Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"Shine during the day, and let me shine at night"

After the sound of my parents' voice, his voice is among the first ones I distinctly remember hearing after being born. For twenty three years as I grew up, his voice filled our home. It sustained, nourished and inspired me at every turn of my life. And while it will forever be a part of my soul, the source of those thundering notes himself has passed into history. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is no more, and with him a part of my childhood has died. Yet his legacy will live on in the hearts of millions like me who will continue to marvel that men like him lived and gave so much to us.

Bhimsen's voice resonated in my ears almost from the moment that I was born. Like so many other things, I owe my introduction to this remarkable man and his work to my father. Over the course of the last thirty years, my father who has been a dedicated fan gathered over four hundred live recordings of Bhimsen concerts. They constantly permeated our house at all hours of the day. They spanned over fifty years of Bhimsen's own life and career and were gathered from multiple sources; from other die hard fans, from commercial sources and from Bhimsen's own students. Some recordings originated with the great man himself and made their way to our collection through a long-winded trail of ardent music lovers and collectors. Over time the collection became substantial and valuable. My exposure to Bhimsen was so constant that once at the age of six or seven, I accosted him even as he was paying a visit to a travel agency whose office was located in our apartment complex. Possessing none of the timidity that comes with age, I let out a delighted cry of recognition: "Aren't you Bhimsen Joshi? I of course recognized you right away!". I can still see the master smiling beneficently at me.

What was so special about Bhimsen? Simply put, there is not a single other singer I know from any musical tradition whose voice shimmered with such sheer unadulterated supreme motive power. Bhimsen's voice thundered. It leapt and bounded and bored through our hearts. It ripped apart the air between us and the source and stirred something elemental within our soul. It justified in every sense the etymology of Bhimsen's name; a towering musical version of the mythical Bhim whose physical prowess was legendary. It constantly stretched our imagination to believe that the human throat, that compact assembly of muscles, nerves and skin could produce frequencies and notes that were so formidably potent as to almost physically make us tremble the way the wind from a tornado would. When Bhimsen sang, it was as if the heavens roared, and the Gods listened. But to call the notes emanating from him as emerging from his throat would do him a disservice. Bhimsen's music seemed to arise from the collective movement of every single cell in his body, the Herculean labor of every electrical connection between his neurons. Yet there was extraordinary versatility; sometimes the sound seemed to emerge from the depths of an endless, cavernous labyrinth of musical complexities and powers, yet a fraction of a second later it would turn into lyrical threads of sheer silk, into ephemeral snowflakes being wafted on a delicate breeze of air. The result defied belief.

This belief was not sullied by any of the tales about him which had more than a shred of truth in them: his sometimes difficult relationships, his problems with alcoholism and his temperamental behavior. If anything, they served as a valuable reminder that this supremely gifted being was human after all. Similar to other great men, Bhimsen's flaws only enhanced his prowess and reputation and generated anecdotes enthusiastically bandied about by his fans as they listened to his performances late in the night in the Sawai Gandharva music festival which he pioneered. Every one of his habits, from contorting his face to comical proportions to wildly flinging his extremities around when traversing a particularly treacherous set of notes, was affectionately remembered.

With such a prodigious command of the musical canon at his disposal, Bhimsen could mold his voice to suit any mood, any Raga and any genre of song. My earliest exposure was to his "Abhangas" which were songs dedicated to Indian saints. Bhimsen spent most of his life and career in Pune, and many of the Abhangas were subsequently dedicated to Marathi saints like Dynyaneshwar and Tukaram. My father used to play these all the time and I was so taken with them that I used to frequently do my best to sing a flimsy resemblance of them in school events. One set of memories connected with the Abhangas vividly stands out. My father originally hails from the town of Ratnagiri in the Konkan region. In those days we used to visit our Ratnagiri relatives often. The trip used to entail hot, long, precarious drives through the Western ghats. Air conditioning in cars was non-existent and the condition of the roads often meant at least an eight-hour trip with a flat tire or two generously thrown in. Defying the instructions in the Bhagavad Gita, I used to look forward to the fruits and resented the journey. But the one factor that always kept me from despairing was the presence of Bhimsen's Abhangas which my father used to inevitably play on tape. The majestic Sahyadri mountains looming on the horizon and the green countryside sloping gently beneath us, the Abhangas used to imbibe the landscape with newfound grandeur. Sometimes it seemed that Bhimsen's booming voice would reverberate in the mountains forever, becoming an integral part of their billion year old history, enduring into their future till eternity. Maybe it did.

