May 19, 2011 at 12:35pm IST

Bhimsen Joshi: Music legend and fast cars lover

Pune: The last of the titans of Hindustani classical music, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was a rare genius who could transcend the mundane and transport his audience to the sublime with his gifted voice that captured both anguish and ecstasy.

What made him arguably the most popular Hindustani music vocalist of the current times was his impassioned renditions with a powerful and penetrating voice that showcased the aesthetic majesty of the 'Kirana' gharana of which he was the celebrated exponent, as also the eloquent expression of light classical, devotional and the popular variety.

It was an awe-inspiring fusion of intelligence and passion that perhaps separated Joshi from other classical vocalists who dogmatically stuck to their 'Gharana' culture with a rigidity that possibly inhibited creativity.

Bhimsen Joshi: Music legend and fast cars lover

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

Born on February 4, 1922 at Gadag in Dharwad district f Karnataka, his journey to the stardom in the world of Hindustani music was just as dramatic as it was arduous for one who decided to run away from home at a tender age of 11, in quest of finding a 'Guru' to learn music.

Even as a child, Joshi's craving for music was evident to his family as he managed to lay his hands on a 'tanpura' used by his 'Kirtankar' grandfather, which had been kept away from his gaze at home. Music had such a magnetic pull over him that a 'bhajan singing' procession or just 'azaan' from a nearby mosque was said to draw him out of house.

On his way back home after school hours, Joshi used to stand near a shop selling gramophone records and listen to the music played by the owner for prospective customers.

There he chanced to hear a record of Abdul Karim Khan and resolved to sing like the Ustad. The quest for the Guru started at that point, as Joshi himself told a biographer in an interview.

A slight provocation at home spurred Joshi to give effect to what had been brewing in his mind as he made his way to Gadag railway station, clad in a rumpled shirt and half pant, and embarked on a ticket-less train journey that took him to Bijapur where he sang 'bhajans' earning a pittance to feed himself.

Unable to find the master who could teach him, the intrepid youngster then wanted to go to Gwalior on advice by a music loving person but a mix-up of train landed him in Pune, the seat of Maharashtra culture.

Joshi was in for a disappointment in pursuit of a Guru once again when eminent vocalist Krishnarao Phulambrikar, whom he approached for tutelage, insisted on a monthly fee that was beyond the means of the boy, whose parents by then had lodged a complaint with Gadag police after his disappearance from home.

Disappointed but not demoralised, Joshi left Pune for Mumbai and journeyed from place to place to finally reach Gwalior, his original destination and an acknowledged centre of Hindustani music.

With the help of sarod maestro Hafiz Ali Khan, who was under the patronage of the Maharaja of Gwalior, the young Joshi joined the Madhav Sangeet Vidyalaya, a leading music institution in those days. His basics in 'khayal', the singing form that originated in Gwalior, were learnt during this period as he grasped the technical aspects of the 'gayaki'.

Not content with the lessons at the Vidyalaya, Joshi again met Hafiz Ali Khan and persuaded the Ustad to teach him subtler points of difference between ragas 'Marwa' and 'Puriya', the two classical melodies that remained his forte and a rage with his audiences.

With his passion for learning finer nuances of music undying and on advice from one of the teachers at the 'Vidyalaya', Joshi left Gwalior for Bengal where he became a student of Bhishmadev Chatterjee who taught him raga 'Gandhar'.

After a brief stint with Chatterjee, who could not find enough time to teach his pupil due to a busy schedule, Joshi n went to Jalandhar, another leading centre of Hindustani music and the venue of an annual jalsa, music festival, that offered a platform for artistes from all over the country and listened to their music plentifully.

In Jalandhar, Joshi took another pursuit side by side, which was rigorous physical exercises and acquired a strong physique which held him in good stead for vigorous riyaz throughout his life.

A chance meeting with Vinayakrao Patwardhan, a scholar musician, at one of the Jalsas, prompted Joshi to go back to his home town as he advised the young artiste to approach Sawai Gandharva -- eminent exponent of Kirana gharana -- at Kundgol and seek his discipleship.

Sawai Gandharva -a leading disciple of Abdul Karim Khan -- subjected Joshi to a gruelling regime to test his urge and determination to learn music.

A strict disciplinarian, the guru (Sawai Gandharva) is said to have hurled a nut-cracker at the shishya (Joshi) when he slipped rather badly on a note-pattern.

Sawai Gandharva taught 'Todi', 'Multani', and 'Puriya' ragas to Joshi as it was his considered view that the mastery over these ragas was not only basic to the cultivation of a steady and tuneful voice, but also helped significantly in improving its volume, depth and range.

Joshi's shagiridi (tutelage) lasted five years during which he also accompanied his guru on his concert tours.

He soon began giving mini-concerts in Dharwad, Sangli, Miraj and Kurundwad and among the music lovers who attended them was Mallikarjun Mansur, who was to later emerge as one of the great vocalists in the country.

His horizons widened and his wanderlust grew as he started going places visiting musical centres and gave a public concert in Mumbai which was a great success.

But it was a concert in Pune in January 1946 on the occasion of the 60th birthday of his guru that gave Joshi a real break, catapulting him to fame as he cast a hypnotic spell on his listeners.

He never looked back after this concert and was flooded with invitations from leading musical institutions in prominent places from all over the country.

A classicist by training, and temperament, Joshi soon evolved an approach that sought to achieve a balance between what may be termed as "traditional values and mass-culture tastes" as he went on to have supposedly the largest commercially recorded repertoire in Hindustani vocal music.

What distinguished him from the ordinary was his powerful voice, amazing breath control, fine musical sensibility and unwavering grasp of the fundamentals that made him the supreme Hindustani vocalist, representing a subtle fusion of intelligence and passion that imparted life and excitement to his music.

In the forays he made outside the classical fold, Joshi lent is voice as a "dhrupad" singer for a Bengali film based on the life of Tansen and later sang as a playback singer for Marathi film "Gulacha Ganapati", produced and directed by celebrated Marathi humorist "Pu La" Deshpande in addition to Hindi movies "Basant Bahar" and "Bhairavi".

But it was his 'Sant Vani' recitals, which bore the flair of Marathi 'Bhakti Sangeet' that added immensely to his popularity in both Maharashtra and Karnataka which have had a long succession of saint-poets.

The appeal of Joshi's classical music transcended Indian borders as M Louis, a Dutch film producer and director who happened to listen to his raga Todi at an International film festival in Vancouver, produced a film on his music in India and exhibited it to the West.

Canadian business tycoon James Beveridge, who was deeply interested in Indian classical music, came all he way to Pune to shoot a 20-minute documentary on him which was titled "Raga Miyan Malhar". Back home, it was renowned director Gulzar who made a 45-minute documentary on the life and career of the maestro in 1993 which won the national award for the best documentary film.

Apart from music, he had another passion -- fast cars.

A man of many parts, car driving was a passion for Joshi, who was also an expert swimmer, a keen enthusiast of yoga and a football player in his younger days. He had acknowledged his weakness for alcohol but left it in 1979 after it started affecting his career.

Be it sobriety or inebriation, the popularity and magnetism of this genius never ever faded.

Honours and awards came his way -- Padma Shri (1972), Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Hindustani vocal music (1975), Padma Bhushan (1985) and Madhya Pradesh government's "Tansen Samman" in 1992.

Pandit Joshi, whose "Mile sur mera tumhara" along with other artists endeared him to the entire nation, 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.

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.

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 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. (Agencies)

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