataka, Joshi lost his mother early. He was initiated into classical music by legendary musician Sawai Gandharva, who tutored under one of the founders of the Kirana Gharana (school), Abdul Karim Khan.

The musician’s search for a guru is woven around an interesting anecdote. As a child, Joshi heard a recording of Abdul Karim Khan’s ‘thumri’ in raga Jhinjhoti. The devotional song moved him so much that he instantly decided to become a musician. He left Dharwad in 1933 at the age of 11 to Bijapur to find a tutor.

It is said that Joshi went to Bijapur with money lent by co-passengers on train. He went to Pune from Dharwad and later enrolled at the Madhava School of Music at Gwalior.

He was helped by sarod exponent Hafiz Ali Khan. After a brief tenure at Gwalior, he travelled in north India for three years - and hunted for a teacher in New Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur.

Eventually, his father traced him to Jalandhar and brought him back home. He decided to stay on at Dharwad, a classical music hub home to legends like Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru. He was taken in as a pupil by Rambhau Kundgolkar alias Sawai Gandharva, a native of Dharwad to study classical music in the ‘guru-shishya’ tradition. Gangubai Hangal was a co-student.

After three years of training, he moved to Mumbai in 1943 and debuted with HMV at the age of 22.

The musician had a fetish for driving fast cars - with a dash of recklessness.

Reminisces an old fan: “While at the wheel, he used the same technique as in singing. He ignored the possibility of danger from bad or slippery roads, ditches, pot holes and other obstacles such as oncoming cars and stray cattle. Only luck saved him from a couple of grave accidents. This toned down his recklessness”.

However, with years, tight schedules and fame, Bhimsen Joshi, realised that a car after all had limitations. He began to accept numerous invitations to far off places - he would have to be in Kolkata one night, Delhi the next evening, Mumbai the following day and Jalandhar immediately afterwards - and so he had to switch to air travel.

The pilots of Indian Airlines and airport officials came across Pandit Joshi so frequently that he was soon known as the “flying musician of India”.

Joshi’s strength was his devotional music which was made of a repertoire of Kannada, Hindi and Marathi ‘bhajans’ and ‘abhangs’. He playbacked for several Hindi movies like Basant Bahar” (1956) with Manna Dey, Birbal by Brother” (1973) and “Ankahee” (1985).

Joshi was known for his flexible voice that allowed him to span an enormous range of three octaves. He cornerstone was an ingenuity in approach to his music. He could unfold unknown facets of an ordinary raga and make it sound novel by imbuing it with subtle nuances.

Joshi founded the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival.

His first wife was his cousin, Sunanda Katti. They had four children - two sons and two daughters. Sunanda died in 1992. Joshi then married Vatsala Mudholkar, with whom he had two sons and one daughter.

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