The newspapers were already full of detailed updates about his failing health, and after several years of frailty, nobody could deny a sense of foreboding, even resignation about the news to come. After all, Bhimsen Joshi was nearly 90. Life and death themselves are blurred now for weeks on end by ventilators, stabilizers and all kinds of other gadgets. I have also often asked myself if it really matters that Lata Mangeshkar is still alive, or that Mohammed Rafi and Kumar Gandharva are not, when their voices, their music and the magic they made will forever be alive in my ears and heart no matter what their mortal status. But there still comes that moment of silence, finality and emptiness, and it came last week for one of Hindustani music’s giants.
Working through the emotions that have been running through me the last week led to several dispersed ruminations about memory, music and family. The Anecdote (and more generally the Memoir) is arguably the most powerful means of transmission of knowledge about the social world of Hindustani music. Scholarly histories of Indian music often lament this because of the difficulty of corroborating and documenting it, but the personal or familial memory retains a powerful charge, shaping the public discourse and the aura surrounding past musicians, musical culture and their received history. The gharana organization of musical knowledge and history and the scholarly, historical study of gharanas as discrete units have their own pride of place; serious, expert analysis is likewise indispensable. The archive of anecdotes, however, is like a giant set of lively strands from Salman Rushdie’s famous sea of stories that makes up the historical memory of the musical world, and renders the individual musician at once larger than life and intensely personal, both eccentric and everyday.
Bhimsen Joshi’s exploits, in this genre, are legendary, from his incessant roaming of the country in search of a teacher, to his binge drinking, to his craze for cars and love for driving, to his inimitable, bodily style of singing, to his love for food. I need not repeat them here. The best and funniest one in English, even though it doesn’t really make him come off as lovably as many others do, is in Sheila Dhar’s Raga’n Josh, (pp. 142-145) the brilliant, master text of this “Memoir genre” of Hindustani music. But hundreds of people from Gadag to Gwalior to Kolkata to Patiala have a small, marginal, intensely personal Bhimsen story to tell, and indeed, retelling these stories appears to have been a principal means of articulating the sense of loss and sadness these last few days.
From as long as I can remember, we have told and retold anecdotes about Bhimsen Joshi in our family. My father knew him well as a young man, growing up in the same social, and musical circles of northern Karnataka spanning Gadag, Bagalkot, Dharwad, Hubli and Belgaum, his connections forged especially through his guru Shyamacharya Joshi, with whom Joshi also learned and worked in his early years. Shyamacharya was a quiet, retiring man with a genius for rendering devotional Kannada poetry by Purandara dasa and others into the most soulful Hindustani classical tunes; he also had a penchant for deadpan, one-line observations about the local musical world. If my introduction to the signature melodies of raga Kafi or Tilakkamod or Tilang came through his daasara pada compositions, my initial hazy sense of this rich and quirky world of small-town musicians and music-lovers in northern Karnataka to which my family belonged came from my father and his siblings’ retellings of his quips and observations. Bhimsen stories and the antics they all got up to – humbling a pakhawaj player here, singing a really long Darbari there, a really fine rendition of the Marathi natyasangeet chandrika hi janu sung for nearly ninety minutes, the raga Pilu tune composed for a staging of the Nala Damayanti play, the crazy shopping trip in the middle of it all – were central to these.
The stories that I most enjoyed were of Bhimsen Joshi’s sudden, unannounced driving trips to our house in a tiny town near Pune. He usually demanded a particular kind of Karnataka-style avalakki loaded with raw mango chutney and stuffed fried chillies from my mother, ate a mountain of it, and drove off after pronouncing upon its authenticity. I was too young to remember those visits, but can certainly trace my first memory of a live Darbari Kanada rendition to one of his performances in our town. Many such live concerts were to follow over the years as I became a regular at his Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune and became familiar with his early morning signature performances of Komal Rishabh Asavari Todi or Lalit Bhatiyar, but these too did not wipe out the energy and devotion he generated in the room with a Marathi abhanga concert in memory of our school principal. At Sawai one year, he gave my sister and I his characteristic piercing glance, and asked after my father. We were a bit startled that we looked so obviously like our father that Bhimsen Joshi Himself should recognize us and directly address us so, but before either of us could find our tongues he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t waste time at the coffee stall here – Rashid Khan is going to go up next, find a place to sit down and listen to him carefully.”
And yet, as a teenager I also found myself increasingly dissatisfied. The ye olde, and seemingly pointless, stories bored me and what I perceived as excessive Bhimsen devotion weirded me out. My teenage self could not comprehend why my father had chosen to channel his own stellar musical talent into a personal and private spiritual experience. I fervently sought separate musical tastes, musicians who weren’t so obviously popular, others who were more self-consciously high-brow, and still others who were equally popular but just different. Being part of the Pune musical circles in college, which take their love for their favourite artists rather seriously, just bolstered this sentiment. I craved a more serious, technically informed, musical ear for myself that wasn’t, as I simplistically characterised it then, so rooted in “extra-musical stuff.”
Now I cannot believe I listened to so much Jasraj at the time – what was I thinking?! But mercifully, this effort to get away from the Bhimsen-inflected musical memories, bhajans, taans and bandishes also made me voraciously seek out his contemporaries – Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kishori Amonkar or Amir Khan – as well as a lot of younger musicians. It made my musical ear all the richer over the decades, to be sure, even if not as technically informed as I had dreamed. But in recent times I also find myself returning to some old Bhimsen favourites again and again – an electric live Durga, the joyful Shuddha Kedar that inevitably comes to mind after a rain shower – saawan ki boondaniyaan – the incredible richness of his Malkauns, or the way in which only his sombre and reassuring Shuddha Kalyan can drive away my unexplained and persistent twilight blues. I am in awe yet again of the impossible energy of his music commanding those clouds to gather, umad ghumad, pell-mell, and burst with rain, his eyes just as piercing as his voice, compelling us to follow the trajectory of the notes and visualize the gathering storm.
I confess I am still not fond of his interpretation of many Kannada bhajans – the recordings are harsh and abrupt, and the melodiousness of Shyamacharya’s tunes, which captured the essence of the devotional poem for me, are missing in them. The Marathi ones, on the other hand, are sublime – magic is indeed a Bhimsen abhanga in Malkauns.
Our extended family had occasion to remember many of these stories over the last few days, Shyamacharya’s quips and tunes mixing in once again with replays of some of our favourite Bhimsen recordings – both classical, and “light” ones in Kannada and Marathi. As always, these also mixed in with Dharwad-Bagalkot lore, the older generation’s stories of migrating from northern Karnataka to Pune, their initial mishaps with the Marathi language, untranslatable bilingual Kannada-Marathi puns and jokes, and more.
Listening afresh to the retellings and the devotional tunes, I like to think my more mature ear can appreciate how finely the strands of family memory, musical knowledge and community are woven in them. Instead of merely supplementing or sullying an ideal, objective narrative of biography, either of a gharana or an individual musician, these strands challenge the very claims to such singularity beyond the bare arrangement of facts. They are marginal, as in they do not impinge in any significant way on the “track to greatness” narrative of the musician, nor are they especially technically insightful. But they are rich and ubiquitous. They compel us to acknowledge how such an ‘appreciation’ of individual musicians and our knowledge of the social world of music, indeed, musical knowledge itself, produce and reproduce each other at intensely personal, familial and communitarian levels all at once.
The Bhimsen legacy cannot but range freely across all these levels, much like the great man’s own inimitable voice ranged, and will continue to range, across the octaves. Even to write RIP after such a restless life and voice seems pointless.