Every music lover has a listing of his favorite artist's most memorable renditions. With Bhimsen such a list is difficult to compile since the man could turn everything he touched into pure gold. Yet there inevitably are certain Ragas that stand out, ones to which only Bhimsen could do supreme justice. Considering the utter energy of his voice, what better Raga to pick than Miya-Malhar, the Raga of the Rains. The Raga could well have been crafted a thousand years ago exclusively so that Bhimsen could sing it one day and leave us awestruck. The legendary Tansen from King Akbar's court was said to be able to summon forth the rains at will by singing this Raga. Close your eyes and listen to Bhimsen singing Miya-Malhar, and one could easily believe the legend. The initial slow
vilambit cadence evokes majestic pictures of clouds gathering. Very few leading singers could hit notes as low as Bhimsen could and sustain their voice at these frequencies. Bhimsen massages the aroha and awroha (the increasing and decreasing base notes) like water droplets massaged by clouds to gather together. As the speed progresses to medium, one can almost feel the glistening raindrops gradually falling down from the heavens and striking your skin. And then it comes, the roar of his voice, like a rain God who has unleashed his benign powers on earth's denizens. As the druta (fast) rhythm builds up to a crescendo with unbelievably swift and shimmering tanas, one can almost feel the grand symphony of thunder, lighting and water unfold, enveloping us in its all-consuming glory. If you believed in God, you could believe that his name was Malhar.

Malhar is just one of many gems. Another Bhimsen specialty is Raga Darbari which evokes a mixture of melancholy, peace and beauty, best heard at night. Bhimsen could also pay the ultimate tribute to Raga Malkauns, another night Raga which is supposed to evoke a sense of romantic love. A towering morning gem is Raga Todi. And then there's Raga Bhairavi, the Raga of conclusion, usually sung at the end of a concert; some of Bhimsen's best known tunes are from this Raga. A particularly memorable recording was a live recording from the 1950s in which Bhimsen sang Raga Malkauns in the famous Vitthal temple in the holy city of Pandharpur.
Even today this rendition sends a shiver down my spine as it evokes a sublime sense of experiencing transcendent talent in a place where millions have worshipped, prostrated and found wisdom and inspiration. One can only imagine the unique juxtaposition created by the sacred idols and the music which undoubtedly would have swayed them had they been sentient beings.

But personally for me, the ultimate embodiment of Bhimsen is Raga Yaman-Kalyan. This is a relatively simple Raga, used in many film and folk songs. It is taught to students during the earliest stages of their musical instruction. There is a perfectly good reason for the universal presence of this set of notes. More than almost any other Raga, Raga Yaman-Kalyan imbibes you with deep feelings of happiness, peace and optimism. In my opinion there is no human being who ever lived who can do this Raga the kind of justice that Bhimsen did. When Bhimsen sings Yaman-Kalyan, you feel like all the darkness in the world has been penetrated by a glowing light which will burn bright forever. The light emerges from Bhimsen's soul and shatters your worries and troubles. It envelops the world around you with a warm glow that seems to illuminate the truth, beauty and dignity in everything that you see, touch and hear. Bhimsen singing Yaman-Kalyan is Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount.

For a long time it was considered a travesty that the Indian Government did not award Bhimsen the Bharat Ratna. Many leading minds lobbied for the award, although any one of Bhimsen's fans knew that his talent easily surpassed every honor that it could claim. But in 2008 the government finally redeemed itself by awarding him the Bharat Ratna. Even without the award Bhimsen's stature would have been wholly undiminished, but the government would have had to live with itself the way the Nobel committee has had to live with itself for not awarding Gandhi the Nobel Peace prize. The Ratna was a giant step for the administration, but in a way it was a small step for a man whose contributions to music had the stamp of permanence that no medal and government have. However, the government had already tacitly acknowledged Bhimsen's stature by giving him the opening lines of one of India's most famous national tunes- the ubiquitously sung and performed "Mile sur mera tumhara". Bhimsen's face juxtaposes with those of the Himalayas, perfectly indicating the power, reach and enduring legacy of his voice.

So how can we sum up Pandit Bhimsen Joshi? How can we even begin to encapsulate such a unique concentration of abilities in one man in words? His own contemporaries fully recognized his singular talents and realized that they would not see the likes of him for a long time. Perhaps the ultimate tribute was offered by the eminent vocalist Pandit Jasaraj who quipped on Bhimsen's eightieth birthday, "Eighty years ago, Bhimsen Joshi made a contract with the Sun God. He told the Sun, 'Shine during the day, and let me shine at night' ". Bhimsen did shine, at every moment of our lives and those of the future.

But personally for me, the sheer all-encompassing power of Bhimsen's works brings a tribute offered to another supremely talented individual to mind. The natural philosopher William Whewell (who coined the word 'scientist') said about the monumental Principia Mathematica:

"As we read the Principia we feel as when we are in an ancient armoury where the weapons are of gigantic size; and as we look at them we marvel what manner of man he was who could use as a weapon what we can scarcely lift as a burden...”

Whewell's quote sums up what I feel about Bhimsen Joshi. Bhimsen was the Newton of Hindustani classical vocal music.

Note: Cross-posted on
Critical Twenties

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